LIKE MODERNISM BEFORE it, Brutalism ultimately failed to bring about the change it had promised. In India, Nehru’s descendants consolidated wealth and power to become an outright political dynasty: May’s re-election of Narendra Modi, a right-wing demagogue, is nothing less than an outright rejection of Nehruvian socialism and secularism; the Indian Trade Promotion Organization’s overnight demolition two years ago of Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations, a Brutalist masterpiece completed in New Delhi in 1972, was that shift’s architectural analogue. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, political and economic turmoil in the late 1970s and early 1980s put an abrupt halt to public works projects — and the architecture they’d supported. In Cambodia, state-sponsored Brutalism ended with the rise of the Khmer Rouge in 1975. (Molyvann fled to Switzerland and worked for the United Nations until his return to Cambodia in 1991; many of his contemporaries were murdered.) Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Singapore-based architect and scholar Erik L’Heureux says, access to air conditioning and mass-produced materials like sheet glass rendered natural ventilation and brise-soleil obsolete. Not long after joining the ranks of rich nations in the early 1980s, Singapore followed the lead of the United States and Britain in tearing down many of its Brutalist buildings, replacing them with flashy private developments sealed off from the city by curtain walls (a travesty that continues today with the impending demolition of Pearl Bank Tower in favor of a high-end apartment complex). Such radically open architecture no longer had a place under governments that were encouraging the cultivation of private wealth over public good.
In the United States, Brutalist masterpieces have been threatened since the late 1960s, when Paul Rudolph’s Yale Art and Architecture building, completed in 1963, was damaged in a mysterious fire. By then, Rudolph’s building, with its blind towers and literally abrasive scored-concrete surfaces, was so universally loathed that rumors of arson quickly calcified into oral history. In 1980, after his reputation in America declined, Rudolph began building his most impressive projects in Southeast Asia. Some, like Singapore’s Colonnade, a 28-story commercial and residential tower finished in 1980, referenced his earlier Brutalist works, particularly the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, N.Y., constructed in 1971 from convoluted stacks of concrete rectangles piled like cardboard boxes.
While Rudolph built his most famous buildings throughout northeastern America, he was always, L’Heureux says, “fundamentally a tropicalist,” having spent the early part of his career erecting delicate Modernist houses in Sarasota, Fla. And even as Brutalism fell out of favor up north, it moved south, like a weary retiree, to warmer climates. Throughout Florida, Rudolph’s former employee William Morgan continued to build Brutalist-inflected coastal homes, like 1965’s George M. Goodloe House in Ponte Vedra Beach, with whitewashed concrete cubes that are a clear reference to Rudolph’s 1961 Milam Residence on the same stretch of shore. In Hawaii, too, the Russian émigré Vladimir Ossipoff imbued projects like 1962’s IBM building in Honolulu and 1966’s Davies Chapel at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy on the Big Island with elements of Brutalism, the former screened in a modish brise-soleil, the latter built with volcanic stone embedded in its raw concrete walls. But these buildings, for all their beauty and power, lacked the political edge of their counterparts around the world. An architecture of self-interrogation in Europe and of proud defiance in postcolonial equatorial nations never sat comfortably with America’s capitalist triumphalism.
For many critics, Brutalism died decisively in the mid-1970s. The scholar Ruth Verde Zein, whose 2014 essay “Brutalist Connections,” argues in favor of using the term for the Paulista School, also argues that today Brutalism is impossible — tropical or otherwise. The style, she says, explored “the structural constraints and possibilities of the materials at hand.” Those restrictions, like the cultural circumstances that produced them, have since evolved; concrete exteriors on Brutalist-looking buildings are often no more structural than the cloud of glass around Frank Gehry’s 2014 Louis Vuitton Fondation in Paris, a flamboyant bauble of a building that, for all its grace and wonder, stands for nothing but itself.