The Rising Threat Against Brutalist Buildings

A classic Brutalist building by Paul Rudolph is under threat of demolition in Boston, becoming the latest in a spate of concrete structures facing the wrecking ball.

The Charles F. Hurley Building designed by Paul Rudolph in Boston. Photography by Gunnar Klack/Flickr

Brutalist structures around the world are being torn down at a rapid pace, from the scheduled demolition of Kenzo Tange’s stacked Kuwait Embassy in Tokyo to Tunisia’s striking upside-down Hôtel du Lac by Raffaele Contigiani that’s rumored to have inspired Star Wars. Paul Rudolph’s buildings have come under target specifically—in the past couple years, both the Burroughs Wellcome headquarters in North Carolina and the Shoreline Apartments in Buffalo were razed, while the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York, was disfigured thanks to the completion of a drastically incongruous addition next door. Now, the Modernist architect’s Government Services Center in Boston—particularly the Charles F. Hurley Building—is facing a similar fate.

According to Chris Grimley, a Boston-based designer, curator, and author, the site never quite reached its full potential. Writing for the Architect’s Newspaper, he explains how a “stagnant air” hung around the complex thanks to an unbuilt tower that would’ve provided a helpful anchor, how it has long suffered from deferred maintenance and active neglect, and how nearby public plazas were converted to parking lots. 

The Charles F. Hurley Building designed by Paul Rudolph in Boston. Photography by Kelvin Dickinson, courtesy The Estate of Paul Rudolph, The Paul Rudolph Institute for Modern Architecture

In 2019, Boston officials agreed on a redevelopment plan with one drawback—the Hurley Building would be sacrificed. The decision provoked an outcry from preservationists, who noted the significance of Rudolph’s structures and the Constantino Nivola murals that hang in the Hurley Building’s lobby. “Architectural ambition and development shouldn’t be seen as mutually exclusive concerns,” Grimley writes, praising the value of an eclectic city. “Such an outlook celebrates all elements of urban history, including those we don’t particularly find beautiful, for as history suggests, standards of beauty are not fixed in place but oscillate over time—Victorian architecture was despised, then loved, just as so-called ‘concrete monsters’ are now admirable Brutalist avatars.”

So why is Brutalist architecture under constant threat? There’s no easy answer. While films such as “A Clockwork Orange” turned Brutalist sites into dystopian symbols and helped the style fall out of favor by the 1970s, theorists suggest there’s an association between the style and left-leaning social policies, sparking opposition from the right. “There are some very, very visible manifestations of the welfare state in Brutalist architecture,” historian and author Barnabas Calder tells Dezeen, pointing to London’s social housing complex Trellick Tower and Southbank Centre, a public art hub on the Thames. He further suggests that former U.S. President Donald Trump’s failed “Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture” was a direct attack on the style, though it never banned Brutalism outright.

The former Burroughs Wellcome building designed by Paul Rudolph in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina

Political ideologies aside, many Brutalist structures are crumbling due to cheap materials and decades of neglect. Many are in desperate need of refurbishment, which developers often shy away from funding, favoring new and more lucrative construction. Unsightly brown stains often scar the raw concrete—a result of metal reinforcements rusting from within—and frequently land Brutalist structures on “world’s ugliest buildings” lists. Their stark rectangular forms, cavernous interiors, inhuman scales, and colorless exteriors can often feel dehumanizing, overbearing, and depressing. 

Though public opinion on Brutalism has softened in recent years (thanks to hulking tomes, meme sites, and museum interest) and campaigns have emerged in the style’s defense, it still hasn’t staved off the wrecking ball. The critic Kate Wagner even called Rudolph one of America’s “unluckiest architects,” writing that “the court of public opinion has no say over the rule of the wallet, and even the success of a decade-long campaign to recuperate Brutalism from the trash heap of history” likely won’t generate enough momentum to save some of the style’s most beloved buildings. 

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