The Sirius building is a social housing complex in the Rocks district of central Sydney. The Lego-like Brutalist structure has been lauded by architects and residents since its opening in 1980, but rising real estate prices have lately put it in the crosshairs of redevelopment. Today only a few tenants remain; the building is slated for demolition.
Over the past year community groups and architects lobbied to protect the Sirius with heritage status, but the New South Wales Government opted to cash in on the land’s high value, citing profits that could be spent on social housing projects elsewhere. In so doing, however, the Government tacitly sanctioned the gentrification process, condemning the Sirius’ low-income residents to banishment from the city center and erasing a monument to social welfare and inclusive urban planning. Born of labor strikes and community organizing in the 1970s, the Sirius embodies an egalitarian ethos in its identical concrete modules and generous common spaces, values casually dismissed by the Finance Minister, who recently tweeted, “if you need a PhD in Architecture to ‘appreciate’ the #Sirius building, then it’s clearly not a building for the people.”
In retrospect, the Sirius’ opening date of 1980 seems fatefully symbolic: the year is commonly seen as the start of the neoliberal era. Its pending demolition is no less significant, as it coincides with what may be that era’s nasty, fitful demise. Similarly, the Finance Minister’s arrogance harks back to Thatcherism, while his faux-populist attack on so-called “elites” echoes a fascist strain in contemporary governance. In the Sirius debacle we can see neoliberalism’s end game, its last-ditch raid on the commons and public wealth. No wonder Brutalism is having a resurgence of interest lately; buildings like the Sirius look increasingly utopian and retro-futurist in our disenchanted glass-and-steel cityscapes.
Before, that is, they fall to the bulldozer.
Sydney is ranked as the world’s second most unaffordable city; Vancouver, BC comes in a close third on that unfortunate list. Like Sydney, Vancouver has widening social inequality due to skyrocketing land values, and as in Sydney, the real estate trade in luxury homes is causing a loss of heritage structures and a crisis in social housing. Meanwhile, as market force disrupt public education, large-scale campus redevelopment projects mirror the Sirius controversy; privatization at the University of British Columbia is leading to the the demolition and remodeling of Brutalist structures, once a defining feature of the school’s built environment. As a result, a tour of UBC’s Brutalist architecture is like a visit to the fast-receding recent past.
UBC’s Museum of Anthropology was designed by Arthur Erickson and opened its doors in 1976. The building is as impressive as its setting. Tall windows provide views northward of forested islands and mountains; the landscaped grounds drop off abruptly to the sea. The museum’s grand architectural motif of concrete pillars and cantilevered crossbeams echoes the totem poles and post-and-beam structures of the Northwest Coast First Nations. As the University pursues a master plan of so-called “transparency” in new campus buildings, the MOA stands as a dignified reminder that Brutalist concrete and glass are far from incompatible.
The Museum of Anthropology is built on the site of three WWII battery gun emplacements, one of which is incorporated into a circular gallery. An attentive visitor can make out the concrete foundation of battery gun #3 on the west side of the museum’s main hall. Two searchlight towers still stand on the shore below the museum.
This convergence of Brutalism and bunker architecture at the Museum of Anthropology is highly suggestive. The same year as the MOA opened to the public, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris mounted an exhibition of photographs of WWII bunkers, which were published with an accompanying theoretical treatise by the photographer, Paul Virilio, as Bunker archéologie.
Virilio, a professor of architecture, saw military bunkers as a testimony to the radical transformation of modern space-time by the threat of “total war.” He claimed that a certain “poetry” inheres in the bunkers’ obsolescent principles of armored defense, deriving as they do from the pre-nuclear age of artillery. By the war’s end those principles would be wholly invalidated, and along with them, any idea of security and protection in the civil sphere, too. “The bunker,” Virilio says, “is the protohistory of an age in which the power of a single weapon is so great that no distance can protect you from it any longer.”*
Looking back at Virilio’s 1976 exhibit, we recognize that similar feelings of fear and regret color our view of Brutalism today: nostalgia for an age of welfare and social security, a world in which public institutions, including universities, could still defend against the market and finance capital. From the perspective of globalization’s discontents, Brutalism can appear almost naïve, its confident structures unwittingly vulnerable. Like the bunkers, then, Brutalism is protohistorical: its heyday already anticipated our age of homogenized, globalized, transnational space.
These historical contradictions are expressed in Brutalism’s language of design as a play of contrasts: solidity and absence, weightlessness and bulk. At the MOA’s southwest corner, a jutting shape frames a rectangular void, a zen garden among the cedars. The concrete’s bold horizontal levitation contrasts with the forest’s randomly-spaced tree trunks and wayward branches. Massive as it is, however, the concrete wall reminds us that it plays a modest role no different than any other construction material: to host the transitory and contain the intangible. Here, the stark contrast between immateriality and bulk exacerbates the contradiction, challenging the massive material to yield further, to withdraw, to aspire in spite of itself to sheer abstract form.
Across the street at the Peter Wall Institute, a high-ceilinged dining lounge opens onto a secluded garden and a pond bordered by concrete patios. With its long horizontal planes, deep overhanging roofline and seamless articulation of indoor and outdoor space, the lounge and its garden evoke a touchstone of modernist architecture, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. UBC’s Brutalist reimagining of the 1929 Pavilion accentuates the Bauhaus building’s cantilevered concept by substituting a massive concrete block for Mies’ long, slender lid.
