D.C. Government Protects "Brutalism" Over Religion

One of reason's mighty contributing editors, Charles Paul Freund, is over at the American Spectator today, with an interesting story on the eternally shifting nature of what government force will preserve--so long, of course, as those preservers are making sure that the desires or needs of those who own or use the building don't matter.

It's a tale of efforts to preserve a "brutalist" (the actual term for the style) Christian Science church in D.C. An excerpt:

If at first you don't at first recognize the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, as a church at all, don't be embarrassed; most people probably mistake it for a fortress intended to protect the president's house against a tank assault. It's a largely windowless octagonal tower made of raw, weathered concrete, and it's surrounded by a sterile "plaza" that seems to have been emptied to keep the line of fire clear. The site inspires few people with a sense of spirituality.

That includes its own congregation, which has always disliked the building and dearly wants to be rid of its ugliness and its crushing costs, but which has been prevented from replacing the structure by Washington's local preservation authorities.

Not that the church is either old or historic. It was designed in 1971....the project misfired. It's uninviting to the community not only because it has the feel of a bunker, but because its front door is, by design, hidden. The cold plaza is generally avoided by the church's neighbors.

The sanctuary seats 400, though the active congregation has shrunk to some 50 worshippers. The building's concrete exterior is already deteriorating, and the maintenance costs are overwhelming. Money that would be better spent on the church's mission, members say, is eaten up by the building itself.

Historical irony: it's exactly the sort of building that the historical preservationists of the early '70s fought against in order to preserve the older stuff it was displacing. 

Freund's extensive reason archives.

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  • ||

    This monstrosity was designed by the firm of I.M.Pei in 1971. Pei's reputation rose and is falling along the same popularity curve followed by career of Peter Keating.

  • ||

    This post is worthless without pictures. WORTHLESS!

  • ||

    e the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, as a church at all, don't be embarrassed; most people probably mistake it for a fortress intended to protect the president's house against a tank assault. It's a largely windowless octagonal tower made of raw, weathered concrete, and it's surrounded by a sterile "plaza" that seems to have been emptied to keep the line of fire clear.

    That description sounds similar to the one of the Seventeenth Church of Christ the Scientist building here in Chicago (Picture of building at the link)

  • ||

    Darn, Mary Baker Eddy's followers are hampered by maintenance costs of their building.

    I'm finding it hard to get worked up over this for some reason.

  • Crocodile Dundee||

    You call that brutalism? That's not brutalism. There now, that's brutalism.

  • ||

    Don't talk to me about Brutalism, I'm a brick city alumnus.

  • ||

    "Preservation isn't always about whether we like and not like buildings," one of the board members observed before she voted to make the church a landmark. "You can learn enough to have an appreciation for it."

    I guess you can learn to like shit sandwiches if they're made right. SWAG follows, Humanities degree.

  • ||

    If the congregation really, REALLY wants to demolish and rebuild, I humbly suggest they follow this line of argument. "The carbon footprint is too large and is destroying the planet. We will build a more energy efficient building to replace it." Enlist Al Gore in your planet saving effort, and the local architecture nazis will curl up into a ball and submit.

  • ||

    Yeah, that's one butt-ugly church alright! We have a few runners-up in my neck of the woods, too!

    Actually I can see something of a point to preserving it. A practical joke like that deserves to be saved for posterity...

  • ||

    http://3rdchristiansciencedc.com/images/photos/church-view.jpg

    that's the building they are talking about

  • Russ 2000||

    I can understand the desire to preserve a couple examples of architecture styles, but aren't there a shitlaod of these types of buildings around? They were all the rage in the 70's, especially government buildings. We can probably preserve many of them simply by reducing the federal budget - there won't be enough money to replace them.

  • ||

    I can understand the desire to preserve a couple examples of architecture styles, but aren't there a shitlaod of these types of buildings around? They were all the rage in the 70's, especially government buildings. We can probably preserve many of them simply by reducing the federal budget - there won't be enough money to replace them.

    My Middle School, built in the mid 70s, didn't have any windows. Thats right, no fucking windows*. Thats brutalist.

    *There was a small prison-like glass slit in the Principals Office about a half-inch wide but that doesn't really count as a "window" to me.

  • ||

    The University where I went to college also had quite a few brutalist buildings.

    Like University Hall

    You can't tell from the picture, but the building gets wider as you go up. Students used to call it the "Upside Down" building.

    The window are about 6 inches wide with concrete framing. It was said that was meant to be bomb/riot proof.

  • ||

    The church from an obscure link in the story:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/06/AR2007120601678.html?hpid=topnews

    No knock raids? No problem.

  • highnumber||

    I think I like the brutalist style.

    Probably inspired by my church.
    Note that it was designated a landmark in 1971, right when they designed this church. Coincidence?

