Save the Concrete Monsters
Deutsches Architekturmuseum Frankfurt
– 2. April 2017
“A pity concrete doesn’t burn” – in the mid-1970s, anti-authority left-wingers took to writing such slogans on the walls of toilets, while the construction industry responded in kind with “Concrete: It depends on what you make of it”.
In collaboration with the Wüstenrot Foundation, which is committed to preserving important monuments, the DAM is now dedicating a nearly five-month-long exhibition to architecture, especially from the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on buildings inextricably connected with concrete rather than on the material itself. Expressive and often monumental solitary buildings worldwide, in photographs and models made by students of the TU Kaiserslautern, show churches and townhouses, universities and residential buildings. The large models have been made out of cardboard and the small ones, cleverly, of concrete, to form a kind series of building blocks. Only large housing estates, for which the DAM founder Heinrich Klotz once coined the term “Building industry functionalism” (Bauwirtschaftsfunktionalismus), are excluded from the exhibition concept because of their dimensions. Although it is precisely such buildings that could never have been built without the easily mouldable material used for them in the form of large blocks or panels. But it's not about concrete, it’s about Brutalism.
What this actually means is conveyed by the exhibition in an increasingly narrowing view. Initially, the exhibition layout and project definition strike you as cheerful, in keeping with a bottle of sparkling “Brut” wine. Or “Dry”, as you would translate it, just as you might equate Le Corbusier’s post-war “Concrete Brut” with “Raw”, i.e. unworked, visible concrete formwork, or what we know today as “exposed concrete”. In the early days of Brutalism, there was no oppressive architecture, just light steel constructions with brick infills, more importantly, there was the one thing that the constructions didn’t have: cladding. Even the wastewater from the washbasins didn’t flow into pipes, but into gutters via hoses: so open structures were everywhere. Function instead of plasticity, openness instead of demarcation, were the bywords of the day and Brutalism began with the British architects Alison and Peter Smithson and their Hunstanton School. Significantly, the Smithsons looked closely to the previous generation of architects – Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier – and equally intensively at two somewhat older architects and their work, whose most important buildings, the home of Charles and Ray Eames (1949), and the HfG Ulm by Max Bill (1955), were built at the same time as Hunstanton. Here, as there, it was all about – or at least about the possibilities of – variability and flexibility, prefabrication and reduction. As is well known, the Smithsons were the first to use the term Brutalist to mean visible and open, and it included a subtle reference to Peter Smithson, who was nicknamed “Brutus” thanks to his sparse hair. However, even though the recently demolished residential units of Robin Hood Gardens in London are honoured with a large-scale model in the exhibition, the Smithsons remain an episode; their buildings for Tecta, their long-term director Axel Bruchhäuser and their lighter constructions are all disregarded. Because what was an attitude or position for the Smithsons, has been inadvertently modified by the critic Reyner Banham to indicate style and material, and Concrete Brut belongs to this category. Brutalism succeeds Le Corbusier, and it is no accident that the dust jacket of Banham's conceptual book, “Brutalism in Architecture,” displays the Berne settlement of Halen by Atelier 5, an influential model for transforming Corbusier's habitations into horizontal terraced units with tremendous quality of life minus the gigantomania. The exhibition follows Banham's unilateral interpretation of understanding Brutalism largely as significant concrete architecture in opposition to the glass cubes of classical modernism.
The exhibition posters calling out to “Save the Concrete Monsters” have clearly come too late for the AfE-Tower (AfE-Turm), the Technical City Hall (Technisches Rathaus) and the Historical Museum in Frankfurt (Historisches Museum). But the show has international aspirations, and includes examples from Israel as well as Iraq, Brazil and Australia and indeed North America and the former Soviet Union. And, as even the doyen of German architectural criticism, Wolfgang Pehnt, emphasised at the press conference, many buildings are now “brutal”, if one goes by the German usage of the word, and in so doing he repeats the semantic confusion associated with it. However, the exhibition curated by Oliver Elser to showcase this Concrete Brutalism is excellent, and timely. There are plenty of publications, events and initiatives on this hated architecture of the past twenty years. At the beginning of this year, for example, we had the Vitra Design Museum show organised in the UK – “The Brutalist Playground” – featuring playgrounds of the 1960s. Whoever, like this author, grew up during this period, will remember the permanent stench of urine from exposed aggregate concrete ducts, no doubt mutations of original architectural ideas, but nonetheless manifestations that left a lasting impression, and which no doubt account for the toilet-wall citation quoted above. But all that is history. Right now it is fashionable to like Concrete Brutalism, and the show takes this into account. And so, Fritz Wotruba's Trinity Church has become a popular backdrop for hedonistic fashion photography. The exhibition also encourages visitors to take selfies in front of buildings from the era, and to send the DAM postcards of supposedly brutalist buildings or even photos of self-discovered brutalist artifacts, which will then be exhibited. The museum thus becomes a three-dimensional blog, in which ostensibly individual positions or unconventionality obscure zeitgeisty conventionality, making DAM a meeting place of narcissistic hipsters.
Just a few words on the two-volume catalogue: this is astonishingly up-to-date, given its inclusion of the aftermath of hurricane Harvey with reference to the Alley Theater in Houston. Further, using a cover binding of brown-grey raw (!) linen for “SOS brutalism” paying homage to Banham, is equally successful in design terms and as a model book on the subject. However, Rahlwes.Pietz’s decision to use the hybrid sans serif font “Replica”, which foreshortens any “4” or “f” ligatures, masquerading as either design error or eccentricity, is questionable. Also doubtful is whether reading “Brutalismus” – a compendium of the Berlin Wüstenrot Symposium in 2012 is facilitated by the fact that you have to constantly refer to the index in the second volume. Fortunately, however, none of this detracts from the content of the essays, which are more varied than the exhibition. There is no question that the two volumes can be highly recommended and will doubtless be regarded as a standard work for many years.
Deutsches Architekturmuseum www.dam-online.de , until 2 April, the two-volume catalogue is priced at € 59 in the museum, and € 68 in shops.