The Architecture Courtyard:
A Semester’s Watch of Unseen Space
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With a name like Brutalism, it’s easy to believe that everything you ought to know about the movement is already inscribed in its name. The movement actually derived its name from the French term béton brut, or “raw concrete,” coined by the famous French architect Le Corbusier. From brut, or “raw,” came brutalisme came our English translation “Brutalism.”
The Architecture (ARCH) Building at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City was designed as part of the Brutalist movement of the 1950s and 1960s. When it was finished in 1970 by the local firm Edwards and Daniels Architects, it was heralded as an architectural masterpiece around the state and nation. It has received many awards and prestigious designations. But that hasn’t kept it from feeling like a cave to me. One commentator recently referred to it as an “agora of lost souls.” It’s ironic that the home of a university’s architecture program could be so unsightly and so unwelcoming. It’s the antithesis of what aspiring architecture students are striving to design, to build, to embody in their work.
This concern with community well-being is perhaps the source of my criticism—and probably most of my urban planning peers’ criticism—of the ARCH Building. I wonder how its dreary façades and somber attitude can foster a productive learning environment. In its role within our community of learners, I wonder who and how it serves. When my urban planning professor, Michael Larice, mentioned during my first semester that the building was part of the Brutalist movement, my impulse was to snort: “Yeah, it is.” But that moment temporarily shut down my openness to learning more about my new academic home and why it is misunderstood, why it is neglected by its planners, why it is misrepresented. With this in mind, I set out to resituate my approach to the ARCH Building, to reconceptualize it and consider its current place within the broader campus fabric.
While my urban planning program (City & Metropolitan Planning) is housed in the U’s ARCH Building and has been combined with the architecture program into a College (of Architecture + Planning), the two disciplines are motivated by very different mindsets. Architects and planners certainly share a common interest in built space, but fundamentally, isn’t an interest in shelter common to the whole of humanity? A longstanding point of contention between the two disciplines has centered more around approach. Architecture concentrates on individual creation, while urban planning is oriented toward community-building.
Of course, history is full of urban planners who have neglected their community-building imperative, exchanging it in pursuit of personal gain and glory. Robert Moses, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, even Hubert Lyautey, advanced personal interests to the detriment of others and today receive mixed regard within the field. This history of poor judgment on the part of planners combined with faltering public confidence in the planning profession during the latter half of the 20th century spurred the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) on March 19, 2005 to adopt its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, with a formal list of tenets to which professional planners hold themselves:
Our Overall Responsibility to the Public:
The Code institutionalized urban planners’ commitment to their communities and launched the initiative to promote and sustain an American planning culture centered on the whole. I have yet to attend a semester of planning school where the Code isn’t required reading.
Today, the ARCH Building is still regarded for the space it provides to its students, faculty, and staff. Its studios and galleries continue to provide design spaces where its users can generate new ideas to put on display. However, the cavernous darkness that consumes its lower levels and the gloominess of its other spaces don’t exactly invite different visitors to linger and socialize. When the planning department reserves course space in rooms in the newer, airier, and natural light-filled Business and Law buildings, it doesn’t take long before jaded planning students start muttering, “Why isn’t the Architecture building like this?”
Far short of aiming to massacre the senses of those who dare to enter its edifices, Brutalist structures find their roots in a yearning to intersect life’s rawest needs with the earth’s raw materiality. Originally “wrought in a democratic, antihierarchical aesthetic,” however, recent historians “detect in Brutalism the stirrings of critical regionalism, for which concrete proved a remarkable conduit of local symbols, forms, materials (a common technique was to incorporate crushed local stone in the aggregate), and, crucially, unskilled labor.” Like any planned space, different interpretations arise to become part of a space’s evolution and even survival: whether it will be sustained, renovated, or demolished.
The more time that I have spent in this space, the more that I detect these sensory attributes through my presence. In witnessing movement, in seeing how people behave when they believe they aren’t being watched, in tasting something as simple as a potato chip or scattering breadcrumbs for birds, I begin to grasp that this place—in spite of its flaws—is inhabited by the senses experienced within it, by conversations had in it, by felt satisfactions and dissatisfactions, memories and reinterpretations. In The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, David Haskell writes: “My watch . . . has [made me] realize that we create wonderful places by giving them our attention, not by finding ‘pristine’ places that will bring wonder to us.” By the end of my semester, I realized that I had spent so much time looking at the building that I had overlooked the space around it and its connections to my own commitments, including Dark Sky Studies. Even as I spent weeks investigating my site, I kept returning to the building’s Brutalism and neglected to see the courtyard’s opening: to the sky.
~ Nathan Jellen (Spring 2018)
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For further reading:
“AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.” American Institute of Certified Planners. 2016. www.planning.org.
Edwards, Dalton. “Beware the Wicked Halls of LNCO.” Daily Utah Chronicle. Salt Lake City: August 15, 2016.
Haskell, David. The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature. London: Penguin Books, 2013.
Medina, Samuel. “The Rough Stuff.” Metropolis Magazine. April 2018.
“U of U Arts & Architecture Building.” Edwards and Daniels Architects. 2018. www.edaarch.com.
Van Der Ryn, Sim, and Cowan, Stuart. Ecological Design. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2007.