  • John P.||

    My Middle School, built in the mid 70s, didn't have any windows. Thats right, no fucking windows*. Thats brutalist.

    Same here. I never thought of it as brutalism; I just thought it was a combination of corruption and indeptitude. I tried to find a photo to link to, but apparently it's so nondescriptly hideous that no one's ever posted a picture of it.

  • John P.||

    Speaking of ineptitude. . . .

  • ||

    Maybe they should put out their feelers to see if any al-Qaeda types are looking to blow up a building in DC...

  • ||

    It's just missing the right facade - a Dept. of Homeland Security shield.

    Two birds with one stone (I'm sure they're still adding office space).

  • ||

    I think I like the brutalist style

    I do as well.

    Originally I didn't care much for it, but after 5 years at UIC it kind of grew on me.

    It is different

  • VM||

    Chicago Tom:

    we called that the DEATH STAR. And Behavioral Sciences was "the Skinner Box"

    :)

  • ||

    we called that the DEATH STAR. And Behavioral Sciences was "the Skinner Box"

    Moose,

    I was unaware of the Death Star moniker.

    But "Skinner Box" was being used about BSB when I was there, too.

    It took me 2+ years to figure out how to make my way through that damn building.

    I swear that whole building must have been a psych experiment. There must have been someone observing students trying to find there way around that wacko building.

  • VM||

    BSB was crazy.

    We figured that it would be commonly called the Skinner Box - but the econ grad students were way too serious for that, so never heard it independently of our group (but we figured it was common), and we figured the Death Star was good to match the evilness of it :)

    cheerio

  • ||

    What crimethink said.

    I can't believe that, just because this building managed to stay up for 36 years, it has acquired "historic" status. It was a piece of crap in 1971, and it's a piece of crap now.

    All this reminds me how, back in the late 1970s, when the owners of the former Kann's department store (built in the late 19th century) wanted to tear down the building and develop the property, the preservationists said they couldn't. (They had a much better case for preserving Kann's than they do for Third Church; the facade at least looked pretty nice, once they tore off the ugly aluminum sheathing that had been put up ca. 1959.) While the case was in litigation, though, a suspicious fire broke out one night and burnt the whole structure to the ground. Problem solved, from the owners' point of view. (The property is now Market Square, atop the Archives/Navy Memorial Metro stop.) Do the church elders of Third Church need to borrow some oily rags? (Yes, I know: Christian Science churches don't have "elders"; they have "readers." Big deal.)

    (The other Kann's department store, at Virginia Square in Arlington (where there was a display of live monkeys in the children's shoe department) was turned into George Mason Law School. I understand it was recently torn down and replaced with a spanking new building.)

  • ||

    They were all the rage in the 70's, especially government buildings.

    There is, for example, the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building (though if I had my druthers that one would be dynamited too).

  • PJ Doland||

    I actually like the building, but I'm always a bit creeped out by churches that don't have windows. What are they doing in there that they need to hide from the outside world?

  • ||

    Well, hush my mouth. The George Mason School of Law website says that, though they did indeed put up a spanking new building, the old Kanns's store (called "the Original Building") is still there.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    My high school had no windows, my junior high school was an octagon. Guess when they were built?

    That church is no worse than the DC FBI building or 75% of the buildings built in the 1960's. You know, when design and review boards were implemented to do away with hideous stuff like neon signs and art deco gaudiness. What we got was riot proof concrete public buildings like all of Cal State Fullerton and much of UCI. Oh, and those quaint little sandblasted wooden signs for every small business in every town with a sign ordinance.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    My uncle bought the oldest home in Tuolumne County Ca. The county told him he must tear down the home. He fought with them. They caved and let him restore it. When he decided to tear it down and build something else they told him he couldn't. They didn't cave.

    As part of his restoration he hand built a really cool looking white picket fence. The pickets were very unusual and the pattern had come from a very old home in Columbia that he had hand traced. He cut about a billion of these pickets and built the fence.

    The county wouldn't let him alter that fence either because it was 125 years old.

  • ||

    Geeze, where's Howard Roark when you really need him?

  • ||

    Why isn't Brutalism a religion? The sacraments could be, like, headbutting, and yelling, and guitar soloing, and stuff. And the hymns would rule. Shit, I need to go found this. This is way better than my last fake religion idea, the Church of the Holy Tax-Exempt Status.

  • ||

    You know, when design and review boards were implemented to do away with hideous stuff like neon signs and art deco gaudiness.

    I freaking love art deco and wish there would be a revival of it.

  • highnumber||

    Urkobold noted a similar, yet entirely different dilemma faced by a church that wanted to remove Masonic symbols from their building.

    We never bothered with a follow-up.

    Oops!

  • Dello||

    This is a map of the new Scientologist HQ in Germany ('cause you know how Germany loves Scientologists...)

    http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/ww2-pix/bunker.jpg

  • Smart ass atheist||

    Maybe if they prey hard enough the building will heal itself..

