IT’S NOT EASY BEING UGLY: FOUR BRUTALIST GEMS THAT WERE DEMOLISHED

Whenever I hear about another Brutalist building being torn down, I think of all those guys whose mothers threw out their old baseball card collections ten years before they became more valuable than gold.  Brutalism is experiencing a revival among architects and design nerds for the very same reason that local governments are over it;  its confrontational ugliness.  In an era where likability is the highest virtue, what could be more appealing – or scandalous – than a building that rubs your face in its complete absence of aesthetic appeal?

Unfortunately, for every person who likes Brutalism, there are many more who hate it.  So these buildings are in the strange position of being demolished at the same time that they’re gaining prestige.  Although there’s an organized movement to save Brutalist buildings, many have already been lost.  Let’s look at some of the more notable ones that are now just anti-erosion rubble scattered on the banks of sewage canals.

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ROBIN HOOD GARDENS, LONDON

Completed in 1972, this hideous monolith was one of the largest Brutalist projects ever built.  It was also one of the least popular.  When the local government announced plans to tear down the housing project, a lineup of celebrity architects organized to have it preserved.  Not only did the Minister of Culture deny the project special preservation status (he claimed it “fails utterly as a place for human beings to live”), he banned it from even applying for preservation again.  The locals sided with the government;  in polls, 75% of the people who actually lived there wanted it torn down.  (Preservation advocates countered that this was only because the managers had refused to do routine maintenance for years, in order to encourage people to move out.)  Part of it has already been demolished, and the rest is slated to be torn down soon.  The buildings set to replace them are, not surprisingly, totally blah.

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MORRIS MECHANIC THEATER, BALTIMORE

This abrasively blocky building looked like a crashed alien spacecraft, and was listed as one of the ten ugliest buildings in the world.  High praise, if you ask me.  Built in 1967 on the former site of the Baltimore Sun offices, the theater had fallen out of favor by the early 2000s, and when it was purchased by a pair of developers who wanted to tear it down, the city all but gifted them sledgehammers.  It was torn down in 2015 and replaced by an apartment building that’s the architectural equivalent of tap water.

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THIRD CHURCH OF CHRIST SCIENTIST, DC

People called it the “Ugly Church.”  If this was a teen rom-com, this ugly church would’ve grown up, gotten a makeover, and blossomed into a Beautiful Church.  Reality isn’t a teen rom-com, though, and this Brutalist gem was brutally demolished in 2014.   This prodigiously alienating bunker of a building was even disliked by the congregation that used it;  the plaza in front was so empty it bordered on hostile, the entrance was hidden, and inside, it was so cavernous that they had to erect scaffolding just to change a light bulb.  They were eager to tear it down and start over.  The only problem was that an outside group not even affiliated with the church had applied for, and received, special landmark status for the building.  The owners of the church were initially blocked by the courts from knocking it down.  They sued, got the landmark status revoked, and replaced it with an Arlington-style glass office building.  Yay?

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PRENTICE WOMEN’S HOSPITAL, CHICAGO

Possibly one of the weirdest Brutalist buildings ever built, this Chicago hospital building consisted of “a 9-story concrete quatrefoil tower with oval windows cantilevered over a rectangular 5-story podium,” which is a fancy way of saying it looked like a cake mixer.  One of the very first buildings constructed with the use of computer-aided design techniques, experts considered the only building of its kind in the entire world.  So of course the local government crushed it into gravel and then scattered it on the back roads.  As in the other cases, the locals denied the building landmark status over the protests of preservationists, and approved a nondescript glass tower as a replacement.  One bit of extra depressing trivia;  preservationists commissioned a prestige-style documentary about the building in a last ditch effort to save it from demolition, but by the time it was done, so was the building.  When the documentary making a passionate case to keep the Prentice building finally premiered, the building was long gone.

 

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