Suzassippi’s Mississippi: Beauty in Brutalism?

The concrete architecture of a few decades ago, once lauded, is now mostly viewed with scorn.  Before we tear it down, we should consider what will be lost. (Kubo, Pasnik, & Grimley, 2010, Tough Love: In Defense of Brutalism. Architect: The magazine of the American Institute of Architects)

The Lamar Law Center, constructed in 1977 to house the University of Mississippi’s new law school, was designed in the brutalist style by Jernigan, Hawkins, & Harrison, Principals, and assisted by Brewer, Godbold, & Associates (Mississippi Department of Archives and History/Historic Resources Inventory database).

The Bauhaus-style building…represented a departure from the red brick and columns of the Greek Revival style… (law.olemiss.edu/about/history/)

‘Ya think? (Note: the new Khayat law school completed in 2011 reversed right back into red brick and columns of the Greek Revival style).  The old Lamar Law Center will undergo renovation to convert spaces to classrooms, add elevators and stairs in the center of the building, work to the windows of the upper floors, and new electrical and mechanical.  According to the Daily Mississippian interview with Ian Banner, it is scheduled for spring 2013, at a cost of approximately 7 million.

There have been various speculations as to what, if anything, would be done to alter the facade of the building.  I just have one thing to say about that: Please, oh please, don’t.  Ontario Architecture defined Brutalism (1960-1970) as

a response to the glass curtain wall that was overtaking institutional and commercial architecture in the 1960s…the design of the building is largely dependent on the shape and placement of the various room masses.

Kubo, et al. ( 2010) suggested that Brutalism was a “terrible label” that implied the buildings were designed “with bad intentions” when that was far from the case.  Referring to the Brutalism ethic, Reyner Banham noted:

…one meant to reveal the messy realities of construction and building systems, and to forge a new honesty about architecture and its role within the postwar era’s broader social and urban transformations…buildings tried to be rugged and direct…

Kubo, et al., called Brutalism Heroic, and an example of an era’s ideals, authentic and noble and dignified.   As I learn to appreciate beauty as also form and intent, not just columns and cornices, I see the authenticity, nobility, and dignity in the Lamar Law Center–one that I hope is preserved as it is, and not varnished over.  The heaviness of the building itself is elevated and lifted by the placement of the rooms with glass surrounds at the top of the anchoring corners.  Call me a hopeless romantic, but the lines and angles, massive size, embedded partially underground, yet jutting out at heights, seems symbolic of what the law is meant to be–albeit not always what it is.  What was the heroic, authentic, and noble purpose represented in the building design?  Perhaps it was nothing more than the move to embrace a new urbanism, brief though it was.

The important thing is ensuring the renovation keeps the character and integrity of the building in tact.  I can’t imagine anything worse than a Brutalist building with Greek columns and red brick facade.

Why repeat the cycle of destroying what we might appreciate with a longer historical lens? Cities should be layered with the intentions of different eras; erasure is nearly always a mistake.

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Categories: Historic Preservation, Oxford, Universities/Colleges

26 replies

  1. When I first encountered this building in the late 1990s, I thought, “What a terrible intrusion on campus” but later in the 2000s when I actually got to spend some time inside and had a nice fall-like day to stand outside and see how the light plays on the surface, I began to understand a little more about “Brutalism” and appreciate it a bit more. I appreciated it even more when I looked around Ole Miss again and noticed how cheap and tawdry much of the new “classical” architecture is–pieced-together dryvet columns, porticos tacked onto every building that didn’t move fast enough to get away, etc–and when compared to that kind of classicism, the honesty and force of the Lamar building is better appreciated.

    There’s a good set of photos of this building, pre-construction tape and with interiors on the MDAH database: http://www.apps.mdah.ms.gov/Public/prop.aspx?id=2145881395&x=1760&y=1060&bg=white&view=photos&DateTaken=03-19-2009

    The same architectural firm did an earlier building in downtown Jackson that feels similar to me, the Central Fire Station (c.1970) and the MDAH database also has a good set of photos of the exterior: http://www.apps.mdah.ms.gov/Public/prop.aspx?id=38324&x=1760&y=1060&bg=white&view=photos&DateTaken=09-30-2009

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    • Enjoyed the photos, and the JFD does have a similar approach. Lamar Center was actually quite beautiful inside, with wood panels that evoked images of the exterior windows, and open glass walls from the upper floor that overlooked the atrium below. Not sure what they will do with that, but I can imagine they won’t waste much space with the dire need for classrooms.

      And I just noted an oversight in attributing that last quotation–it was Kubo, et al!

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  2. Thank you for bringing us this post. Kubo, Pasnik, & Grimley probably were referring to the common, though often wholly appropriate understanding of the term Brutalism. The term coined by British architects Alison and Peter Smithson in 1953, from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete”, a phrase used by Le Corbusier to describe the poured board-marked concrete he had designed during the second world war.

    Where the building has something other than blank walls at the ground level it seems more engaging. With trees around the building it looks very pleasant. Often Brutalist buildings are plopped down on a wind swept plaza and look like a cross between a spaceship and a tribal ceremonial temple.

