Brutalist architecture and libraries

I was talking to Carole Moore, Chief Librarian of the University of Toronto Libraries, recently about Robarts Library, described by Wikipedia as one of “the most significant examples of brutalist architecture in North America”.

Curious, I followed the Wikipedia link to brutalist architecture. I was interested to find several libraries mentioned there alongside Robarts.
In fact, pride of place in the article is given to the striking Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego. It notes that it “is one of the most famous examples of brutalist architecture, and has been featured in a number of science fiction movies”.

Ryerson University Library, also in Toronto, is listed.

As is the Folsom Library, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute …

… and the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago.

Several other libraries are mentioned.
The entry also gives one reason why there are so many examples:

In the late 1960s, many campuses in North America were undergoing expansions and, as a result, there are a significant number of Brutalist buildings at American and Canadian universities, beginning with Paul Rudolph’s 1958 Yale Art and Architecture Building. [Wikipedia – Brutalist architecture]

And of course the latter houses a library. A few moments thought will uncover others (Glasgow University Library, for example).
Examples are not limited to academic libraries only. Birmingham Central Library comes to mind, whose “inverted ziggurat form”, Wikipedia says, “is a powerful example of the Brutalist style”.
Anyway, back to my conversation with Carole. I suggested that there might be interest in a calendar of Libraries in the Brutalist style. There certainly seem to be enough to handsomely fill out all twelve months and more. I would certainly buy one 😉
p.s. I regularly drive past the oddly striking Ohio Historical Center building in Columbus, which is brutalist in style and seems very much of its time.
p.p.s. The Wikipedia entry notes that much of the Belfield campus of University College Dublin is brutalist in style. I always liked the Wejchert buildings there, from when I was a student, although they have changed internally over the years.

Arts building, UCD. Alun J Carr. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.
Library pictures above are from Wikimedia Commons and link through to sources there.

11 thoughts on “Brutalist architecture and libraries”

  1. “Brutalist” sounds kind of bad, but some of those libraries look awesome; others do not.
    I suspect, based on the commonalities in those pictures, that the library of my alma matter would be considered an example of Brutalist Architecture. While I rather like the way it looks from the outside, that’s probably a matter of debate on campus; but I suspect what’s less controversial is that the _inside_ of the Mudd library is layed out really well to serve the needs of the users.
    (Oh, indeed, that picture comes with a ‘brutalist’ quote.)
    Check out the awesome ‘womb’ style chairs:

  2. Ooh, also the Northwestern University Library, which is actually one of my favorite library buildings.
    I think many of my favorite libraries are ‘brutalist’, which I see from the wikipedia article was not intended to mean the buildings were actual ‘brutal’ in the English sense, but which has been much maligned. I wonder if an academic library is actually one of the best applications of ‘brutalist’ architecture. I’d totally buy that calendar.,_Evanston,_IL.JPG

  3. It might be more appropriate to do a calendar of brutalist architecture schools, since architects seem to be the people most eager to rehabilitate the style’s reputation.
    Do librarians actually like working in brutalist libraries?
    You can add the Art Library at Indiana U. to your list as it resides in I.M. Pei’s brutalist Art Museum. It’s a hideous place to have to use and I can’t imagine much fun to be the librarian there (I’ll have to ask.)
    The Art Library at U.Va. is also situated in a brutalist annex to the Architecture School, come to think of it. It’s also a miserable place for users, but I can’t speak for people who work there.

  4. As far as a name, Brutalism definitely implies (at the least) something pejorative. Originally however the use of the term “Gothic” for architecture was also coined to denigrate an aesthetic deemed barbaric by Renaissance critics.

  5. Having spent significant time in both U of T’s Robarts and UCSD’s Geisel Library, the experiences are very different. Once you get above the entry level of Geisel, it’s light-filled with sweeping views of the campus and surrounding area. Many of the staff workspaces are ugly and dark, but I suspect that’s true in many libraries no matter the style.
    Robarts, OTOH, is rather dark pretty much throughout. The odd triangular geometry led to some bizarrely shaped office spaces with the requisite custom furniture in 1960s colors. One place where the architecture works to great effect is in the adjoining Fisher rare books library. Similarly dark and devoid of light, it shines warmly like a jewelbox. I can see how donors would want their collections there.

  6. I had experiences working in both UCSD Geisel Library and have always been interested in the interaction of form and function in architecture. Interestingly I did my masters essay in art history on the IU Art Museum bldg by Pei where I interviewed many of the staff who worked in the Pei bldg to find out how well, functionally, it served its original intention (i.e. bldg program). I was surprised at how many staff reported that despite some functional shortcomings people still found it a beautiful and enjoyable structure to be in. I concluded that aesthetics plays a huge role in the perceived “success” of a building.

  7. And there sits in the heart of downtown Cairo, Egypt another example of the New Brutalism – a library designed by Hugh Newell Jacobson. We are often asked “When will it be finished?” Ugly and uninspiring, it has been a joy to work in; thick concrete walls block the street noises of Cairo, one entire wall of windows looking out at the courtyard and filling the interior with light, and, with no columns, space to re-invent services and offices as needs change.

  8. When I was a student at Ohio State in the ’90s, I was told that the reason for Dulles Hall looking so much like a fortress is because when it was designed in c. 1970…that was what it was intended to be! If student rioting got out of hand, OSU administrators would use the underground passage from University Hall (the passage is still there) to gather in Dulles Hall and wait out the siege.

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