UTOPIAN The House of Culture in Trnava, Slovakia.
Beginning around the 1950s, a new style of massive, austere, modernist, poured-concrete architecture proliferated across the West as well as behind the Iron Curtain. These buildings came to be called "Brutalist," seemingly from the French "brut," as in "raw." The name describes both their vast expanses of bare concrete as well as their often severe forms.
When Viera Levitt became gallery director at Community College of Rhode Island in 2009, she was struck by the Brutalist architecture of its Knight Campus.
"There's this building that people love to hate," the Wakefield resident tells me. "It's a big concrete so-called mega-structure, this giant concrete elephant on the top of the hill in Warwick. And Rhode Island doesn't have any hills so this is very monumental . . . I thought it's so fascinating and so bold and so unusual. Warwick doesn't strike me as a particularly bold community to build these unusual structures. You would need to have a vision to build something like that."
To puzzle out the impulse behind this architecture, Levitt began photographing Brutalist buildings — the focus of her exhibit "Brutally Sweet" at AS220's Project Space (93 Mathewson St, Providence, through June 29) — and organized a 2011 group exhibition about it at CCRI, "We Talk About Architecture, Architecture Talks Back."
Levitt's photos of CCRI; the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth (where she became gallery director last year); Boston City Hall; the Pirelli Tire Building in New Haven, Connecticut; Yale School of Art and Architecture in New Haven; and the House of Culture in her native Trnava, Slovakia, highlight details of the buildings, their rugged surfaces, their abstract geometries.
"Brutalist buildings are sculptural, like made with clay. You can sort of sense as if somebody was making the model with their hands sometimes," Levitt says. "For me, to look for the elements which are actually really beautiful and geometrical and kind of sensitive, it's a really interesting task."
Rather than concrete being just another thing to build with, concrete defines these buildings. At its best, Brutalist structures achieve a sublime monumentality. But the style has never been much loved by the public. And the designers didn't embrace the label. "Brutalism" became attached to this architecture as a sort of insult — it can produce gargantuan, alienating spaces.