Vulgar Display of Power: Brutalist Architecture.

If you grew up in Milwaukee, WI, like I did – then you might recognize this:

MJS artcity3.jpg

MJS artcity6.jpg

This is the original Milwaukee Art Museum, before mercifully receiving a newer and less horrifying addition next door in the early 2000s. The original museum looks like something out of a 1950’s monster movie – “The Insect that Ate the World!”

The building is not as bad as it used to be; they’ve added glass walls and tiled facades with slight color variation to take the edge off. But its original design is strange and unsettling, completely without character.

There’s more – The Milwaukee Main Post Office:

MJS Postoffice13, nws, sears, 8.jpg

Yet another enormous, repulsive behemoth. Sharp corners, flat walls, hardly a speck of relateable inspiration or beauty to be found. A blight on the cityscape. The rear side is no better:


The rusted and drippy concrete screams “Abandon hope for ye parcels, all ye who enter here.” If it weren’t for the mail trucks, I’d hardly believe it were a post office. It looks more akin to a damp prison.

The building was recently purchased by a private developing company. With any luck, they’ll transform the whole thing into something less hideous.

The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, seen at nighttime. The nearly featureless facade gives it the morbid sense of a dreary mausoleum:

Marcus_Center,_MilwaukeeI will give credit where it’s due – the design has been improved, adding more rounded glass and lighting. It looks marginally less like gigantic, impersonal concrete blocks dropped out of the sky – as it did when first built:


The Milwaukee Police Headquarters is one of the most terrifying monoliths I’ve ever seen. A garish structure jutting out of the cityscape as if the result of some twisted geological curse:


The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I spent two miserable years as a student, has some of the worst examples of all:


All of the above are examples of “Brutalist” architecture, a neo-modernist style of building that emerged in the 1950’s and continued to see construction into the 1980’s, when the immense ugliness of the style began to realize itself in the public consciousness and lead to a backlash. The “style” encouraged the enormous, featureless, and expansive, emphasizing unnatural cuboid shapes and strange slitted windows.

Beyond the architecture, what other trait do the above buildings have in common? Think beyond the physical. Answer: They’re all government buildings funded by tax dollars, either in part or in full. Bureaucrats in committees chose these designs – not based, of course, off what people wanted to see, but what message they wanted to send.

The same architectural design was popular in the Soviet Union throughout it’s existence, with numerous examples ranging from ramshackle apartment buildings to enormous government bunkers:


It’s bad enough in Milwaukee to have look at only a few of these monstrosities blighting the landscape. But can you imagine an entire city looking like this? Where all the apartment buildings look like identical head-nods to the constant, crummy grind of life in a miserable and oppressive police state? I can only imagine. It’s all you can do to place some flowers on the windowsill in a desperate attempt to not feel like a mindless bee in a hive, to feel like your home has SOME spark of your own being and flavor.

None of this is an accident, of course. Brutalism has always appealed to the type of people that love “governing” – that is, wielding power and beating people over the head with it. It appealed to the successive left-wing government administrations that have ruled Milwaukee for nearly a century – one of the only American cities to ever have a mayor from the Socialist Party. And the style was clearly right at home in the Soviet Union, which hardly needs explanation.

They had no concern for beauty. They had no use for it. The point was always the same: to exude power in the sheer, massive face of a frightening concrete titan that drove home this point to the viewer: “Behold, our glory. Nothing exists but us, and you. And you are but a speck.”

Even the small city hall of the suburb I grew up in – West Allis, WI – was not immune to Brutalist malaise, built by small-town bureaucrats in a clear “me-too” imitation of what the REAL bigwigs were doing downtown. It resembles a bizarre and mutated horseshoe crab, or maybe a gigantic gray slug:


Of course, not even the old city hall had much to commend it:


Still boxy and square, but less consciously so. At least it had brick, with it’s embracing red coziness, as opposed to brainless, muted concrete. I’m not taken with the front columns; I’ve never been a big fan of classical architecture anywhere outside of it’s original setting in ancient Mediterranean ruins. I suppose it’s interesting from a historical point of view, but I find there to be utterly nothing inviting or comforting about tall, imposing roman columns. I’d sooner take delight in city hall if it had a clearly well-used but beloved wooden porch, or were housed in an old wooden barn. The large classical buildings often found in government – certainly all over Washington D.C. – do not move me.

Milwaukee has it’s share of pleasant architecture – what I would consider pleasant, anyway. Like I mentioned earlier, the new art museum is not nearly as bad:


Being less rigid and more imaginative in design, it’s far better than the hard, imposing corners of it’s less fortunate predecessor. The white color is pleasing to the eye, as opposed to drab, weathered concrete.

I’ve always enjoyed what remains of the old German-style architecture, particularly in the old breweries:


Even when in an industrial setting, it at least has the spark of something meaningful and traditional. Not built the way it was because it made city planners feel like deities, but because it was simply “the style” in which these things were built.

The old Catholic churches of Milwaukee are marvelous structures – monuments to the belief of a Higher Power who demands obedience while loving us and blessing us with beauty, as opposed to Brutalist monuments honoring the higher powers who simply demand obedience – love and beauty be damned, especially when they get in the way of the next big boondoggle:


While ruled successively by semi-Marxists, Democratic Socialists, and Progressives, Milwaukee has never – of course – been as bad as the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had totalitarian Communism; Milwaukee has only had hardcore welfare-state leftists pissing away other people’s money on worthless political projects.

This is what differentiates the Brutalism of the USSR from Brutalism in a place like Milwaukee. In the Soviet Union, the large, imposing structures sent a clear message: “We own you. Bow down, slave.” In Milwaukee, the leftists in charge of the city could only ever send this message: “We wish we owned you. But we do ask you to please bow down to us.”

Violence is key to making the whole leftist dream work. Without specific, unrestricted violent sanctions to force people into doing things, the whole leftist dream is just a power fantasy. While Brutalism reinforced the *ahem* “dream” in the Soviet Union, it was only ever a symbol of wishful thinking among American bureaucrats, where they do not have the kind of free-reign violence at their disposal that was had in the USSR. Brutalist buildings are not scary and threatening to us in America – just ugly.


Brutalism in the USA is dead as a serious architectural style. It can be resurrected for the value of novelty, but no city in it’s right mind is going to build another Brutalist city hall. Voters hate it.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: