“How The Humanities Building Went Wrong” Or Does Brutalist Architecture Represent Fascist “Institutionalized Tyranny”?

“How The Humanities Building Went Wrong” Or Does Brutalist Architecture Represent Fascist “Institutionalized Tyranny”?

 My freshly arrived Spring 2021 issue of “On Wisconsin,” the alumni magazine of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has an article whose title is the first part of the title above in quotation marks.  The later quotation marks phrase appears in the article, but not the word “fascism.” The article is about a famous but much criticized building on the UW-Madison campus Peter Dorman well knows, long known as the Humanities Building, although renamed the George L. Mosse building in 1999 after the famous history professor of that name who died that year and had give a lot of money to UW, and who, ironically, was not only a refugee from Nazi Germany in the 1930s but would become a famous scholar of fascist culture and its origins.  His name also does not appear in this peculiar article in which the building is always called by its original name, the Humanities building, and until recently it did contains much of both the music and arts schools on campus.  After much criticism over decades, it is now scheduled to be torn down sometime after 2029 and replaced with something else, budgetary considerations depending.

It is indeed considered to be an icon, if flawed and troubled, if the brutalist style of architecture, designed in 1962 by Harry Weese, who would design Washington’s metro stations. By the time it opened on campus in 1969, the year I started grad school thereafter completing undergrad there also, it was already a time when tastes began to change in the midst of anti-war protests and hippies all over the place, with it viewed by some as the article notes as representing “institutionalized tyranny.”  It is large and blocky and concrete and “modern,” with no frills or designs on it, classic modernist brutalism.  Although it turns out that many of the harshest criticisms came because of dysfunctionality arising from budget cuts during its building.  It is horribly energy inefficient, falling apart, leaking toxic chemicals, and numerous other problems.  It is these more than the long-running denunciation of its appearance that is doing it in ultimately.  The article even recognized that it had the potential to be an architecturally great building, especially for those who like that architectural style (as my daughter Sasha does who lives in Madison). I was never all that great of a fan of it, and remembered the nice brick buildings there before it that were in the style of the still-standing University Club.

The question of whether or not brutalism and fascism are linked is not straightforward.  Indeed the architectures have serious similarities, both deriving from a modernist “rationalism” advocated by Le Corbusier, emphasizing simple materials and blocky designs with little implementation, and looking at classic buildings identified as “fascist architecture” in both Italy and Germany, they sure as heck look pretty brutalist to me.  The break is that self-identified brutalist architecture came after the war with no direct link, the term first applied in Swedish in 1960 to a brick building in Uppsala, the Villa Goth. Then it appeared in 1953 in Britain, where the term and concept took off, although soon spreading to the US and Brazil and some other locations, with its heyday probably the latemid-1950s through the 1960s, although some famous brutalist buildings continued to go up for some time after that. Many of the most famous such buildings were built by governments at some level or other around the world, with the Boston City Hall a classic example.

Curiously one thing former President Trump did was to issue a ban on building any US government buildings in that style, with the FBI HQ an example.  He insisted all should follow the “classical” style many in Washington follow.  However, that is apparently one of the many orders he issued that is being undone by the succeeding Biden administration.

A part of my bringing this up is that I have long been curious about how tastes change. In the 1950s and early 1960s in Madison and in some other places, Victorian architecture was considered to be awful, “an eyesore” or “outrageous.” There were moves to tear down such buildings, with an especially famous case being a move to tear down Alexander Hall on the Princeton University campus.  That and some others were blocked, with Victorian architecture back to being admired and respected. The idea that Alexander Hall was something to be torn down is itself now considered “outrageous.” But those leading such charges tended to be modernist advocates of brutalist architecture, which itself is now getting viewed harshly and getting torn down, although in the case of the George L. Mosse Humanities building in Madison this may ultimately be due more to its dysfunctionality than its architecture. A further irony of the official name of the building is that apparently Mosse himself did not like the building, but it was known he had a sense of humor, so it was viewed that he would appreciate having it named for himself despite his dislike of the building.

I am looking at these matters of taste as we are right now in the midst of another round of shifts cutting across many things, names of buildings, children’s literature, and more, where things long in place are being removed or changed.  This is now being driven by politics, opposition to racism in particular, if not necessarily to fascism per se. It started with the moves to remove Confederate statues, especially in my current state of Virginia, with the uproar in Charlottesville in August, 2017 over a statue of Robert E. Lee arguably the opening shot of the new round.  This has since moved on to Dr. Seuss books and much else.

I find myself unable to determine where the line is.  So I support changing names of buildings from those for people involved in the Confederacy and the removal of their statues from public places.  But I also think this can go too far.  I find myself opposing the renaming of a high school in San Francisco that was named for Abraham Lincoln. Hey, he was the leader of the anti-slavery side in the Civil War! But that is being done because he approved of the killing of Native Americans at one point, although the details of that matter are rather complicated.  There is a push to rename anything named for a slave owner, but most of the Founding Fathers of the US were slave owners, including notably Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. We even have the hard case of Benjamin Franklin, who owned slaves for a period of time, but in later life became a leading abolitionist, arguably the most influential one of his day, probably convincing John Adams to support it, the only one of the really top Founding Fathers not to have owned slaves and thus to be “safe” and PC and all that. I do not know what the boundaries are.

This is an issue on my campus, which is indeed named for one of those slave-owning Founding Fathers, James Madison, “Father of the Constitution,” as well as fourth president (not all that good of a one, to be frank, see War of 1812 and British burning the Capitol and the White House). On our campus there are three buildings that had been named for Confederate figures: Jackson, Ashby, and Maury.  Those buildings have been renamed, all for African Americans, one of them for two current faculty members with whom I am good friends, another of whom just died shortly after this decision was made. A new dormitory has been built named for Madison’s most famous slave, Paul Jennings.  But there is no move to rename the university.  We shall still be James Madison University, at least for now.

And I am unaware of us having any notorious brutalist buildings that need to be taken down either.

Barkley Rosser