Brutalism and Internationalism: How They Relate to the Lansing Area
How Two Major Architectural Styles Impacted mid-Michigan
Brutalism and Internationalism were two architectural styles from the preceding century that had a major impact on worldwide cultures. They had outstanding practitioners as well as their share of critics. Brutalism seems to be something of a misnomer, while Internationalism was more generally accepted in more cultures, hence the name. Although they have now largely passed into the annals of architectural history, they may make a comeback someday, as for example in the revivalist mode. The well known Gothic Revival in America in the 1800's comes to mind. Each was so important in its own right that they merit individual attention. This article attempts to examine them in the context of their periods and to link them to the Lansing, Michigan cultural timeline.
The term "Brutalism" has its roots in early Modernist architecture from the beginning of the previous century. It was employed in schools and apartment buildings, among many other uses. Raw concrete was the primary building material, although others were also attempted. It was extremely functional, and obviously was unadorned. It flourished from approximately 1951 to 1975. However, through the years since its heyday, it seems to have taken on a rather derogatory connotation. Such perfectly good everyday edifices as telephone company buildings, airport structures and grain silos and terminals have all been tagged (or stigmatized) with the designation brutal. Instead of plain, functional or utilitarian, they are lumped together as brutal. Such a name can only serve to plant a somewhat sinister linkage in the popular mindset. Should such an architectural style return in the future, it will have to fight upstream against the public current of resistance.
Internationalism is a more broadly applicable style than Brutalism. It grew out of modernistic tendencies in the 1920's and since. It featured a blending of inner and outer materials and appearances. It also made free use of aluminum and glass, freeing up the outer structure of buildings from the burden of carrying the load and permitted the evolution of the "curtain wall system." Leading practitioners included Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson and Walter Gropius, among others. Such outstanding examples as the Seagram Building, the MetLife Building (formerly Pan Am) both in New York, and Johnson's own glass box house in New Canaan, Connecticut are all notable specimens of this seminal style. Indeed, the International Style might have been the last word in modern architecture had there not evolved a growing reaction against it. In the early 1970's, there emerged a need to get away from the" glass box" style and to advance into other more experimental geometric forms, such as pyramids, cylinders, octagons and even inverted trapezoids as expressions of this sublimated urge. Such more recent examples as the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, the Detroit Renaissance Center and Pennzoil Plaza in Houston all come to mind. The minimalist inclination of the Internationalist architects was soundly renounced by Philip Johnson himself with the AT&T Building in New York in 1984, with its unique Chippendale cabinet top. This structure was actually inspired by a piece of dining room furniture! As Internationalism waned by the 1970's and 1980's, a new style was born: Postmodernism.
How They Relate to Lansing
Lansing is no stranger to these national and internationalist trends. Such fine local examples as the Lansing City Hall, the George Nelson Building and the AT&T Building on Washington Square are all outstanding representatives of both Brutalism and Internationalism. The Lansing City Hall combines both civic awareness and International style with its curtain wall exteriors. The George Nelson Building makes use of a blend of materials, including stone, wood and glass to present a unified street façade. This building was also the former home of the Lansing Art Gallery, a showcase for local talent, which has since moved further down the square. In addition, George Nelson was also an interior furniture designer, and contributed two pieces to Internationalism, the marshmallow sofa and the coconut chair! The AT&T Building reflects unabashed brutalism on its Washington Square side, although it has older components facing Capitol Avenue.
Will They Ever Return?
It is impossible to say if these two mid-century styles will ever return in the foreseeable future. World architecture still seems enamored of the postmodern influence, and it shows no signs of abating. However, all things come to an end and it is entirely feasible that they will see a revival if an urge for plain geometry and pure functionalism, not to mention a fondness for raw concrete returns. Brutalism seems to be too strong a term for this concrete-accented simplicity, although it has its uses. The great Venetian humanist and Renaissance man, Alberti, once described architecture as "frozen music." And so it is, but it all depends on where on the scale one stops the score. Brutalism and Internationalism were two trends that helped to mirror and redefine Twentieth-Century architecture, and had a role to play in Lansing as well.