by Jeffrey Thorsteinson
The Public Safety Building, Pan Am Pool, the Manitoba Teacher’s Society headquarters and other buildings in Winnipeg have something in common. Heavy looking, clad in bare concrete or masonry, and treating major elements like sculpture, all of these buildings are examples of an approach to architecture known as Brutalism.
Brutalism is one of architecture’s most misunderstood genres. But taking some time to really look at and study these buildings can change our perception.
Last summer and again this fall, the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation helped initiate this process through walking and bus tours of Brutalist architecture in Winnipeg. The tours are accompanied by a small book, Brutalist Architecture in Winnipeg, now on sale at local booksellers and through the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation website. The Foundation selected this type of architecture because it was one of the least understood types of building from the years we focus on, 1945 to 1975.
It’s been said that Brutalism has created some of the world’s least loved buildings. This feeling might have to do with the name. So, where does it come from?
Far from brutality, the root of “Brutalism” is brut, a French word meaning “raw.” This is the same meaning implied when you buy a bottle of Champange labelled brut: that the wine is left “as is” with little or no sugar added. In terms of architecture, this “raw” quality refers to the treatment of concrete, which originates in the work of the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier.
In the years after the Second World War, Le Corbusier moved away from walls of glass and steel to something more substantial — concrete. He mostly left this material unpainted, often with the imprint of the wooden formwork still visible, a technique known as bêton brut, or “raw concrete.” The influence of Le Corbusier’s work and others like it was felt far and wide.
Locally, Le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamps, France, can be compared to Étienne Gaboury’s 1966 Blessed Sacrament Church (710 Roanoke St. in Transcona) which also features bare concrete, a dramatic roof line and small, artistically inset stained glass windows.
This honest treatment of concrete symbolizes another important feature of Brutalism: its lack of pretension. An esteem for directness and everyday life came from British Brutalism, but this approach is apparent in Brutalist architecture in Winnipeg, too. For instance, architect Allan Waisman described his design for the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (1969-70), saying: “Nowhere were there to be grand staircases, marble or chintz. The feeling all along was to make people feel as comfortable in jeans as they might in a tuxedo.”
The MTC also illustrates how, in Canada particularly, Brutalism was closely linked to the large institutional construction projects of the late 1960s and 1970s. This was the era when the Baby Boom generation came of age and institutions such as universities had to expand rapidly. Brutalism was used to create buildings that possessed the solidity of earlier campus edifices and yet represented the evolving times.
An influential figure in this field was American architect Paul Rudolph, who designed Yale University’s Art and Architecture building. In Winnipeg, an example of this tendency is the University of Manitoba’s student union building, which closely resembles one of the world’s most famous Brutalist buildings, Boston City Hall.
Perhaps Winnipeg’s most well known Brutalist structure is the Public Safety Building. The home of Winnipeg’s police force, the building has a fortress-like feeling suitable for the one-time home of a prison, courtrooms and gun range. The building also blends into its environment in its scale and material — Manitoba tyndall stone.
Sadly, it’s exactly this detail that has been the building’s downfall of late. Forty years of intense freeze-and-thaw cycles have weakened the stone’s binding. Now, ironically, the building itself poses a public safety risk. In 2006, the cost of fixing the exterior was pegged at $19 million. The city instead decided to move the police to the former post office, a project now estimated to cost 10 times the estimates for repairing the Public Safety Building at over $200 million.
This situation points to the aging nature of Brutalist buildings and the questions that arise as “modern architecture” becomes heritage material. As this moment is reached, it is important that, as happened with older buildings, we strive for broader public education.
While Brutalist architecture might be difficult to embrace, it offers potential. Some examples, such as the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, are already beloved and are even designated National Historic sites. Other Brutalist buildings house various functions, leading to the diverse life we desire for urban spaces.
As structures with strong “bones,” Brutalist buildings can handle renovations well, as recent work at Yale University and Boston have shown.
Winnipeg, with its early, large and high-quality stock of modern architecture is host to an important legacy with great opportunities. For more information on this subject and future tours and events, visit www.winnipegarchitecture.ca
(Jeffrey Thorsteinson is a Winnipeg architectural historian and writer.)