In search of the Brutalist churches of America…

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I have been trying to find Brutalist churches in the Americas as part of my interest in the different attitudes to Brutalism on either side of the Atlantic. In doing so I came across the story of the demise of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in Washington D.C. The Church is in the process of being demolished – they have a camera trained on the site which takes a picture every 30 minutes which is a little gratuitous. Something about the debate around the church has struck me even amongst the building’s supporters; the discussion took place around whether the building was anti-urban or not, whether, specifically if it animated the sidewalk or not. It’s detractors beat it with the stick that it’s blank walls offered nothing to the world around it. I thought back to what Reyner Banham said in his book New Brutalism, that the movement had ‘a preoccupation with habitat, the total built environment that shelters man and directs his movements’. What could be a better architectural approach for places of worship than Brutalism? It is not much of a leap to adopt this approach to architecture and direct the mind of man (to God) as much as his movements.

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Of course when Reyner Banham was writing about directing mans movements he was discussing Brutalist public housing projects in the United Kingdom and Europe. However he also highlighted what can best be described as an interior turn in architecture; a focus on the interior as a total environment and a deliberate rejection of the facade as an interplay between two worlds. In Europe this drive – which comes from I think a reconfiguring of man’s relationship with nature – was clearly attractive to the commissioners of churches. Architects could create places were thoughts rather than movements could be directed. It doesn’t seem to have struck anyone in the debate about the Third Church of Christ that the that the blank walls were entirely deliberate. Jane Jacobs active streets have been wrongly co-opted in a debate about the meaning of religion.

In Europe, Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame Du Haut – a medidative, contemplative space if ever there was one – and is perhaps the most famous example of a Brutalist church. It is certainly not the only one. In my native Scotland, the Catholic church was arguably a better client for Brutalism than even the welfare state was. The now ruined St. Peter’s Seminary by Gillespie Kidd and Coia is arguably Scotland’s finest piece of modernism. It’s fate however highlights the reason perhaps for the relatively small number of brutalist churches in the USA not to mention the disregard for Third Church of Christ. St. Peter’s Seminary was obsolete even before it was complete. In 1965 Paul VI closed the Second Vatican Council in which the Catholic Church emphasized anew what it called “a universal call to holiness” which brought many changes in practices, including the simplification of services to include less Latin and emphasised the role of religion in the community.

Now whilst, Third Church is not a Catholic building, I think the Second Vatican Council identified a fundamental shift in religious attitudes in Europe which brought it in line with attitudes in the USA; that churches are proselytizing bodies, they are evangelising institutions rather than contemplative spaces. I would argue that in the religious ferment of the Americas, churches are by self-definition and in competition with other faiths primarily engaged in the universal call to holiness. (In Europe this reconception of the church’s role only took place in response to the secular shift of post-war society)  They must be part of the community. They must be after souls.

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I’d argue that this was also a consideration in the campaign to replace St. Paul’s Chapel in Wisconsin. The main architectural feature in this little brutalist gem is the staircase and banked seating in the interior, which brings the congregation in from the street, makes them turn their back to the street and focuses their bodies and minds on the small font. It is this structural component which looms out over the entrance and creates what passes for a facade. Like other Brutalist church architecture the internal procession of the congregation is made monumental. Their gaze – free from columns – is focused on the altar, which is often placed centrally. The proposed replacement is a neo-Romanesque confection which is plonked on top of an entrance colonnade with numerous doors. This church is emphatically for a Church that is part of the community.

Of course there must be more Brutalist churches across the USA which I have not found and don’t know about; ones that are secretly cherished by those that use them. If you know of any please let me know.

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Jane Drew: A Teller of Stories

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Le Corbusier, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, Chandigarh © FLC/ADAGP

We know little of Jane Drew through her writing. Of course, she co-authored works on building in the tropics with her husband but these are generally technical in nature; part of the programme of international expertise that Drew was part of. They are expressions of Drew’s expertise as an architect but only by implication can we sense her pioneering spirit which was legendary. Her husband, Maxwell Fry acknowledged it as his one of his wife’s many strengths. Although Fry served in the Royal Engineers from 1939 to 1944, reaching the rank of major, and ended the Second World War as town-planning adviser in west Africa, his wife, he acknowledges was “the truer adventurer” even if he was rather disparaging about her written work. “She is a teller of stories rather than a writer,” he wrote (The implication is that Fry himself is the latter.)

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Why I think Ian Nairn is not just rubbish but wrong and rubbish.

The recent BBC 4 documentary on Ian Nairn is just the latest attempt to bolster the reputation of a  writer and broadcaster who is often described as desperately needing of rediscovery yet who has in fact had a singular, negative influence over architectural writing since he died in August 1983.  In case you don’t know, Nairn came to prominence after writing a couple of diatribes against the pace and nature of urban change of Britain in the 1950s before going to write some books, present some telly and drink far too much.  I suspect that in an era of polite circumscribed behaviour amongst journalists this latter fact lends an allure to Nairn’s reputation.  Today, too I think there are some who see a certain glamour in throwing long words vainly in the face of human development. I am not one of them.

