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Slab City: Richmond's Brutalist Buildings and What They Represent 

As brutalism passes the half-century mark, a look at Richmond’s concrete behemoths.

click to enlarge The SunTrust Operations Center at 7818 Parham Road is a prime example of Richmond brutalist architecture.

Scott Elmquist

The SunTrust Operations Center at 7818 Parham Road is a prime example of Richmond brutalist architecture.

Let’s settle this up front. Brutalism is an architectural term that’s every bit as legit as Greek revival, International Style or postmodernism.

But expect no acanthus leaves, acres of glass or gratuitous gewgaws as you’d find on those respective building types. As to rainbow lollipops and sunshine anything, I don’t think so. Brutalism is as tough as it sounds: It can’t — it won’t, be softened.

To the French it’s béton brut, or raw concrete. The Swedes call it nybrutalism or new brutalism. We Americans find it, as its name suggests, hard to love.

But here’s the thing, Brutalism has reached the half-century mark of being a presence in most American cities and on many college campuses. That 50-year milestone qualifies buildings for historic landmark status, so it may be time for an appraisal of these raw and hulking buildings. And consideration of the years from 1965 to 1975, during which brutalism appeared on the American cityscape, brings additional understanding of how these structures reflect their time.

The drum-shaped Hirshhorn Museum and the sprawling J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington exemplify the social, political and racial turmoil and resulting paranoia that marked the 1960s and ’70s. There’s poetic justice that these bombastic structures were being completed during the era of the Watergate hearings.

You’ve seen similar behemoths in Richmond such as the SunTrust Operations Center on Parham Road, near West Broad Street, the Verizon building at East Grace and Eighth streets and the Division of Motor Vehicles Building on West Broad.

But there also are more modest examples that pack just as much punch, such as the First Unitarian Church near Byrd Park and the Tyler Haines Commons at University of Richmond — let’s dub that one red-brick brutalism, located as it is in the West End.

But many Richmonders, like folks elsewhere, have never warmed up to having their faces pushed into harsh concrete walls. At Yale University in Connecticut, the earliest push back came in 1964, when students apparently protested the new art and architecture building, designed with tremendous passion by the school’s dean, Paul Rudolph. A student-set fire in a studio space spread, all but destroying the interior. In Boston, a former mayor suggested selling City Hall, the nation’s finest specimen of brutalism put to public use.

In Richmond, the glorious 1964 concrete and glass wing of the General Assembly Building overlooking Capitol Square is slated to be rubble by year’s end and replaced. This elegant fusion of brutalism with the sleek International Style often found in mid-20th-century high-rises made it just past the half-century mark.

This is ironic because another state division, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, deemed the building an instant landmark in the 1960s and included it in a hardbound guidebook to the best of Virginia architecture. Of course, the museum also demolished its brutalist north wing by Warren Hardwicke Associates and its compatibly hard-edged sculpture court, designed by modern master Lawrence Halprin not long ago. It was replaced by the considerably lighter and brighter McLothlin Wing.

So what is it, thumbs up, or thumps down?

While the jury of public opinion is out, an intellectual revival has begun. Yale’s one-reviled art and architecture building was given a $129 million restoration and renamed for its architect, Rudolph. And more recently, when the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York followed the fashionistas to the Meatpacking District on the Hudson River and into a handsome — and thinner — new building, the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art lost no time in adopting to its use the modern, castlelike masterwork that the Whitney relinquished.

Here’s a sampling of six local brutalist structures that would defy even the toughest wrecking balls.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The Grace E. Harris Building (1972)

Virginia Commonwealth University
1015 Floyd Ave.
Architect: Lyles, Bissett, Carlisle & Wolff Associates

Soon after Virginia Commonwealth University completed this School of Business structure, Louis Kahn, a giant of architecture and a master at brutalism, gave a lecture in the building’s auditorium.

The recently hatched university was proud of one of its first “from the ground-up” facilities. And during the question and answer period he was asked his opinion of the room.

“This is not architecture,” Kahn replied in his gravelly, mumbling way, surprised even to be asked such a thing. “This is a building.”

Plopped smack in the middle of the block bounded by Floyd, Laurel, Main and Harrison, the five-story structure ignores the surrounding Fan District and would be more comfortable in a suburban office park. Its two top floors are sheathed with precast concrete walls. They teeter on a glass-walled level that sits upon two brutalist levels with uninviting and brown brick walls.

