Westport Arts Center Creates a Dialogue with Brutalist Architecture

Michelle Docimo
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Detail, Yale University Art Gallery, 1953, Architect, Louis I. Kahn. Photo by Andreas Kornfeld

Driving through New York’s scenic Hudson valley on her daily commute to Westport, Connecticut’s Arts Center, Terri Smith, Director of Visual Arts, always finds inspiration in the sinuous rivers and harmonic hills along her route. But, she often noted inharmonious forms rising like rough-honed pillars from the landscape. “My eyes stumbled upon these apparently clumsy, concrete buildings that seemed so incongruous in their natural surroundings,” she told me. “I couldn’t resist the urge to stop, stare, and wonder: “What is happening inside?”

Smith’s shock and curiosity is exactly the reaction that Brutalism provokes–an unexpected surprise and full engagement of the mind. Originally a European architectural movement that began in the 1950’s in response to Modernism’s sleek lines and machine-like precision, Brutalism’s (in French, béton brut, for ‘raw concrete’) run was brief, as it peaked in the early 1970’s.

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Orange County Government Center, 1967, Goshen, NY, Architect: Paul Rudolph. Photo by Andreas Kornfeld

Brutalist forms are what remain behind when rough plywood concrete footings are pulled away. Bearing all the scars and traces of the already-distressed plywood used in molding their walls and floors, these buildings are distinguished by their stacked-block appearance, harsh angular outcroppings and contrapuntal recesses, bold geometries, cantilevered balconies and thick cornices. Often standing defiantly amidst more modest and well-mannered urban structures, Brutalist buildings typically appear top-heavy and in need of re-proportioning. Vertical ribs of molded concrete, hammered and chipped entirely by hand to create a fractured vertical maze of light and shadow, often adds to the imposing coldness of the design.

The so-called ‘honest’ materials used in Brutalist construction are revealed in their raw form–exposed concrete, walls of glass, exposed steel girders and brightly-painted utility ducting. This honesty in material design serves as an aesthetic medium–the message being: form and function follow man and nature. Architects of the day saw an interrelationship between how the materials were used, how people contribute to the life of a building and ultimately, how a building plays into a utopian urban plan.

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Detail, David Brooks, Tracks II, 2009, concrete, wooden saw horses

The Westport Arts Center’s exhibition, Aggregate: Art and Architecture – A Brutalist Remix, re-creates this utopian experience anew, through a collection of sculpture, photography, architectural models, videos, and slides illustrating the history of Brutalism and its persistent influence on more contemporary works. Smith notes that, “I’ve identified artists from around the world who continue to work with this honest mindset and materials. Brutalism as a design element is complex to understand and so the exhibit engages viewers; moving them through time; asking them to become more familiar with the movement’s place in history; examining the work and envisioning how it might influence future design. For example, I thought it was necessary to keep the slides in their original medium, showing them on screens to recreate the feel of the technology of the time…even the humming sound of the projector!”

Visitors to the Arts Center are greeted by a mirror placed in a window that reflects their own image into the background of a neighboring building that evokes Brutalist influences. Smith points out that, “They unknowingly become an active element of the exhibition, because people were key players in deciphering the utopian message of that period.” Also at the entrance stands, Tracks II, a site-specific sculpture by David Brooks. A set of swerving tire tracks imprinted in concrete, take the visitor on an imaginary, careening ride through the post-modern era of the Brutalist landscape , hinting at the hard-edged realities that the show just beyond the doors will offer.

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Foreground: Jo Nigoghossian, Hole, 2009, concrete, glass, cardboard, wood, wire conduit; wall: Alterazioni Video, Astronave Madre (floorplan), 2008, silkscreen on paper. Photo by Terri Smith

“The reality of the utopian vision often went astray. A good example of this occurred in Italy.” says Smith. “I included several pieces of Incompiuto Siciliano, by the Italian artist group, Alterazioni Video, in the exhibition to demonstrate how Italian architects would intentionally design flaws into the plans of public projects to delay their construction and extort money from the government. These incomplete projects became triumphant ruins of modernity. But,” she points out, “the problem became the solution. In an attempt to stop corruption, the Sicilian government will be transforming these derelict spaces into public parks by allowing native landscape plants, such as fig trees, meadow grasses, and cacti to overrun the incomplete public works.”

”Dispersed throughout the gallery, in park-like fashion, are Fawn Krieger’s drawings, Spirit Park and Social Architectures; Jo Nigoghossian’s concrete abstract sculptures; Andreas Kornfeld’s, 360 Fujiroid and a vintage ’60’s documentary film by architectural critic, Reyner Banham uniting to create a virtual utopian landscape. Our perspective on the relationship between man and environment is challenged by this exhibit and our perception of the ideal is put to the test. The Westport Arts Center’s latest exhibition courts an interaction between the art and viewer that transcends aesthetics.

It becomes a quest for truth.

by Michelle Docimo, Contributing Writer


Aggregate: Art and Architecture – A Brutalist Remix, runs through November 22, 2009.

The Westport Arts Center is located at 51 Riverside Avenue, Westport, CT


See the photography of Andreas Kornfeld at: http://www.360.a-kornfeld.com/gallery1.html


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