Collegiate brutal: Why brutalist-style buildings are so common on American college campuses

My first day as a student at the University of Utah, I passed through heavy wooden doors and entered the labyrinthine complex of corridors and classrooms where future architects and urban planners learned their craft. It always reminded me of the gatehouse of a medieval castle. It was dark, with most daylight blocked out in much of the building, the recessed incandescents effecting the faint glow of torches. The bare concrete and brick walls were always cold to the touch; it may have been dank were it not for a modern climate-control system. I rather liked it, though I may have been alone in my affection.

Angular, heavy, austere, concrete brutalist buildings are a hallmark of college campuses in the United States. Rare is the campus without at least one of them; rarer still is the one that doesn’t inspire a considerable amount of derision in modern eyes. But why do American universities have so many brutalist buildings?

The reason most commonly given—to prevent student riots and occupations—is in all likelihood an urban legend, writes Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder:

Many campus Brutalist projects were planned (if not totally completed) before the student movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s really took off, so crafty administrators would have to have been very prescient to foresee the countercultural-quashing usefulness of any particular style.

In fact, Mr. Lowder points out, “the philosophy behind Brutalism—which was developed in the ’50s and early ’60s, again well before the student rebellions began—was directly opposed to repression and control, a detail which makes the style’s later association with totalitarianism all the more ironic.”

The real reasons? First, it was modern and vogue, eagerly adopted by universities anxious to “demonstrate their modernity bona fides.” Second, “building in concrete was way, way cheap.”

So, there you have it. University administrators were looking after the bottom line a little more than they were looking to quell student aspirations. Though, as any student who has taken classes in a cold, colorless, concrete brutalist building may tell you, they may have succeeded in doing that, too.

Read more
“Were Brutalist Buildings on College Campuses Really Designed to Thwart Student Riots?” by J. Bryan Lowder
Slate, 18 October 2013

Photo: The Art and Architecture Building at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. Image by Paul Richer/Richer Images via the University of Utah.

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4 thoughts on “Collegiate brutal: Why brutalist-style buildings are so common on American college campuses

    1. No, unfortunately I don’t have any other sources. I’ve studied brutalism only briefly, and what I know about it has mostly been things read in passing. I’ll see if I come up with anything and let you know here if I do.

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