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Growing Up in a Concrete Masterpiece


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Un bel article pour tous ceux qui déteste le préfab!

Growing Up in a Concrete Masterpiece


Habitat’s boxlike apartments of cast concrete, shown in 2006. The complex was designed for Expo 67, the Montreal world’s fair. CreditYannick Grandmont for The New York Times

Anyone whose childhood included a move up to a new, better home remembers it as grander than it was.

When I was 5, I saw our new home as extending endlessly in every direction. It soared above a vast, churning river on one side and a hectic port on the other. It was exactly the building my kindergarten self would have built, stacking blocks to the verge of collapse. Its pleasures left me breathless the first day I woke up there and most mornings after.

In my case, this memory of relocation is not overblown. My parents moved us from Philadelphia to Montreal in 1968, into a housing complex called Habitat, which had been completed the previous summer as the experimental housing pavilion for Expo 67, the Montreal world’s fair.

Built on a spit of land separating the rapids of the great St. Lawrence River from the working waters of Montreal’s port, Habitat’s 158 apartments fill 365 cast-concrete boxes, piled 11 stories high in a madcap mess of cantilevers and bridges and perilous open spaces — like (guess what) a stack of children’s blocks. For sheer sensory excitement, Habitat could not and cannot be matched. Every minute in the building felt unlike the next, as space, light, air and sound danced around you. My parents built a jungle-gym on one of our terraces, but the building was the best climbing frame of all.

Habitat turns 50 this spring, and its excellence is being celebrated well beyond my family. Canada’s post office has just announced a Habitat stamp, the first in a series for the nation’s 150th birthday.

In June a major exhibition on the structure, now declared a historic monument, opens at the Centre de design de l’UQAM in Montreal. The show will include public tours of a Habitat apartment restored to its original space-age state, with fiberglass bathrooms cast in one piece and futuristic push-button light switches — one white dot for “on” and a black one for “off.” (By some weird coincidence, the apartment being toured this summer is the same one I grew up in.)

Habitat is a prime example of our postwar love of raw concrete architecture. For a little while, from the late 1950s to the early ’70s, concrete seemed to be the civic, public alternative to the steel and glass buildings that represented the corporate world, Mad Men-slick and meant to sell us on the polished ease of the capitalist way, reflected back and forth across the hall of mirrors of New York’s Park Avenue.

Poured concrete, in contrast, was honest and audacious in avowing its bulk, primeval and pretense-free for an age that still doubted the perfection of the new corporate model and sometimes pushed back against it. It became the preferred material for libraries, universities and courts, in a style that has now come to be known as Brutalism.

But after flourishing for those few years, these concrete buildings began to be described as simply brutal, and in recent years many have been demolished. The American Press Institute’s building in Reston, Va., designed by the great Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, who was also responsible for the former Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue in New York, was destroyed last year.

The Art and Architecture Building at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. CreditAndrew Henderson for The New York Times

The Third Church of Christ, Scientist, one of the few notable buildings near the White House, was torn down in 2014, even though it had once been described by the architectural historian Richard Longstreth as “an enduring monument to the human faith in God and the extraordinary power with which that faith can be expressed.” But the church’s parishioners didn’t share his faith in Brutalism and started describing their home as a “bunker”— the standard insult that just about every cast-concrete building has suffered at one time or another. (“How do you live with all that cement,” my schoolmates would ask. “With delight” was the only answer. They understood once they visited.)

If only those Brutalist structures could have held on just a bit longer. The style’s charms are being rediscovered. If it is true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Habitat’s concrete should be blushing.

“In the schools, you see that the students are into it again,” said Moshe Safdie, Habitat’s designer, speaking by phone from his firm’s offices near Boston. “Several of my peers are doing buildings influenced by it.”

Mr. Safdie is now one of the world’s leading architects, but he conceived of his Expo project while still a student at McGill University. He was all of 28 when it opened. He said that after a 50-year career spent designing institutions (the Crystal Bridges museum in Arkansas is a recent standout), contracts for housing are pouring in for the first time, “and it’s completely linked to people’s interest in Habitat.” His student project, he said, feels “as though it was built yesterday.”

Its current imitators seem to agree. A vast new complex planned for downtown Toronto, with a haphazard-looking stack of blocky modules, is utterly indebted to the Safdie building. Its cutting-edge architect, Bjarke Ingels of Denmark, has referred to it as “Habitat 2.0” and he ended a recent speech with an admission of influence that is rare in his profession: “Canada started something 50 years ago. Now we are picking up where Moshe Safdie left off.”

