Why preservation laws will help save Brutalist structures and other “ugly” buildings

You may not like to look at Brutalist buildings but the way preservation law is set up may just ensure the preservation of “ugly” buildings for posterity:

These behemoth structures of Béton brut, most built in the 1960s and ‘70s, are slowly crumbling from wear and disrepair, ignored by communities that no longer want the burden of upkeep of a giant, lifeless rock. But even horrendously ugly and soulless abominations are part of our architectural heritage and need to be preserved for future generations.

Technically, many of them have to be. Their place in history and uniqueness as architectural oddities warrant their preservation from a legal perspective. They satisfy Criteria C for the National Register as having “distinctive design/construction techniques.” They are the pinnacle of High Modernism: the architectural trend that started in the early 20th century with minimalism, Bauhaus, van Der Rohe, on down to Le Corbusier. Defined by sleek lines, little embellishment, and grandiose structure, High Modernism captured the attention of the architectural world at a time when it was eager to embrace something new…

That standard of irreplaceability is a common element for a majority of historic preservation law. Buildings aren’t preserved based on relative maintenance costs or aesthetics but on the merits of originality and historic interest. Whether it be a pre-historic pueblo, Colonial-era slave quarters, World War II Quonset hut, or a Brutalist tower is irrelevant, as long as it fits the designation of being unique and historically relevant. Many iconic, retro-futurist Googie structures have been lost because the streamlined style was representative of lowbrow, vulgar highway culture. In a similar vein, various Classic Revival and Art Nouveau movie theaters were demolished in the years when the ornate flourish of their decaying interiors was simply dismissed as antiquated, gaudy decadence in the post-Depression age…

But preservation law grounded in a sense of historic import and architectural singularity also means that more and more “horrendous” structures will be preserved, that future generations could be punished by the mistakes of the past, possibly as a warning to future architects about the impact of their decisions. The tragic irony being that preservation law, which wasn’t enacted in time to save so many irreplaceable buildings of the past, is now in place to save the least loved outputs of High Modernism and urban renewal.

I don’t know much about the particulars of preservation law but if this is indeed correct, I imagine some people might want to change the law.

I wonder, however, how much of the preservation of a building depends on a critical mass of people wanting to save it. Let’s say preservation law technically says “distinctive” buildings should be preserved but no one speaks up to save Brutalist buildings. Would anyone argue that the law wasn’t followed? Perhaps there are just enough contrarian people or others who appreciate the place of Brutalism in history that this wouldn’t be allowed to happen.

4 thoughts on “Why preservation laws will help save Brutalist structures and other “ugly” buildings

  1. Pingback: Sociology grad student taking photos of Chicago’s demolished buildings | Legally Sociable

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  3. Pingback: If Americans can celebrate and preserve ranch and modernist homes and Brutalist architecture, we can expect to see preserved McMansions | Legally Sociable

  4. Pingback: Paraphrased future: “Love or hate McMansions, the ones in Chicago deserve to be recognized” | Legally Sociable

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