The business school has moved out, to a building more connected with its urban setting and adorned with classical architectural flourishes. The brutalist wonder now includes the School of Social Work among its occupants and is named for Grace Harris, who long served the university in the capacities of professor, provost and acting president.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The Theresa Pollak Building (1970)

Virginia Commonwealth University
325 N. Harrison St.
Architect: Ballou & Justice

For all its bombast, this is a brutalist building that tries awfully hard to fit in with the neighborhood. Well, sort of. Note the punched windows that follow the rhythm of nearby row houses and apartment buildings in the Fan District. This School of the Arts building looms over Harrison Street like a monster ready to tromp down sedate West Avenue. In addition to raw concrete, the building is softened with expanses of red brick.

But make no mistake, this building — named for the school’s founder and longtime professor — is very much a product of its time. The year 1970 saw tumultuous student protests that turned tragic. At Kent State University on May 4, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on protesters, killing four people and wounding nine, including bystanders.

The Pollak building is fairly student-proof because it’s raised off the ground with its upper floors accessible by four corner stairwell towers. The building is a square doughnut with an open-to-the-sky, too-deep atrium that daylight rarely penetrates. Recent attempts to soften the building’s innate brutalism have included replacing a masonry wall of a conference room with glass and the installation of a green roof.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles Building (1979)

2300 W. Broad St.
Architect: Hayes, Seay, Mattern & Mattern

A. Linwood Holton, governor of Virginia from 1970-’74 and the father-in-law of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, was especially proud of situating the Division of Motor Vehicles building in the city and not in the suburbs. Of course this brutalist slab may be in the city but it’s hardly of it, set back behind a suburbanlike surface parking lot and partially obscured by large trees.

But it’s a prime example of how governmental entities embraced brutalism. It expresses nothing if not authority. Compare this public building with 21st-century branch post offices: Once proud community symbols, they’re all but hidden from public view.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The General Assembly Building (1968)

910 Capitol St.
Architect: Marcellus Wright

Built initially as an addition to the midrise and elegant Life of Virginia Building, this midcentury masterwork required demolition of the wonderful Lyric Theater, once home of the Old Dominion Barn Dance.

But consider the words you now read as a requiem for an architectural champion. Although this building was recognized as an instant landmark upon its completion in the 1960s, the structure will be torn down later this year for a new legislative office building. Its design has not yet been made public.

This nine-story building melds brutalist concrete forms with a dose of International Style glass, much like the Bank of America building at East Main and 12th streets. In addition to fitting its site like a glove, the building’s glory lies in how the floor levels are at different heights and the sheet of glass in the respective fenestration varies in width. The passing eye doesn’t notice these trompe l’oeil touches, but they make for pleasing optics.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Dominion Place (1976)

1025 W. Grace St.
Architect: Pietro Belluschi and Jung/Brannen Associates

What’s to like? For starters, this senior living complex was designed by a great architect you’ve never heard of.

Born on the Adriatic coast of Italy, Pietro Belluschi (1899-1994) moved to Oregon and never returned to the old country — in part to avoid life under dictator Benito Mussolini. He served as the dean of architecture and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1951-’65 and also worked at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, where he helped design New York’s Pam Am Building. Belluschi received the American Institute of Architects gold medal in 1972. It’s the highest honor the profession awards, won in the following two years by Louis Kahn and Buckminster Fuller.

The unique concrete Dominion Place now has an architecturally distinctive neighbor at Broad and Belvidere with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art opening in the fall. Its architect is Steven Holl, the 2012 A.I.A. gold medal winner.

Dominion Place brilliantly evokes what pioneering modernist architect Le Corbusier was advocating in his Unite d’Habitation in Marseille of 1952, a housing complex that signaled the birth of brutalism. Le Corbusier advocated building forms that were honest, refreshing and economically feasible for mass appeal.

Rooftop gardens are flanked by pergolas that offer filtered shade. Inside, units in the long and thin buildings are flooded with daylight.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The Museum of the Confederacy (1975)

1203 E. Clay St.
Architect: Mills, Pitticord Architects

There is nothing sentimental about Museum of the Confederacy, part of the American Civil War Museum. Built in 1975 in Court End, it’s one of the city’s most thoughtfully designed brutalist buildings. Its rear slams up to an emergency entrance of a Virginia Commonwealth University Hospital. The museum faces the glorious garden portico of the Brockenbrough-Crenshaw House, which served as the White House of the Confederacy from 1861-’65.