In just the last few years, books on vintage poured-concrete buildings have started to appear faster than they can be read. Walking tours of Brutalist masterpieces, in cities around the world, are now competing with ones that point out Victorian terra cotta and Art Deco metalwork.

Last fall, a British publishing house called Blue Crow Media added a “Brutalist Washington” map to a series that includes maps of Brutalism in London, Paris and Sydney, Australia. The one on Washington, D.C., was the brainchild of a local writer named Deane Madsen, a fan of postwar concrete who was also aware of the abuse it still suffers. “I’d seen so many lists of the least popular and ugliest buildings in D.C., and almost all were Brutalist,” said Mr. Madsen in a recent phone call.

His map applauds concrete buildings like the cylindrical Hirshhorn Museum, once reviled but now widely admired, and the block-spanning F.B.I. headquarters, still so disliked that its demolition seems almost certain.

We’ve lived to regret such destruction before, the standard cautionary tale being New York’s Pennsylvania Station. It fell in 1963 when it was seen as an outdated 50-year-old. (“Not, architecturally, a monument,” was the judgment of the real estate developer Irving M. Felt, whose Madison Square Garden replaced the station. The New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp agreed, writing in 2006 that pulling in there was like “arriving in Philadelphia two hours before you had to.”) Penn Station fell at precisely the moment when its out-of-date architecture was beginning to find some new love — it was mourned almost at once — just as Brutalist buildings are doing on their 50th birthdays.

The Third Church of Christ, Scientist, near the White House, was torn down in 2014.CreditStephen Crowley/The New York Times

Mr. Madsen, the Washington writer, has a theory about why vintage concrete is making a comeback at this particular moment: For all the challenges Brutalism can pose to some users, he said, its bold forms and highly textured surfaces make it utterly camera-friendly, perfect fare for our Instagram age. What was once a highly theorized Architecture of Truth, with profound social goals and implications, has come to be loved as a pure aesthetic. Passing time has made it trade complexity and depth for a wider surface appeal.

That means Brutalism is suffering (or enjoying) the same fate as most modern movements. The Impressionism of Claude Monet, once derided as incomprehensibly ugly and abstruse, now counts as evidently and simply attractive; the Pop Art of Andy Warhol, originally seen as utterly conceptual and counteraesthetic, now decorates strollers. With our new love of cast concrete, it looks as if we’ve learned to see the beauty in what once counted as bleak.

A few weeks ago, the United States Commission of Fine Arts, a body normally busy with our capital’s neo-Classical-style monuments, chastised Washington’s transportation authority for painting the concrete in one of its 1970s Metro stations. The commission complained that the paint threatened “the architectural character of this exemplary transit system” (exemplary, it so happens, for its Brutalism).

My Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in New York is known for its ornate Victorian tenements, now beloved for the very curlicues that once won them abuse. A new kind of ornament is joining them: On a prime lot at Ninth Avenue and 42nd Street, near Times Square, a generic skyscraper that would once have been faced in clichéd glass or metal has instead been surfaced in raw concrete — which now, but only now, counts as a suitably decorative finish for a building that will house a trendy Pod hotel.

Just up the street on 10th Avenue, ground has been cleared for a condo building that takes its Brutalist roots more to heart. It will be faced in precast concrete panels designed to have some of the same visual texture and complexity as its most photogenic postwar ancestors, including Habitat.

That’s because the new building’s architect, Jonathan J. Marvel, has been a fan of Moshe Safdie’s for far longer than most of his peers. In another of this article’s peculiar coincidences, Mr. Marvel actually visited Habitat the year it was born, when he was all of 7. (He had been brought to Expo for the debut of a second great building there: the American Pavilion’s giant geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller, Mr. Marvel’s great-uncle.)

“I grew up with cast concrete on my brain,” Mr. Marvel said. It was a favorite material of his father’s, one of Puerto Rico’s leading architects. He also has memories of a hillside in San Juan scattered with unused concrete boxes from a second Habitat that Mr. Safdie never got the chance to complete.

“I’ve been thinking about Habitat for a long, long time,” Mr. Marvel said. But until now, he had encountered resistance to echoing it, among clients for whom Brutalism still evoked ideas of the brutal. (The style’s name in fact comes from béton brut, the neutral French term for “raw concrete.”) Mr. Marvel counts it a privilege to be working at a moment when it’s finally possible to pay homage to one of the great buildings of our recent past.

“Habitat is absolutely fantastic, and daring, and cool,” he said.

Anyone who has lived there would agree.

Edited by Mondo_Grosso
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