Church Street & Thomas Street

5 Jul

Writing my post for last week I came across the style of architecture known as brutalism. I’d never heard of it before and holy shit! Am I in ecstasy over this stuff, or am I horrified? I’m pretty much in ecstasy, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a caring person. It’s not really the appearance of these buildings that does it for me, so much as the way of thinking they epitomize. The way they stand as such concrete manifestations of an abstract thought. But who the hell am I kidding? The appearance kind of blows my mind as well. Imagine someone reading 1984 as an architectural guideline, and maybe failing to pick up on anything else. “Yeah, we need these public and government buildings to be totally soul-crushing and alienating, and also to look like they’re from the future, because after all, we’re doing this for the benefit of mankind.” Mankind as opposed to simply man, woman, child, the individual. I don’t know, pigeons probably like them. Looks like there’s a lot of eaves to hide out from the rain.

It makes sense that brutalism grew out of Europe in the 1950s (and took its name from the French beton brut, or raw concrete). After having blown themselves all to hell in the decade before they probably didn’t see much incentive in building anything beautiful, or expensive. The glorified bunker look might have seemed more appropriate. And the clear science-fiction inspiration must have marked the recognition that an era was over – the end of European civilization? In a certain cultural sense maybe. Grey skies and a steady drizzle. Great Britain in the 1950s must have been a pretty dismal place. No wonder everyone went so nutty for the Beatles!

So yeah, the general warmth of reception for these buildings hasn’t grown any better over the years. One exception seems to be the former AT&T Long Lines Building on Thomas Street and Church Street. It was completed in 1974, built to house the telephone exchange center for AT&T’s long distance lines. Since it was going to house more machinery than people, the emphasis was placed on size (18 foot ceilings) and security. It didn’t need things like windows or decorations on its concrete slab facade. It’s been described as one of the most secure buildings in America, designed to survive a nuclear fallout for up to two weeks. And it’s generally been praised, more than reviled. The New York Times has noted how gracefully it blends into its surroundings. And they’re actually right. Despite how dizzying it feels up close, there is something almost subtle about it the further away you get.  It’s an easy behemoth to miss.

But up close it’s a different story. I can’t help but think of “Desolation Row” (but then again I’m always just a thought away from Dylan). Specifically this verse, which I’d rather sing to you then write down now:

Now at midnight all the agents

And the superhuman crew

Come out and round up everyone

That knows more than they do

Then they bring them to the factory

Where the heart-attack machine

Is strapped across their shoulders

And then the kerosene

Is brought down from the castles

By insurance men who go

Check to see that nobody is escaping

To Desolation Row

It’s all there in this building—the castle, the factory, the agents and the superhuman crew, the insurance men—standing watch over our desolation.  Someday I assume spaceships will be flying out of those giant air vents at the top. And by the way, how funny is it that I can write “spaceship” and people actually know what I am talking about? Like, that’s actually a word, an object that exists. Can’t we just think of these things, without really trying to invent them? I guess that’s why brutalism blows my mind—we actually went and made buildings that look like this! Why? Certain people must have thought the world was going to end soon, so why not? Certain other people must have not been thinking about that at all. David Berman says it better in his poem “Self-Portrait at 28.”

We will travel to Mars

even as folks on Earth

are still ripping open potato chip

bags with their teeth.

(Originally posted Nov. 20th, 2009 on


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