  • BakedPenguin||

    Hmmm... public schools and churches? Could there be a connection? Much of my undergrad coursework was done here . Here is another picture. You'll notice both of them have trees blocking much of the view. That is because a full viewing of teh ugliness that is the Bellamy Building can turn the weak minded blind.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    the Church of the Holy Tax-Exempt Status

    Nice, but not as good as my buddy Gonzalez' idea to found the Church of Head.

    Not as good as the Ron Paul/Optimism quote, neither. :-)

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    Cesar, we're getting a fair amount of art deco revival out here. Unfortunately a lot of it is more like art deco meets George Jetson and will likely be as dated as the rash of psuedo-Frank Lloyd Wright stuff. Looks nice now, but.......

    My House Blond thinks that Art Deco is what buildings will look like in the future. An interesting observation on the past from and eight year old.

    As an aside, During that rash of hatred for the past that was called the sixties, the deco Pan Pacific Auditorium came about thirty seconds from demolition.

    For the record, I am for the preservation of historical places, but not at the expense of property rights. OTOH, I've seen many craftsman houses in So Cal that were FUBAR by idiot remodelers trying to turn a silk purse into a sow's ear. That's what shotguns are for. To do away with those people who would destroy the soul of a building. :-)

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    Going now to watch my kids sing Christmas Songs at a public school. Maybe I'll put it on You Tube. Ain't modern technology a gas?

  • ||

    This is "Old-school" brutal.

    How about "New Wave" brutal?

    "Techno"- brutal?

  • ||

    So what would happen to the Christian Scientists if they went all Howard Roark and just blew the bugger up without approval? Or if someone accidentally left some dynamite lying around in spots where, if detonated, it would by sheer coincidence, result in a controlled implosion, and, by bad luck, at a time when the church was entirely empty, that dynamite was accidentally detonated?

  • Plant Immigration Rights Suppo||

    Prolefeed, Objectivist Christian Scientists would indeed be an interesting idea. Perhaps we could start a splinter group based upon the teaching of MaryAyn BakerRand?

  • ||

    The board is making exactly the same mistake that the architect made when he designed the building.

    Buildings aren't sculptures whose value is determined by how neat they look in an elevation view, but by how they look and function as part of the urban landscape.

    Historic preservation is supposed to be about preserving resources that contribute to the character and well-being of a place, not fetishizing design for its own sake.

    The modernist architects who built things like that (whom Howard Roarke was supposed to represent) didn't realize that, and this historic preservation board doesn't seem to realize it, either.

  • J Wilkerson||

    Thew only brutalism I can detect is Brian Doherty's lack of sensiblity.
    I am one of the occasional visitors to the church mentioned in the article and attend some large meetings there annually, that fill the church to capacity. I never thought of it as plain or "fortress" like. I have always loved the church and its location. Many people from all over the world visit that church each year.

  • An Honest Question||

    J Wilkerson, perhaps you could throw more light on the reasons the church leadership want to knock it down.Is what is stated in the original article missing something? Do most of your congregation agree with you or with knocking it down?

  • ||

    joe,

    I was all set to agree with you until you dissed the Fountainhead.

  • ||

    I freaking love art deco and wish there would be a revival of it.

    Get thee to Napier, New Zealand. The whole town was leveled by an earthquake in the '31 and rebuilt in the fashion-du-jour. It has not been updated since.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    I give that science church some credit for at least having some kind of idea behind the architecture, compared with what gets built now. A lot of new churches seem to have no philosophy behind the design other than being as cheap as possible. For large churches, the trend seems to be concrete walls with a steel truss roof, just like grocery stores or warehouses.
    For example:
    http://www.hosannachurch.com/
    or this ugly trash:
    http://maps.live.com/default.aspx?v=2&cp=r0h1v27ny9b9&style=o&lvl=2&tilt=-90&dir=0&alt=-1000&scene=11339050&encType=1
    which they don't even put a picture of it on their web site.
    In time there will probably be people trying to save shit like this too. I wonder if someday modern sprawl houses will be treated like victorian buildings are now.

  • ||

    Colonel_Angus | December 18, 2007, 11:35pm | #


    "For large churches, the trend seems to be concrete walls with a steel truss roof, just like grocery stores or warehouses."

    The reason for this in my opinion is that church now is a business and the BIG box concept allows more tithing congregants for less cost.
    The sale of salvation is going fine, thanks.

    p.s. It has been my experience that the pastor's house usually isn't quite as spartan.

  • ||

    My mother lived in Washington Roebling's mansion in Trenton, NJ, for about six years after she was six years old.

    It was apparently a rather dark and ugly gothic place except for the stained glass window of the Brooklyn Bridge that overlooked the main entry. There was also the conservatory, which had flowers from all over the world all year around and was tended by an ancient Italian gardener who was very kind to my mother and her sisters.