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The Rockefeller Center Wants To Disappear or Something That I Thought When I Went to New York Recently Part II 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It didn’t turn out quite as I had expected. From the moment the tour guide announced that he had helped Andrew WK write the lyrics for his latest album to watching the outside audience for NBC’s Today Show form an elongated cluster on the street so as to get into shot, the Rockefeller was something far more intangible than I had imagined. Before I arrived, I had understood that it was 14 different buildings but I hadn’t appreciated quite how detached they would all feel and how little opportunity there would be to consider it as a single entity entity. Just as an example, there are three conventional Manhattan towers on the western side of the Avenue of the Americas which I am sure most New Yorkers don’t think of as part of the Center but in fact are.  Continue reading

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On the urban character of the Arab Spring

Tahrir_Square,_Cairo,_in_the_early_morningIt may have started with noble intentions; to halt the idea that social media somehow brought about the Arab Spring and to remind us that real protest – people in the street – actually delivered the end of regimes. However, architectural theorists, critics and writers interested in urbanism have used the events – particularly in Egypt – to make some dubious claims about the instrumental effects of urban planning. Reading them, especially in the light of the “liberal” embrace of the Egyptian army and the attacks on supporters of the democratically elected government, one is forced in turn to state that architecture and urban planning have a limited role in social upheaval, much as these writers originally wanted to point out that the major agency of the Arab Spring was not Twitter. Conversely one has to state clearly that nor was it brought about by the pedestrianisation of roundabouts.

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The Highline and Social Voyeurism or Something That I Thought When I Went to New York Recently Part 1 

There is something pleasantly unsettling about the Highline and it is not just the richness of the plantings in an urban context; prairie dropseed; spiked gayfeather; wild quinine; yeah whatever. It is the inversion of the usual egocentric co-ordinates of the city. Particularly in New York the rich generally look down on the poor whether that is from their penthouse or from their helicopters.  On the Highline that has been inverted. On one level the Highline has provided a new attractive, hip development driver to the Chelsea district but in another way it gives something back. Continue reading

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Getting the Folk out

momaReading the early reviews of the American Folk Art Museum in New York makes you realise that there was a crushing logic to the decision by MOMA’s board to selected Diller Scofidio & Renfro to decide whether any parts of it could be preserved. Such a perfect architectural storm had blown up following the announcement that the large art museum was going to demolish its tiny neighbour. In turn, MOMA’s decision to punt the problem back to the architects had a certain ruthless aspect to it. And not just any architects. After their work on the Lincoln Center, DSR have established themselves as a practice to turn to in order to reconcile conflicting architectural ambitions that have historically dogged a project.

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Squarepusher and the Geometry of Sound

BE OPEN Sound Portal, Trafalgar Square

In one of Arup’s London offices is an array of speakers designed to help architects and acoustic engineers hear how the designs of their spaces will sound when complete. It’s called an ambisonic array. Virtual sound models for proposed concert halls can be created and reproduced using this array to give the designer an idea of how the concert hall will literally sound. The virtual model can be changed to asses the qualities of different experiences. Wouldn’t it be good, though the designers at Arup, if this ambisonic array could be experienced by everyone and become not a sterile laboratory environment but a place to experience sound? The London Design Festival and the sponsorship of BE OPEN, gave a team at Arup the opportunity to create this. Taking Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey as an inspiration for the mood of the Sound Portal, Arup created an intimidating black rubber shape that sits in the centre of Trafalgar Square but which opens up to reveal light and sky within. The facility provides the perfect environment for some of the most thoughtful and innovative recording artists in the world, including one of my favourite Tom Jenkinson a.k.a. Squarepusher I spoke to him about using ambisonic arrays and exploring sound in three dimensions.

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Avante Arduino

Technology Will Save Us: part of BE OPEN SPACE at Tom Dixon’s Ladbroke Grove canal-side HQ

What’s the greatest piece of design to come out of Italy in the last decade? The Branca chair by Mattiazzi? Something by Patricia Urquiola for Moroso? It was the Arduino, a simple microcontroller board, named according to the Wall Street Journal, after its inventors favourite bar in Ivrea, a city 50 km north of Turin. Micro-controllers are miniature computers dedicated to a single programmable task and whose components, a processor, memory and programmable inputs and outputs sit on simple circuit board. They are embedded into every device around us.

Amidst the makers of felt boot and cork wall panelling at Be Open Space at Tom Dixon,  Gergely Lorincz from the British collective Technology Will Save Us explains the story: “About ten years ago in a design school, students were struggling with micro-controllers, they wanted to do something interactive. At the time, it was really hard to programme micro controllers and really expensive, so these Italian guys came up with the idea that they should make something easy to use for students and artists: not technically minded people. It became an instant success. In the last 10 years an insane amount of art installations, robots, autonomous airplanes, home energy monitors… have been made with it… You can turn a blender into a MIDI controller with it.”

Technology Will Save Us: part of BE OPEN SPACE at Tom Dixon’s Ladbroke Grove canal-side HQ

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Endless Interruptions

Designer Sam Bernier’s starting point is the ultimate contemporary dilemna. “After finishing the content of a mason jar… I always clean it and keep it for later use. I quickly realised that I had almost no opportunities to actually reuse them unless I decided to turn my kitchen into a canning manufacture,” he writes. Bernier’s response was to create customised lids  using low cost 3D printing for the jars. He uses the popular phrase ‘upcycling’.

The phrase upcycling is a strangely moralistic term. Rather than an object being re-used in any old fashion – old ceramics crushed into powder and used as supplement to cement for example – up-cycling suggests an act of improvement on the original, and an improvement enacted by a human being who makes something better by ingenuity. Surely in the absolute terms of an environmentalist any kind of re-use is worthwhile. Indeed as recycling is possible on an industrial scale and therefore truly beneficial. Upcycling then is more of a design term or a craft term.  It is the urban equivalent of beach-combing – there is something more exciting going on here.

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