Toward the back of the UC Berkeley campus is a building that is storied for its utter, hideous ugliness. It is called Wurster Hall, and was designed in the aptly-named “brutalist” style. It is, astonishingly, the place that the University trains architects.
During a recent visit to the campus with a couple friends, I remarked to my companions that it looked like the place where– a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away– Dark Lords of the Sith were trained.
Part of what makes Wurster’s ugliness so shocking is that it is situated on a campus with some of the most beautiful buildings on any campus in the United States.
The Doe Library, for example, sits toward the center of campus, and was and is one of the gems of the classical revival style, and reminds me very much of some of the surviving Imperial Period buildings I’ve visited in Italy.
The style Wurster was built in, the previously-mentioned “brutalism,” was a development of modernist architecture that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s (Wurster was built in 1964.) The style was named for the French phrase béton brut, or “raw concrete,” which pioneering French modernist architect Le Corbusier used to describe his preferred material.
According to the Wikipedia article on Brutalism:
“The term “brutalism” was originally coined by the Swedish architect Hans Asplund to describe Villa Göth in Uppsala, designed in 1949 by his contemporaries Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm. He originally used the Swedish-language term nybrutalism (new brutalism), which was picked up by a group of visiting English architects, including Michael Ventris. In England, the term was further adopted by architects Alison and Peter Smithson. The term gained wide currency when the British architectural historian Reyner Banham used it in the title of his 1966 book, ‘The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?,’ to characterise a somewhat recently established cluster of architectural approaches, particularly in Europe.
“The best known proto Brutalist architecture is the work of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, in particular his 1952 Unité d’Habitation and the 1953 Secretariat Building (Palace of Assembly) in Chandigarh, India. Brutalism gained considerable momentum in the United Kingdom during the mid-twentieth century, as economically depressed (and World War II-ravaged) communities sought inexpensive construction and design methods for low-cost housing, shopping centres, and government buildings. Nonetheless, many architects chose the Brutalist style even when they had large budgets, as they appreciated the ‘honesty’, the sculptural qualities, and perhaps, the uncompromising, anti-bourgeois, nature of the style.
“Combined with the socially progressive intentions behind Brutalist streets in the sky housings such as Corbusier’s Unité, Brutalism was promoted as a positive option for forward-moving, modern urban housing.”
There was apparently a Great Cement Surplus in the middle years of the last century, and thus reinforced concrete became the go-to material for public buildings.
While brutalism is not my favorite style, the problem with Wurster is not brutalism, per se. I’ve seen brutalist buildings that actually kind of work. Done right, brutalism can have a certain austere appeal.
For example, the Pacific Heights campus of the California Pacific Medical Center in Pacific Heights in San Francisco is not an unattractive building. There is a harmonious proportioning and skillful use of massing, texture and rhythm that adds up to a building that projects a kind of space-age monasticism.
Closer to home, the JFK Library in Vallejo is actually one of my favorite buildings in that struggling city. The library itself occupies its site beautifully, with leafy courtyards on several levels, giving it an almost Zen-like grace and serenity. In fact, it reminds me of some of the ancient Zen temples in Kyoto, Japan.
Wurster has none of those virtues. It is everything people hate about brutalism – in its worst, it comes off as heavy, despotic, soulless, and bereft of any sense of the feminine.
Even at the level of functionality – one of the main selling points for modernism – Wurster doesn’t really work very well. The west-facing studios can be oven-hot on late spring afternoons (a dubious achievement in fog-beset Berkeley) and the rooms on the north side of the building can be dank and bone-chilling even in high summer.
The advent of brutalism coincided with a baby-boom-related frenzy of building on college campuses, and virtually every University of consequence in the United States has at least two or three brutalist buildings from that period, and virtually all of them are loathed by a majority of students. It has occurred to me that the sudden rash of illicit drug use by college students in the 1960s is contemporaneous with these buildings showing up on campuses.
If I were forced to learn about beauty in a building like Wurster, I can understand the temptation to use a chemical means of escaping the contradictory absurdity of that undertaking.
Matt Talbot is a writer and poet, as well as an old Benicia hand.