The poured-in-place concrete building, which is covered in white stucco, houses and displays mostly military objects that once were shown in the residence next door. The museum is bunkerlike in how it’s wedged into the eastern slope of Shockoe Hill. From inside the building, generous window expanses provide views of a small garden and the historic house that Abraham Lincoln and his son, Tad, visited during the president’s last days on earth.


And the Rest of the World: The Brutalist Pantheon

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Unité d’Habitation (1952)

Marseille, France
Architect: Le Corbusier

This building gave birth to brutalism, and British architects quickly caught the beat. Europe had been ravaged by two world wars within 35 years of the construction of this concrete masterwork by Swiss-born Le Corbusier. It was intended to provide working-class housing. Schools and hospitals would follow for the masses, not the classes. Le Corbusier created a horizontal town of 1,600 housed in a rectangular concrete box punctuated with windows and balconies. Today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site houses wealthy tenants.

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The Paul Rudolph Building (1961)

Formerly the Art and Architecture Building
Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
Architect: Paul Rudolph

This is considered the first brutalist building in the United States. Rudolph was the dean of Yale’s architecture school and determined to catapult himself into the annals of architecture — matching, if not topping Le Corbusier. His building is composed of unabashedly fortresslike towers that anchor a key intersection where Yale’s campus and downtown New Haven meet. You enter the building along narrow passages that explode into a light-filled center, where you’re ambushed by a dizzying array of levels, protrusions and balconies, all buzzing with student and academic energy. Through the slit windows, you can glimpse architect Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery across the street. Exactly how a 1960s fire was set remains unresolved, but blaming it on students’ hatred of the building certainly romanticizes the history of brutalism.

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The Met Breuer (1966)

Formerly the Whitney Museum of American Art
New York
Architect: Marcel Breuer

Hungarian-born Breuer was a product of the German Bauhaus. For the once-staid Whitney Museum he delivered what’s been called an “inverted Babylonian ziggurat.” Thus began the tradition of art museums engaging so-called starchitects to create singular architectural masterworks. The building stands in ageless contrast to its prim neighbors on Madison Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Gray granite panels cover poured concrete. In 2016, the Whitney moved downtown near the High Line, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art signed an eight-year lease to show modern and contemporary art.

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Habitat 67 (1967)

Montreal, Canada
Architect: Moshe Sadie

Moshe Sadie was a graduate student when he conceived this honeycomblike, 158-unit housing project that was a key attraction at the 1967 Montreal World’s Fair. Some 350 prefabricated concrete and interlocking units were built off-site and then delivered, swung into place and snapped tight. Habitat gave new meaning to the concept of urban living. Slow to gain traction with potential residents, today it’s prime residential property. The location on the St. Lawrence River is a plus. Among Sadie’s more recent projects is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. But there he strayed from the trailblazing brutalism of his youth.

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Boston City Hall (1968)

Architect: Kallman, McKinnell & Knowles

If good poets borrow and great poets steal, three young upstart architects took more than a few clues from Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation. Kallman, McKinnell & Knowles applied multiple entries, regulated window openings and poured concrete to civic use. But because a huge swath of Boston’s tawdry Scolley Square was annihilated for this building and its sweeping plaza, the architect used red brick on the first levels to signify the scale of low-rise buildings that Paul Revere and Abigail Adams would have recognized. This may be the brutalist building with the most chutzpah.

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The Hirshhorn Museum of Art (1974)

Washington
Architect: Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings and Merrill

I had the pleasure of meeting Gordon Bunshaft at the opening of his Hirshhorn during a reporters’ preview in 1974. He was standing on the edge of the sculpture garden off the ground floor aggressively puffing on a cigar. He was ruffled and tweedy in a masculine way that made perfect sense, because he’d designed the unforgiving building in official Washington — and that’s saying a lot. But the building works beautifully, more than holding its own on the National Mall staring down such masterpieces as the National Gallery of Art — both its John Russell Pope and I.M. Pei buildings. The Hirshhorn is a delight to visit. Because each floor is a complete circle, there’s no chance of getting museum flack-out. You know you’re going to end up where you started out.

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