UW News

December 17, 2019

Beauty in Brutalism? Architecture professor Alex Anderson reviews the UW’s ‘bunkerlike’ behemoths

UW News

Alex Anderson, a professor in the College of Built Environments, wrote an article on Brutalism for Harvard Design News, so UW Notebook asked him his views on Brutalist buildings at the UW.

Alex Anderson, UW professor of architecture, admires the atrium of Gould Hall, where he has worked for 20 years. Anderson penned a defense of Brutalist architecture, and UW Notebook asked for his views of Brutalist structures on the UW campus.Dennis Wise

Earlier this year, Alex Anderson, University of Washington associate professor of architecture, published an essay in Harvard Design News discussing a class there called “Recasting the Outcasts.”

The “outcasts” in question were buildings in the “Brutalist” architectural style, which grew in the 1950s from the modernist movement. You’d probably know them by sight — Brutalist buildings are known to be heavy on the concrete, appear geometric or block-like, and dominate their physical site.

The College of Built Environments linked to Anderson’s essay with the headline “A Defense of Brutalism.” UW Notebook could not resist posing a few questions about examples of Brutalist architecture here on campus. Anderson starts with a consideration of Condon Hall, but it’s clear that Gould Hall, where he has worked for 20 years, is more of a favorite.

You defend Brutalist architecture, but some campus dwellers have quietly disliked these forbidding buildings for generations…

Condon Hall at the UW -- part of a discussion of Brutalist architecture at the uw

Condon HallUW Libraries

In fact, not always so quietly! Condon Hall especially has gotten a lot of criticism. A 1994 Seattle Times article by Lily Eng titled “A Building the UW Loves to Hate,” declared it “a sure-fire contender for the UW’s ugliest building.” She said it “looks like the county jail” and quoted the dean of the law school who disliked its “Stalinist architecture.” Later on Sheri Olsen, in the Post-Intelligencer called it “bunkerlike.”

This kind of comparative criticism is common for Brutalist buildings. People quickly dismissed them because of associated images they conjure (jails, bunkers, Communist housing). One reason architects don’t dislike these buildings as much is that they are trained to look a little closer — Brutalist buildings often reward a careful look with all kinds of interesting insights.

Originally, the architects of Brutalism wanted to develop a modernist idea of “truth” in building. This meant less hiding of services (plumbing, ductwork, wires) and an active attempt to reveal how buildings get built. Concrete became a favorite material because it can show the process of construction in the pattern of formwork. It can also work as a fireproof structure, and doesn’t need to be covered up with fireproofing material or paint.

The Department of Architecture occupied Condon for a while when Architecture Hall was being renovated around 2008. Most of us liked the building for a bunch of reasons. First, the concrete work is very precise — smooth with straight edges and carefully arranged tie holes. It is clear what parts of the building are structural and nonstructural. The building also does a great job of orienting the spaces inside. Offices have great views, but the concrete sun shades protect them from excess glare. The large spaces on the north side, which we used for studios, have great light.

It does stand aggressively on its site, and there are some oddities of planning, but the details are really worth a look! 

You call Gould Hall a fine example of Brutalism. What makes it so?  

The concrete of Gould Hall is quite different from that of Condon. Gould’s concrete is warmer in color and more heavily textured. As in other Brutalist buildings, it shows evidence of construction. In the stairwells, for example, you can see minute details of the plywood used to form the walls. Because the concrete is a little rough, some of the aggregate shows through, especially on the exterior, providing a great variety of textures that catch the light in interesting ways.

Gould Hall, among campus "Brutalist" buildings discussed with architecture professor Alex Anderson

Gould HallCollege of Built Environments

The massive concrete structural frame opens a huge atrium on the interior with stairs that zigzag across it. This surprising aspect of Gould is what makes the building especially appealing. While it might appear heavy, even “bunkerlike” from the outside, it is bright and soaring on the inside. The big horizontal spans open views into the studios and department offices, and from anyplace in Gould Court, you can get a lively sense of collaboration.

Judicious use of wood on the handrails, which are broad enough to lean on, and on the display boards warm up the space. While the classrooms and offices work well, Gould’s bright, open communal space is what makes it an especially good place to work.

Although it is a minor detail, there is a place in the otherwise dim basement where a window opens through the concrete wall onto the massive air handling system. This gives a rare glimpse at just how immense the services are for a building of Gould’s size. This is a typical Brutalist move, which is especially helpful in an architecture school. 

Gould is a great example of a Brutalist building with a pleasant, bright interior public space that opens grandly to every level of the building. Natural light pours into it from above, and people are everywhere.

What do you think of Schmitz Hall? It’s another example of Brutalism, thought by many to be bland and institutional. 

Schmitz HallWikipedia

Schmitz Hall is one of those buildings that gives Brutalism a bad name. Its cantilevered levels on the exterior were probably meant to give it some drama, but its insistence on those cantilevers and the lack of variety in them instead make the building feel oppressive.

The yellowish color of the concrete and the excessive regularity of the vertical patterning on the concrete don’t help dispel this impression. Unlike at Gould, the interior atrium doesn’t present much of a surprise. It is too small relative to the scale of the building and the number of steps you need to scale to get to it.

Also, hardly any daylight makes its way into the space, so it feels dim and heavy. And from the atrium the rooms seem to go on and on. There are some interesting details in the wood ceilings and the patterned concrete walls, but not enough to dispel an oppressive sense of weight in the building.

What about Kane Hall? Less Brutalist than just bland?  

Kane Hall

Kane HallMark Stone

People ask me about Kane Hall all the time. One thing to notice is that its south front has the same rhythm as Suzzallo Library, although it uses very different materials. It is hulking with its massive concrete piers, but it does help shape and energize Red Square much better than Gerberding Hall on the other side of the plaza. Its piers also catch the south light in interesting ways.

The interior lobby of Kane, with its very lofty ceiling, warmer brick walls and wood accents, is surprisingly bright, and it deals well with the noise of hundreds of students conversing between classes. The auditoriums hide the services behind wall paneling and dropped ceilings like so many other buildings do. So Kane isn’t purely Brutalist, but the massive concrete front keeps it in the family.

When defenders of Brutalism behold the splendor of, say, the Suzzallo Library Reading Room, do they grumble and say “rubbish — pure Gothic grandstanding!”? 

I often bring visitors into the reading room at Suzzallo so they can take it in. It is such a grand collegiate space, almost the prototypical place of study. It is not surprising that people love it.

However, I do point out some of its structural artifice, which any fan of Brutalism won’t fail to notice. First of all, the buttresses on the exterior facing Red Square are way too small for the job they purport to do. Compare them to the immense flying buttresses on a “real” Gothic building like Notre Dame in Paris, and you’ll get the idea. Suzzallo is a steel frame building masquerading as something else.

One place in Suzzallo where the mask comes off in a delightful way is in the ceiling of the vestibule next to the reading room. The web of steel up there (a 1990s addition) is designed to transfer horizontal earthquake loads across and into the structural frame of the stacks, and from there down into the foundations of a huge, 300-foot bell tower that never got built.

I like buildings that give up interesting information with easy forensic work, which is precisely what Brutalist architecture tends to do.


For more information, contact Alex Anderson at ata@uw.edu.