Maybe if the monumental concrete architecture of the ‘60s and ‘70s had been called Expressionist instead of Brutalist, the buildings from that period would be faring better. For all their intellectual and artistic merit, those skyline-size sculptures have become the problem children of architecture. They were never the public’s favorites when they were new, and now they are reaching the stage of life when their raw, molded concrete skins are spotty and broken, and their internal systems require costly modernization.
Dozens of groundbreaking Brutalist buildings around the world are threatened with the wrecking ball, including the award-winning International House in West Philadelphia and the sinuous Police Administration Building across from Franklin Square. Even Chicago, which worships architecture, recently imploded one of its unforgettable icons, Bertrand Goldberg’s cloverleaf-shaped Prentice Women’s Hospital.
But while losses continue to mount, there are signs that Brutalism is on the cusp of a comeback. Just last week, New Haven rejoiced when a developer announced plans to convert Marcel Breuer’s Transformer-shaped Pirelli Tire Building into a hotel, instead of demolishing it for an Ikea. As our cities fill up with flimsy, standardized metal-clad boxes, I predict the public will come to love the heft, conviction, and artisanal details of Brutalism’s eccentric, one-off designs. We just have to hold back the bulldozers awhile longer.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, the city’s biggest, baddest Brutalist complex, Centre Square, has always been too big to fail. Together, the two chunky towers across from City Hall enclose almost as much office and retail space as the svelte and glassy Comcast buildings. The complex, which opened in 1974, and began the office district’s march westward, would cost a fortune to demolish. Designed by Vincent Kling and his talented design partner, Eric Chung, Centre Square is said to be the largest poured-in-place concrete structure in the northeastern United States.
My admiration for the complex has been growing in recent years. I especially like its interweaving of public space, art, and transit, but there is no denying it’s an urbanist’s nightmare. I’ve always marveled that the two facades facing the entrance plaza — the one with Claes Oldenburg’s famous Clothespin — are soaring cliff faces of blank concrete. And, if you’re going to the trouble of giving people a nice plaza ringed with retail, wouldn’t you want to include doors so people could access the businesses directly from the street? While I love that the architects left the concrete surfaces in the atrium raw, the place was as dark as a cave.
Centre Square’s weaknesses became evident early. The complex was not even a decade old when the atrium was given its first face-lift in the early ‘80s, and there have been major lobby renovations every decade since. Now, the complex’s new owner, Nightingale Realty, is wrapping up the latest effort to take the brutal out of the Brutalist design.
While the results are far from perfect, and some changes are stunningly awful, the renovation still offers useful lessons for others trying to adapt Brutalist buildings to modern tastes. The renovation began because Nightingale, a New York holding company that has been scooping up Market Street’s office towers, wanted to bring the complex up to the standards of the city’s newer, glassier, amenity-stocked skyscrapers. It hired BLT Architects, a descendant of the firm that gave us International House in 1968, to oversee the changes.
Let’s start with the positives. Not only did BLT have to address failings from the original design, it had to deal with the mess created by the 2005 overhaul. Partly to deter protesters who once gathered daily at 15th and Market, the plaza’s perimeter was intentionally fortified, and the Clothespin was imprisoned behind six-foot shrubs, obscuring Oldenberg’s witty counterpoint to City Hall tower. (Note that the hinge forms a 7 and 6 — as in 1776, and the two pins are abstracted from Brancusi’s The Kiss at the Art Museum.)
The big news is that the Clothespin has been liberated. By taking out the shrubs and fortifications, BLT and landscape architect Ground Reconsidered cleared the views from the plaza to Dilworth. Those changes provided the setup for BLT to make the atrium and Market Street facade more welcoming.
Anyone who hasn’t been inside the atrium for a while will be struck by its cheeriness. Virtually every surface — floors, walls, beams, concrete railings — has been painted white or finished in bright white materials. Sunlight pours through the glass sunroof, accentuating the structure’s magnificent geometry. There is definitely a shopping mall aesthetic at work here, one that will remind people of the recent changes inside the old Gallery Mall. Purists may also be dismayed that not a trace of raw concrete has been left visible. But, overall, the changes make the lobby more pleasant.
The purists will also be upset that BLT has glassed in the monumental concrete piers along Market Street to create better views into the retail spaces and add more entry points. Because the windows were extended into the plaza, Nightingale believes it might be able to attract a restaurant or cafe and install outdoor tables. The word brewery is being whispered. Anything would be better than the banks that have had a lock on the plaza’s retail spaces for decades.
OK, so much for the good stuff. Nightingale’s property manager, John J. McCullough Jr., told me the company spent $25 million on the renovations. But the company has cheaped out in a dozen ways. The plaza itself remains a jigsaw of broken granite, and the placement of the pedestrian lights is bizarre.
As part of the de-Brutalization effort, BLT camouflaged the two concrete cliff faces with a lightweight metal mesh. The mesh works on the northern cliff wall because it covers the whole surface. It’s less convincing on the south side, where you can still see the concrete.
That misguided cover-up is nothing compared to the treatment of one of the building’s art treasures, Jean DuBuffet’s Milord la Chamarre. The sculpture, like the Clothespin, was purchased by Centre Square’s developer, Jack Wolgin, to fulfill the Redevelopment Authority’s Percent for Art requirement. They may be the greatest artworks to come out of the program’s 60-year history.
Despite its artistic pedigree, Milord, a 24-foot-high steel figure often likened to a comical Mummer, has been badly treated over the years. Originally in the atrium, he was exiled to an outdoor niche on Market Street, where pigeons covered him in guano. When Nightingale announced that it was bringing Milord back inside so it could convert the niche into a retail entrance, it looked like a win. The company paid to have the sculpture cleaned and conserved.
But then, Nightingale stuck Milord in a pit, with his feet at concourse level near the SEPTA entrance, all with the RDA’s blessing. Now, when you walk into the lobby at street level, you see poor Milord (whose name translates as, My Lord of the Fancy Vest) struggling to peer over the railing.
Maybe the biggest insult is that Milord is overwhelmed by an enormous media tower that flashes promotions for the building (renamed 1500 Market) and Philadelphia sports teams. The sculpture should have been placed on a higher pedestal or installed elsewhere in the lobby.
Nightingale has treated this fine artwork as if were a potted plant that could be shifted around the space. Its attitude tells you a lot about how real estate has changed since Wolgin built Centre Square. Wolgin was an art collector who cared as much about design as the bottom line. Unlike today’s buildings, which are often assembled from mass-produced window and frames, every detail of Centre Square was custom designed.
DuBuffet believed that art, rather than providing a colorful backdrop to our daily lives, should “dance and yell like a madman.” You could say the same thing about Brutalist buildings. They weren’t comforting or comfortable. But they were real architecture. And there are fewer of those architectural madmen being built today.