The Barcelona Pavilion was inspired by traditional Japanese architecture. A visitor to the Peter Wall lounge can take the measure of the Brutalist building’s Eastern heritage by visiting the nearby Nitobe garden’s simple, elegant tea house, an ethereal structure of wood, straw, bamboo and paper. With the tea house in mind, Brutalist bulk gives way to abstraction, and spatial volume becomes nearly palpable, like a sculpture shedding its mould.
We might even trace the architectural sources of the Peter Wall lounge further back still, and imagine the concrete structure “not so much built as knotted together, plaited, woven, embroidered,” as Lévi-Strauss said of a Bororo village in Brazil. To the visiting anthropologist, the delicate yet monumental Bororo houses seemed more like clothing than edifice. Interestingly, his ethnographic descriptions confirm Virilio’s insight into the fragility of fortifications: the houses, Lévi-Strauss said, were “like a light, flexible suit of armour, closer to Western women’s hats than to Western towns.”** The anthropologist’s descriptions serve to illustrate his larger argument that built space reflects social structure, that is to say, the intangibles of language and community. At the Peter Wall lounge, students can have lunch along with professors and residents on fellowship; but nothing keeps a campus visitor from enjoying the space, too.
The Peter Wall Institute includes residences for visiting scholars that have large windows and balconies with sweeping views of Howe Sound and the North Shore mountains. This longstanding gesture of hospitality to scholars was recently retracted, however; the Institute has reclaimed the upper floor spaces for administrative offices. Elsewhere at UBC, similar shifting priorities are transforming the role of Brutalist buildings in social and academic life.
The Walter Gage student residences date from 1972. The Brutalist complex includes three tall towers with grand views of mountains and sea. From lower levels, however, that perspective has become more restricted as UBC has monetized the natural view. An anomaly at a public university, UBC includes an enclave of luxury private houses, townhomes and condominiums within the academic campus core. These expensive properties now stand between the midcentury dormitories and the mountain views. Planted at the heart of the luxury neighborhood is the imposing granite-clad School of Economics, whose ersatz Oxbridge crenellated tower provides a fitting backdrop for the residents, evoking as it does an era of educational class privilege. Moreover, the building’s idea of fortification is so antiquated that, inverting the meaning of Virilio’s bunker archeology, it relegates the idea of danger to the domain of myth.
The contrast is striking: on one side of Walter Gage Road, the Brutalist complex; on the other, picture windows, granite cladding, generous balconies and vast penthouse terraces. UBC touts the revenue it gains from its real estate sales, but a glaring contradiction remains: ownership of a view home on the “public” university campus is the sole privilege of the ultra-wealthy. Meanwhile, UBC is launching a new venture to address student affordability problems: “nano” apartments currently in development will offer 140 square feet of living space — exactly twice the minimum standard size of an American prison cell. These tiny dorms will stand well back from the views next to the university bus exchange on the far side of the Brutalist dormitories.
Buchanan Tower is perhaps the starkest exemplar of Brutalism on the UBC campus. Inspired by an Arthur Erickson building in downtown Vancouver, Buchanan Tower is commonly judged unattractive, but its uncompromising grid of identical windows is the physical sanction of an egalitarian ideal: no penthouse, no corner offices. We might conjecture, then, that it is not so much Buchanan Tower’s starkness as its outmoded ideals that make the building “an object of disgust,” as Virilio said of the bunkers, in contrast to the pleasure commonly afforded by “transparent and open civilian architecture.” In this light, a negative judgment of the tower could be seen as a moral failing rather than a mere lapse of taste.
The recent film High-Rise displays a similar error of judgment by making an emphatically Brutalist apartment building the virtual protagonist in a social allegory of dystopia and class warfare. With its domineering architect residing atop the tower in a luxury home and social classes ranked below on corresponding floor levels (the working class tellingly omitted, however), the building’s spatial ethos is clearly more representative of globalized neoliberalism’s luxury towers than Brutalism. In an interview, the director of High-Rise claimed that his intention was not to discredit 50’s and 60’s architecture, but in so doing he made a telling aside. “I went to Vancouver for the first time and stayed in a tower block, with me being slightly prejudiced against tower blocks, and this thing was really beautiful,” the director said. “Everyone lives in these tower blocks,” he continued, “and they’re all alright, that kind of condo, and this is seen as the height of luxury.”
Needless to say, the director’s vision of Vancouver is singularly blind to the violent dystopias fostered by such “beautiful luxury.” What better symbol of the social cost of luxury than Vancouver’s Trump International Hotel & Tower, due to open the 28th of this month? In a sorry confirmation of the victory of the oligarchs and the corresponding demise of Brutalism, the glass and steel Trump Tower was designed by none other than Arthur Erickson.
All Brutalist architecture owes a debt to the visionary apartment design of Le Corbusier, the Unité d’habitation, first constructed in Marseille in 1952. On an architectural tour of that building some years ago, this writer was hosted by a resident who had lived there happily for decades. The old woman firmly expressed the wish that she would never have to leave her pleasant, stark modernist apartment. Was she afraid of eviction? That she might outlive the building — or even Brutalism itself? I didn’t ask. But I remember how she put it: “I hope I die here.”
*Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994), 46.
**Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 215.