Brutalist Architecture

While walking around D.C., the city’s varying architecture has stood out for me. Down one block, one might be greeted with shining examples of Neoclassical Architecture with Roman columns and a white façade (for example, the Jefferson Memorial). The next street might contain more modern office buildings, with glass and steel, perhaps still being built. More striking for me however, were “Brutalist” structures, the buildings that bring thoughts of the cold war era and bomb shelters.

J. Edgar Hoover Building (FBI)
J. Edgar Hoover Building (FBI)

From 1950 to 1970, Brutalist architecture became very popular throughout the United States, especially in Washington, D.C. Derived from the French phrase for “raw concrete”, Brutalist architecture is generally very simple, with repetitive designs and often-limited decoration. Commonly accentuated by sparse, square windows, brutalist buildings are sturdy and seemingly indestructible. This is intentional. In a time of tensions with the Soviet Union, the United States government searched for ways to convey strength and moral seriousness to not only the world, but also U.S. citizens.

Farragut West Metro Station
Farragut West Metro Station

Thus, most new government department buildings (Department of Energy, FBI building, to name a few) and even new Washington Metro structures suggested power.

I have mixed feelings about Brutalist architecture in D.C. There is significance in the purpose of the buildings, and I do associate Brutalist architecture with Washington, D.C. (though examples of the Brutalist style exist around the world). Sometimes the simplicity of parallel lines and a black and white theme is appealing as well. However, buildings made in the Brutalist style often look dirty and uninviting. For example, up until recently, a Brutalist style church, the Third Church of Christ, stood right next to my Dad’s office building. Every time we drove to his office, I would think about how ugly the building looked. It had few windows and seemed like the exact opposite of a charming place of worship. Now, the building has since been demolished, mostly due to a majority of people sharing my views towards the building.

Screen shot 2015-05-12 at 9.01.57 PM
The Third Church of Christ
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National Presbyterian Church

The other Brutalist building I saw often growing up was the National Presbyterian Church, the church right next to my elementary school. Unlike with the Third Church of Christ, seeing the National Presbyterian Church made me connect the power of religion with the Church itself. This in many ways was a success and achievement of the goals of the Brutalist period.

As much as Brutalist architecture can often be visually unappealing, the theme of strength and resolve is still apparent. This theme connected very well during the Brutalist period, where citizens expected the government to be a strong force in the world. The government wished to transition from the more romantic period of the 1920s and beyond to the harsher, more realistic period of the 1960s. By filling downtown Washington with Brutalist architecture, the government helped to transition the city. So although I probably won’t miss the stark structures surrounding the Greek and Romanesque monuments, I will think of D.C. when I come across Brutalist architecture in my future travels.


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