The Case for Ugly

Crushing on Concrete

The quest to make brutalist architecture lovable 

The Washington Post Magazine, May 28, 2017

The Union Station Metro stop was dark as a cave, its high concrete arch coated in years’ worth of grime. To Metro officials, it must have seemed like a no-brainer to break out white paint and rollers and give the dingy concrete a going-over.

Then photos of the paint job circulated on social media — and local architects, design aficionados and critics (including this one) erupted in fury. “Keep Metro Bleak!” urged one headline, while another decried the makeover as disrespecting the architecture. The controversy dragged from this past March into April, as more people saw Metro’s handiwork up close. “RAAAAAAAGEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!” tweeted an architectural blogger from Union Station on April 8.

The Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a federal design-review agency, also weighed in, writing to Metro to express their displeasure and ask that the work be stopped immediately. Painting the station’s raw concrete, the commission argued, alters “an essential characteristic of this important civic space.”

Clearly, the beleaguered Metro system has bigger things to worry about — safety, reliability, plummeting ridership — than the color of its stations. Yet “Paintgate” does prompt tantalizing questions about the future of perhaps the world’s most polarizing architectural style: brutalism, derived from the French béton brut, meaning “raw concrete.” And few big cities in the United States or Europe have as much brutalism per square mile as Washington — thanks to the Metro, the FBI headquarters downtown, the Hirshhorn Museum on the Mall and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Southwest Washington, among other federal buildings, as well as privately built structures like Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library.

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Cover illustration by Peter Chadwick/This Brutal House