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  3. Brava, Suzassippi, for arguing on behalf of Ole Miss’s least favorite building. Despite its many flaws (its perverse siting, its leaky and porous envelope, its inadequate and inflexible structure), an argument can and should be made that buildings for higher education should stimulate the intellect rather than simply satisfy preconceptions and thereby lower expectations. Acknowledging that high Brutalism is at its fashion nadir and that, at its best, it can literally abrade our humanity, there are several fine examples where Brutalist buildings have been terrifically redeemed and enhanced by contemporary interventions. The best I’ve seen is Leers Wienzapfel’s metal-and-channel-glass expansion of Jose Luis Sert’s precast concrete Harvard Science Center (http://archrecord.construction.com/projects/bts/archives/universities/05_harvard/photos.asp). Also worth looking at is Charles Gwathmey’s still controversial addition to and restoration of Paul Rudolph’s Yale Art & Architecture building (http://www.archdaily.com/123171/yale-art-architecture-building-gwathmey-siegel-associates-architects/).
    Lamar Hall will always be bombastic: here’s hoping its redesign can convert it from a negative to a positive icon. At the very least, it should smooth off some rough edges.

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    • Thanks for the links, and the remarks. I know I myself referred to Lamar as a “hulking concrete bunker” just last year. Nothing like some tutelage to help you see something in a different light.

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    • The Yale Art & Architecture building is a great example of the idea of Brutalism as repressive. When the building was completed in ’63 it was viewed by many as the heavy hand of the “Establishment”. The reaction to the structure’s repressiveness is believed to have been a possible reason for the fire-bombing of the Rudolph building in 1969. Talk about architectural crit!

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      • Time says in a 2008 article by Richard Lacayo that the theory of arson by disgruntled students who hated the building was “wrongly suspected, as it turns out.” Mark Alden Branch (1998) says that no evidence was ever found to link students, or even that the fire was arson (“The Building that Won’t go Away, Yale Alumni Magazine), but that the stories seem to persist, and at Rudolph’s death, some journalists “creatively inserted the burning was during a demonstration.” The fire was eventually ruled an accident by the New Haven fire department.

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        • Right I think the myth continues to perpetuate due to the Brutalist appearance of the building because some would consider that reaction perfectly reasonable & believable.

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          • Well, then, they just have no sense of imagination. :) Actually, it was quite interesting reading the parallels between the praise for the building and Rudolph in the beginning, and the fall into disfavor for them both. Rudolph said in a 1988 interview that he rarely talked about the building because it was so painful to him.

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  4. Is the Metrocenter Mall building in Jackson an example of “brutalism”? Architecturally speaking I mean.

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    • See Thomas Rosell’s explanation of the etymology of “Brutalism” above. The term implies the expressive use of exposed structural concrete, either cast-in-place or precast, so while Metrocenter may be brutal, it is not “Brutalist.”

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      • I agree I don’t think the Metrocenter is Brutalist. It’s almost Corbusian in that its a machine for shopping! The use of raw concrete is certainly where the name Brutalism was derived from, but it might be possible to have a building that is Brutilist in style that is not constructed of raw concrete. Some of the later buildings possibly. Lester Walker talks about some Brutalist structures in his book American Homes:

        “…Brick, concrete block, and even rough-cut wood siding can be used if the structure is designed with mass, weight, and solidity in mind”.

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      • Oh yeah, I missed the exposed structural concrete part. Metrocenter is just plain ole yellow brick. HA!

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    • I always enjoyed Metrocenter’s whimsical interior, but like most malls, its exterior leaves much to be desired. I should have taken some interior shots before . . . whatever is happening to it now started happening.

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  5. Wall St Journal has photos of and story about demolition of FBI building in DC. The two look the same to me.

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  6. Great post, and good comments! I agree about maintaining the character and integrity. After all, it is a part of the campus’ history and in a way, blends in now with the traditional buildings.

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    • The same architect designed the student union building on campus, and while not Brutalist, it bears a similar appearance due to all the concrete and its quite utilitarian design. Still, it has a presence about it, and is only a block from the Lamar building, where it looks right at home.

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      • The Ole Miss Union building is Brutalist, due to its being of the period and because of its exposed, expressed, and expressive concrete. It’s design was, shall we say, “inspired” by that of John Desmond’s LSU student union building, which had won a Gulf States Regional AIA Honor Award in 1965. (The Ole Miss Union was completed in 1977.) See for yourself: http://www.lsu.edu/campus/locations/UNIO.html

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        • Definitely can see the “inspiration” between the two. When I read that the same architect had designed the student union building, I thought it might be Brutalist, but the MDAH/HRI database identifies it as New Formalism. Are they related?

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        • We classified the Union as New Formalist because of its symmetrical massing and references to classical details in the monumental colonnade, raised base, and cornice. With its exposed concrete, it certainly has been influenced by Brutalist methods, but we believed that the stylistic qualities fell into the classical camp, not the more abstract Brutalist camp. That said, our stylistic terminology for the 1960s and 1970s is still evolving and certainly can’t and shouldn’t be considered gospel. Thanks for this post– very thought-provoking!

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  7. Having studied under professors who all but worshipped John Desmond at LSU I can certainly see the similarities in the two buildings. LSU’s union has grown on me in time and I have come to appreciate its overall design, if not always its exact materials. I haven’t set foot in the Law Center in many years, though I agree that it would be unfortunate to apply a veneer of Corinthian shelf paper to its rugged features.

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  8. I have quite enjoyed all the posts on this particular topic and thanks to suzasippi for sending me on a wild tangent of research in educating myself on brutalist architecture which I have totally been absorbed in for 2 days.
    My fondness for the Lamar building, as well as the Union building stem, simply, from having had them a part of my daily life 20 years ago while I was an Ole Miss student as well as countless and subsequent visits especially in the last year as our son has now begun classes there.
    These buildings, while not as old or beloved as many others on campus, are still a part of the landscape that is the university.
    I come away from my readings on brutalist architecture with a love-hate relationship!

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  1. Project updates from Biloxi « Preservation in Mississippi
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