Modernist Architectural Behemothology

March 11, 2010 § 6 Comments

Years ago, I lived in Vancouver, perhaps once the greatest example of Modernist architecture in Canada, if not North America.  Vancouver is the city that unleashed architect Arthur Erickson on the world.  Sadly, Erickson died last spring.  Yet, Erickson’s buildings live on in Vancouver, especially his modernist designs, most notably Simon Fraser University in suburban Vancouver (where I completed my MA), and the Canadian Embassy in DC.

Indeed, one of my favourite architecture books is Rhodri Windsor Liscombe’s The New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver, 1939-1963.  Modernist buildings haven’t really stood the test of time, I have to say, especially those designed to look like concrete bunkers, such as the Canadian Embassy.  SFU is one of the most depressing places in the world on a cloudy, rainy day atop Burnaby Mountain.  Unfortunately, it is often rainy and cloudy atop Burnaby Mountain.  University campuses across North America are dotted with modernist buildings, as the great boom of construction on these campuses came at the height of modernism in the post-War era.  In many instances, modernist behemoths look as if they were dropped into more classical settings, such is the case of Student Center Building at the University of Masscachusetts, Amherst.  In the picture below, you can see those older, classic buildings scattered around the Student Center and the residence towers behind it.

So pervasive is modernist architecture on campuses that it is oftentimes pejoratively referred to as “Neo-Brutalist” architecture.  Indeed, buildings such as the Student Center, or the entire Burnaby Mountain campus of SFU, re-enforce this.  The buildings are concrete, massive, and imposing.  Inside, there is a lot of dark browns, dark woods, and black.  Gloomy is about the only way to describe these interiors.

Long and short, the term “Neo-Brutalist” quite often fits, not that there aren’t some beautiful modernist buildings to be found, such as Vancouver’s old BC Hydro Building, which has since been condofied, or MOntréal’s Palais de Congrès.

But, despite this, I can’t help but chuckle when I read stories like this one in the Globe & Mail yesterday, about the Public Safety Building in Winnipeg.

This particular behemoth, built in 1966, is a textbook case of Neo-Brutalist Behemothology.  Frequently the several hundred employees of the Winnipeg Police Force are required to vacate the building because of noxious fumes that waft up into the building.  This happens frequently, apparently.  This time it required the Hazmat to come.  The PSB is built out of

brittle Tyndall limestone, hasn’t held up against Winnipeg’s climate. Dozens of steel brackets cling to the building’s exterior like Band-Aids, preventing the facade from avalanching into the street. A $98,000 awning encircles the building, stopping pieces of the gaudy structure from braining pedestrians.

And this is the crux of the problem with many Neo-Brutalist behemoths, from SFU to Montréal’s legendary Stade Olympique, known in English as the “Big O”, or more fittingly, the “Big Owe,” as it took 30 years for the city to pay off its legacy from the 1976 Summer Olympics, by which time the Expos had decamped for Washington and the Alouettes had been re-born in McGill University’s quaint Molson Stadium at the foot of Mont-Royal.  But the Big Owe and the PSB, and SFU, for that matter, all have something in common.  The materials used to build them aren’t all that well-suited to the climate they are in.  Hence, the PSB is falling apart, the Big O has had large slabs of concrete fall off it, and SFU, well, that much concrete in a rain forest isn’t the best idea, either.

But the bigger question is what to do with these buildings, especially those that are falling apart or being abandoned, as is the case with the PSB.  Urban preservationists in Winnipeg argue that the PSB is worth saving,

According to University of Winnipeg Art Historian, Serena Keshavjee,

It’s not a love-hate relationship people have with these buildings; it’s just hate.  People grew up with these buildings and don’t see them as heritage buildings, but the same thing happened 40 years ago with Victoria structures.

Had we ripped out every Victorian building in the country we would be very sorry these days,” she said. “And these are the times when they become vulnerable. The country is coming out of recession and people are gearing up to tear things down.

UW historian David Burley echoes, arguing that modernism

reflects a time when the federal government lavished money on public projects and Canadian pride soared ahead of Expo 67 and the centennial. “It was a nationwide movement,” he said. “There was this great optimism. The central parts of cities had deteriorated and there was a sense it was time to redevelop things.”

Personally, I’m not so sure that a modernist building is worth saving just because of its own merits.  A building like the PSB is an ugly imposition on the urban landscape.  Buildings like it seem to mock their landscapes, they don’t fit in, they crush them, they impose upon them.  They belittle us.  Of course, granted, that’s the point with a police station, or at least it was in the 1960s.  But that doesn’t mean a building should be saved just because it’s old.  Sometimes, old things are just junk.  And the PSB is an example of that.


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§ 6 Responses to Modernist Architectural Behemothology

  • sean says:

    Your picture of UMASS Amherst is described slightly incorrectly, the tower complex behind the student cnter, the big white one, is the Lederle graduate research facility and the conte polymer research facility, the brick buildings to the right of this tower are residences. The 5 tower residences you are thinking of are also modernist in design but are in the other direction, along with the 28 story library. I’m currently in lederle overlooking out beautiful campus and felt you should know. Thanks!

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      colour me embarrassed, i was actually sitting in the dubois library when i wrote that piece. it grew out of that horrible psb in winnipeg, but i just couldn’t resist when i looked out the window at the campus center. umass is such a beautiful campus, but that neo-brutalist architecture is just so jarring, but, i suppose every university campus in north america is like that. thanks.

  • E A M Harris says:

    A very interesting write up. Personally I praise the architects of the time for trying something new in design and materials. I’m sure later buildings have benefitted from the experience. I think that at least some of them are worth preserving, but as with all heritage preservation, someone has to make a choice as to what. Now is the time for this to be done – before all of them are pulled/fall down.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      I agree, there is a lot to be gained from neo-Brutalist institutional architecture, in terms of the influence on later buildings, both as an evolution as well as a complete repudiation. However, buildings like the PSB in Winnipeg are just vile and ugly and have no real merit to them, especially with the noxious fumes and whatnot. Other neo-brutalist behemoths, like the Hall Building at Concordia University in Montréal (, do have architectural and historical merit.

      But as with all attempts at heritage, despite being a public historian, I am not of the opinion that just because something is old it’s necessarily worth saving which is, I think, the knee-jerk reaction of many preservationists and academics.

  • […] buildings in the downtown core of Montréal.  Built in a neo-brutalist style usually reserved for university campuses, the Queen Elizabeth is nonetheless the swishest hotel in Montréal.  It is also the largest hotel […]

  • […] abomination.  University campuses are particularly good examples of brutalism, as I have noted elsewhere on this […]

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