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Brutally Beautiful

An architectural vision of the past—and future

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You see them in the backgrounds of sci-fi movies from A Clockwork Orange to Blade Runner 2049—enormous concrete structures representing repressive dystopian governments. But these buildings aren’t simply set dressings in movies. They’re examples of the midcentury architectural movement known as brutalism, and they’re found all over UMass, from the Lincoln Campus Center and W. E. B. Du Bois Library to the Randolph W. Bromery Center for the Arts, from Herter to Whitmore to Tobin.

For years considered imposing, dated, and even ugly, these structures are being reconsidered as usable, intimate, and yes, even beautiful works of art by UMass students, scholars, and planners alike. Take the rectilinear Campus Center, its sculptural forms, interplays of light and shadow and staircase that spill into a vast green field. It’s one of the campus’s best-known examples of brutalism and was designed by one of the world’s most popular architects of the 20th century, Marcel Breuer.

The 27 brutalist buildings at UMass Amherst, built between 1965 and 1975, make up about a quarter of the campus in total square footage. And over the last several years, both UMass Amherst and UMass Dartmouth have increasingly embraced their status as two of the most architecturally significant brutalist campuses in the United States.

Words used to describe these buildings today include “hip,” “aesthetically cool,” and “avant-garde.” Brutalism, says UMass Campus Planning graduate researcher Lincoln Nemetz-Carlson ’23, “expresses progressive ideals that corporate architecture of our day does not.”

In 2021, the two-day symposium Brutalism + the Public University: Past, Present and Future featured a hundred speakers between UMass Amherst and UMass Dartmouth (whose entire campus was designed by brutalist architect Paul Rudolph). UMass Amherst offered the UMassBRUT walking tour and campus guide, the Brutalism in Color exhibit, talks with the Amherst Historical Society and Museum, the Jones Library, and the UMass Public History program. Even more programming and resources are in the works.

Timothy M. Rohan, associate professor of art history and architecture, points to the UMassBRUT exhibit at the Commonwealth Honors College Greenbaum Gallery, Standing in Silhouette: The Southwest Dormitories at UMass, as recognizing the focus of much of campus life since the mid-1960s. “Southwest is monumental, but it also has intimate spaces and great architectural complexity that you won’t find in other places on campus,” says Rohan.

Kelley Almada ’21 lived there in spring 2020. “I loved the windows that let in so much light,” she says. “It felt like I had a penthouse view from the seventh floor.” She enjoyed people-watching, parties, cultural events, and a location central to her classes and the dining commons.

Ludmilla Pavlova-Gillham, architect, senior campus planner, and adjunct professor in building construction technology, came to Amherst from communist Bulgaria at age 14. The W. E. B. Du Bois Library became “a symbol of democracy” where Pavlova-Gillham found banned speeches made by the Bulgarian president. She attended prom in the rooftop lounge of the Campus Center. “My biography is tied into the brutalism on campus,” says Pavlova-Gillham.

She helped UMass host a national conference of university planners and taught a course on the topic. Today she ensures sustainable building and infrastructure updates and plans future UMassBRUT campaigns. “We want to be a UMass systemwide resource for campuses across the state,” says Pavlova-Gillham.

One important reason to take a fresh look at these buildings has to do with climate change. Concrete has historically been one of the most carbon-intensive materials. Using more carbon to tear buildings down and construct replacements makes little sense. “Building reuse is climate action,” she notes. With that in mind, brutalist architecture may indeed be a vision of the future—but unlike in the movies, a vision of optimism and hope.