Harold Bubil: Concrete lessons from architecture's Brutalist period


Sarasota MOD Weekend concludes today, and judging by the schedule, it must be one amazing event.

But, sadly, I am not there. A family medical emergency has taken me far from Sarasota, and so I was forced to miss the tours I was to lead in Lido Shores on Saturday, and the conversation I was to have with Rudolph scholar Tim Rohan today.

My favorite Paul Rudolph building. Staff photo / Rachel O'Hara.

My favorite Paul Rudolph building. Staff photo / Rachel O'Hara.

One question I was going to bring up concerned Rudolph’s use of bush-hammered concrete, also known as corrugated concrete, during his Brutalist Period in the 1960s. Rudolph had just done the very elegant Sarasota High Addition, with its bold concrete sunshades all smooth and white with stucco, and then he goes north and roughs up the surface of Yale’s Art & Architecture Building with bush-hammed concrete.

“I find it fascinating,” Rohan told me. “Rudolph didn’t develop corrugated concrete, and other architects had been using it before him, such as Marcel Breuer. But he really adopts it and transforms it and makes it his own. He does some pretty astonishing things with concrete. It is not a matter of liking it or disliking it.

“You can do something just as expressive with masonry. It doesn’t just have to be glass,” as in the International Style.

Nearby, Rudolph designed the 1967 Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York, also in a Brutalist style, although the building reminds me of Medusa’s hair, with each window jutting from the façade on its own.

And, it is being torn down after years of debate.

One of my favorite architectural critics, Witold Rybczynski (witoldrybczynski.com), wrote in his blog that he is “dismayed” at the building’s demolition. But, he adds, there is a lesson here.

“I am more dismayed by the thought that we have not learned the lesson that this Sixties building has to teach,” he writes. “Rudolph often stepped over the line between expression and functionality, and any designer who does so should not be surprised that his/her artifact does not gain the affection of its users. ...

“There is another lesson that the Orange County building should teach us. Exposed concrete, in this case mostly patterned concrete blocks, is not a good finish material. It weathers badly on the exterior, and it is unpleasant on the interior. ... It was a mistake that shouldn’t be repeated.”

Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: November 8, 2015
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