Brutalism hits awkward middle age

By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer

Even before boards appeared on some of its windows, the Fogarty Building on Fountain Street in downtown Providence often was considered an eyesore. More

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Brutalism hits awkward middle age

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HISTORY LESSON: The Community College of Rhode Island’s Knight Campus in Warwick, pictured above, is one of several local examples of Brutalist structures.
PBN PHOTO/MARK S. MURPHY
NO FRILLS: The Fogarty Building on Providence’s Fountain Street was built in the mid-1900s, in a style called Brutalism. While the style is too young to include historic properties, there is a movement to preserve local examples.
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By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer

Posted 10/8/12

Even before boards appeared on some of its windows, the Fogarty Building on Fountain Street in downtown Providence often was considered an eyesore.

Composed of gray concrete in the middle of the 20th century, in the modern style know as Brutalism, the building drew so little interest from potential leaseholders when it was marketed from 2005 to 2007 that its owners proposed tearing it down. Still standing but empty, the Fogarty Building is a leading example of the uncertain future that faces many modernist buildings and Brutalist structures in particular, once on the cutting edge of architecture and now reaching an awkward middle age.

“Buildings are like people – when they hit 40 they are out of fashion, and when they hit 60 and 70 they are generally beloved icons,” said Providence Preservation Society Director James Hall. “There are 30 years in the middle where people who remember when they were built think ‘We could have done better,’ but nostalgia hasn’t kicked in yet.”

Too young to be historic (the National Historic Register minimum is 50 years) and in many cases too old to go on without expensive updates, Brutalist landmarks now represent major challenges for property owners and preservationists.

As many communities across the country consider proposals to tear down their most distinctive and polarizing Brutalist structures, a counter-movement of architects and design enthusiasts is working to save them.

“I consider [Brutalism] to be very misunderstood,” said Providence architect Robert Stack, founder of Mid-Century Modern Rhode Island, which was scheduled to host “That’s Brutal,” an Oct. 6 discussion and tour of Rhode Island Brutalist landmarks. “I am about to turn 50, so I grew up with it, and to me it has always been very honest about functionality and the way people use buildings and materials. I don’t see them as ugly and imposing.”

The Providence Preservation Society is having a discussion of Brutalism Oct. 12, as part of a three-day symposium.

Spawned by the revolutionary Swiss architect Le Corbusier in the early 1950s, the Brutalist style became popular through the 1960s and into the 1970s by architects who felt modernism had become elitist and wanted to return to forms that would improve life for the masses.

Brutalist buildings are characterized by their use of rough “expressive” concrete, repetitive geometric patterns and disdain for polish or ornamentation.

Brutalist structures became common throughout the United States as apartment blocks, government buildings and, especially, college campus showpieces.

In New England, Boston City Hall may be the most recognizable Brutalist structure, but southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island also have notable buildings.

They include Brown University’s List Art Center in Providence, the University of Massachusetts complex in Dartmouth and the Community College of Rhode Island’s Knight Campus in Warwick.

Polarizing even in its heyday, Brutalism started falling out of favor in the mid-1970s and quickly became a style that people associated with coldness and loved to hate.

“I think architects understand the strengths of the movement,” said Dietrich Neumann, professor of the history of modern architecture at Brown University. “Often the buildings come with spectacular interior spaces. But they are difficult to repair because they are monolithic and concrete ages faster than we all thought – just look at the highway system.”

Perhaps more seriously, modern architecture and Brutalism were accompanied here in the 1960s by urban renewal, a related concept in city planning that took apart neighborhoods and has since been repudiated by a generation of preservationists and planners.

Following the urban-renewal thinking, many Brutalist buildings, like the Fogarty Building, were elevated on plinths or designed with little to no interaction with the street.

“It is not friendly to pedestrians,” Hall said about the Fogarty Building. “It is raised up; you can’t see in it. Of course, you can say the same things about City Hall and much of what we have come to love about City Hall.”

Built in 1968 for the federal government and later passed to the city, the Fogarty Building was sold to The Procaccianti Group in 2004, which has since floated plans to replace it with a hotel or multilevel parking garage with ground-floor retail.

Since the real estate market collapsed and attempts to lease it failed, Procaccianti’s most recent plan for Fogarty was to tear it down and turn it into a surface parking lot.

“We were actively trying to get retail on the first floor and office on the second, but had no luck,” said Mike Giuttari, president of MG Commercial Real Estate, which listed the Fogarty Building. “The only calls we got were from the fire department or [then neighbors] Blue Cross & Blue Shield [of Rhode Island] complaining about homeless people getting in.”

Giuttari said the aesthetics of the Fogarty Building never scared off potential tenants, but the economics of retrofitting the space did. Similar to what faces the soon-to-be-vacant Industrial Trust Tower, Brutalist office buildings are difficult to subdivide and too massive for the few tenants looking for office space in downtown Providence.

Giuttari said he did not know the owner’s current plans for the building and The Procaccianti Group declined to comment on it.

Over the past few years, Providence has lost at least two notable Brutalist buildings: the Outlet parking garage on Friendship Street and circular Gulf gas station off Broadway. Both are surface parking lots. But other Brutalist buildings are going strong.

Chestnut Hill Realty Corp. this summer finished a series of renovations to One Regency Plaza, a 1968 Brutalist apartment building designed by Curtis and Davis Architects in New York and built by Gilbane Building Co. as part of the Cathedral Square urban renewal project.

The renovations to One Regency, part of $14 million in work to the three-tower Regency complex, included reworking the first floor to provide inviting lobby and common spaces, as well as “softening” the ground-level entrance. Chestnut Hill also invested heavily in landscaping to warm up the pavement-heavy grounds.

“The bones of the building are great, and I don’t think most folks are offended by the façade,” said Richard Lappin, Regency Plaza LLC co-owner. “We are just softening it with awnings, new front entries and new vestibule.”

On the other side of Cathedral Square on Broad Street, Beneficent House, a 1963 apartment block designed by American Brutalist luminary Paul Rudolph, is 99 percent occupied and management is upgrading each unit that turns over.

“The look is a draw,” said Kathy Spaulding, regional property manager with First Realty Management, which runs the building. “It is unique inside the apartments with the way the windows are placed floor to ceiling.”

Even excluding the Community College of Rhode Island Knight Campus and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Brutalism is well-represented on local campuses.

Brown’s Brutalist portfolio includes not only the List Art Center but also the Science Library on Thayer Street and Graduate Student Center four blocks to the south.

As often as it has been called ugly through the years, Brutalism’s distinctiveness may one day put its buildings in a better position than many blander, modern building styles.

“I definitely think the wave is going that way,” Stack said of a new appreciation for Brutalism. “The momentum hasn’t really reached here as much, but attention to midcentury is booming.” •

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