Bronx Brutalism: An Art History

by Noah Kotlarek

No, this article isn’t about brutality or violence; it’s about architecture in the Bronx, namely, New Brutalism. Brutalist architecture was and continues to be the subject of criticism by city dwellers, journalists, and passersby. However, the movement is also championed by many architects, historians, internet bloggers, and laypeople.  While others see brutalist buildings as cold, hard, predictable, and soulless, others see it as a clean and refreshing symbol of social progress, a bit like the typeface Helvetica.  On the surface, New Brutalist buildings may appear lifeless and without meaning. The history and social movement behind this architecture, however, indicates otherwise.

Historians point to Le Corbusier’s modernist Cite Radiesuse in Marseilles, France (built in the late 1940s) as perhaps the most influential building on New Brutalism. This housing development features nearly all of the elements that would come to inform New Brutalism. Such elements include small rectangular windows, modular units, use of right angles, piloti, and rough exposed concrete, called “béton brut,” for which New Brutalism is indirectly named. The first “true” Brutalist architecture surfaced in 1950s post-war Britain. After the second World War, Britain needed to be rebuilt, and displaced civilians needed to be housed; so the government began experimenting with progressive socialist policies. One of these initiatives was the development of large welfare housing projects, made possible by the 1949 Housing Act, which rolled back the limitation of public housing strictly for the employed. Such housing projects needed to be built efficiently and cost effectively. The result was dense, monolithic, rectangular concrete housing developments described as “streets in the sky.” 

About a decade later, New Brutalism arrived on America’s shores with the completion of the Guggenheim in 1959 and what is now the Met Breuer in 1966.  However, the movement really only began to take off in New York City during the early to mid 1970s with the construction of public housing developments in the Bronx. This movement was catalyzed by the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program, which financed the construction of affordable Brutalist housing co-ops in the 1970s.  Comparing the skylines of London and the Bronx presents a surprising similarity between the welfare housing projects developed by the British government in the 1950s and 60s and the public housing projects developed by New York in the 1970s. Most notable in the Bronx are the Tracey Towers (1973), Waterside Plaza (1973), and Co-Op City. All three are relatively close to the Rose Hill campus.

By the 1980s, much of the optimism for the hoped-for public housing “utopia” eroded; yet stylistically Brutalist architecture continued to develop. This cultural shift is best demonstrated by the difference in names between pre- and post-1980s public housing developments. While earlier public housing developments were named after civil rights heroes like Fredrick Douglass, new buildings were given less inspiring names. The Brutalist Melrose housing project on Park and E 161st is titled simply “Morrisania Air Rights.”

While the enthusiasm and hope for what public housing could be may have diminished, the necessity of affordable housing in New York City as well as it’s accompanying Brutalist architecture remains. New Brutalism has a certain architectural and social beauty. Architecturally, Brutalism is honest and functional. It is devoid of clutter and its intent is clear. Socially, Brutalism represents an effort to build a better world and experiment with the question, what purpose does government serve? Thus, Brutalism truly is art. It is the expression of human creative skill and imagination and, moreover, for a purpose.

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