    It is now all gone, to make way for some modernist (1940s) state office building. No effort was made to save it, or the artwork it contained, in spite of its illustrious former occupant.

    Nowadays, at least, someone would have made some effort to save the stained glass window, if nothing else. Alas, from all accounts it is now in some landfill somewhere.

    Incidentally, when old Washington built the mansion it was considered by most of the Roebling family to be an ostentatious affectation, unworthy of proper frugal volk and a waste of the family's money. His father had made a point of living and raising his family in a rather modest dwelling on the grounds of the famous wire rope works so that he could keep a close eye on production and the well-being and proper moral conduct of his workers.

    Around the end of the 1930s, the family wanted to donate it to the state to be the governor's mansion. By that time the upkeep on such places was such that noone wanted to be bothered with them.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    The modernist architects who built things like that (whom Howard Roarke was supposed to represent) didn't realize that, and this historic preservation board doesn't seem to realize it, either.

    I lack credentials in the field but somehow I picture in my mind's eye that Howard Roark's modern would look more like this.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    The New Wave Brutal looks suspiciously like the TransAmerica tower in San Francisco. Wonder if it is.

  • ||

    TWC,

    Good catch.

    I was thinking more of his highrise.

  • ||

    Could the congregation just stop maintenance, claiming that the building will heal if God wants it to, then have it condemned?

  • ||

    Speaking of Howard Roarke and modernist design, did you ever notice that the vacation resort he designed - the one the developers double-sold - has exactly the same anti-social design theory as a post-war sprawl subdivision?

  • robc||

    joe,

    Roarke was pretty anti-social.

    Im rereading Fountainhead right now. It had been a while, a friend of mine borrowed my Atlas Shrugged, so it kind of put me in the mood to slog thru some Rand again. If I could figure out who I loaned my Anthem too, things would be a lot easier. I guess Im going to have to buy it for a 3rd time.

    Also this

    I couldnt find a better picture. It was the Chemistry building at Ga Tech when I was there. I think they have moved since then. The rumor was that costs overruns led to eliminating the windows. I personally think the design was in case the Physics Dept. attacked.

  • Russ 2000||

    The University where I went to college also had quite a few brutalist buildings.

    ALL of UIC was brutalist when it was first built.

    DePaul has several brutalist buildings, none of which have available photographs at their website, but here's one from elsewhere:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/49544486@N00/256516119/

    Hard to believe the US was so paranoid that this became the defacto standard of public and pseudo-public buildings. Well, maybe it's not so hard to believe... At this point, you'd think brutalism would be making a comeback.

  • ||

    robc,

    It's a weird book with a lot of flaws, but you don't measure greatness by the lack of flaws. It has some stunning literary achievements, too.

    I read it like a combination of "outsider art" and agit-prop, and really enjoyed it.

  • ||

    This may require a somewhat idiosyncratic definition of brutalist religious architecture, but I would like to nominate the chapel at the U S Air Force Academy. Note particularly the gigantic sword stylized cross suspended above the altar.

    The library at my alma mater was composed of giant concrete panels with tiny vertical slits for windows; it looked more like a parking garage than a library. As far as I am aware, they have not yet constructed a parking garage which looks like a library.

  • robc||

    joe,

    I agree (about the flaws/greatness). I enjoy all the Rand fiction I have read, just sometimes you have to slog thru it. And I wont ever reread the gawdawful Galt speech chapter again. Every time I loan out my AS, I tell whoever borrows it to read about 5 pages or so, get the idea and skip to the last few pages of the chapter.

  • ||

    My quick look at the comments suggest that no one mentioned the 1st Amendment. Isn't telling a church how to use their property a violation of the Free Exercise clause.

  • ||

    Chris,
    Don't you realize the Bill of Rights aren't worth the parchment they are written on and will remain that way unless Ron Paul becomes president.

  • Mad Max||

    Comparatively few comments bashing Christian Science in this thread, although I certainly liked this one:

    "Could the congregation just stop maintenance, claiming that the building will heal if God wants it to, then have it condemned?"

    If this story had been about a Pentecostal or Catholic Church, we would have had more insults, albeit not necessarily more creative ones.

  • Plant Immigration Rights Suppo||

    Mad Max, part of it may be that Christian Scientists and libertarians are strange allies on a few issues that almost no one else will touch. I.E. the right to refuse inoculations.

  • ||

    TWC-

    The New Wave Brutal looks suspiciously like the TransAmerica tower in San Francisco. Wonder if it is.

    Close!-- Ryugyong Hotel- Pyongyang, North Korea

  • Plant Immigration Rights Suppo||

    Completely off topic but is the air quality in Pyongyang as bad as it is in Beijing?

  • Robert||

    I just want to know how the Al Brodax Bluto wound up as Brutus.

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