Monument to Aesthetic Imperialism

The Third Church of Christ, Scientist, at the intersection of 16th and I streets in Washington, D.C. (a few blocks north of the White House), is a hard building to like, as even its admirers admit. Designed by Araldo A. Cossutta, a former associate of I.M. Pei, the 37-year-old structure exemplifies brutalism, which Christy MacLear of the National Trust for Historic Preservation concedes is a "challenging style to defend largely because its foundation is grounded in philosophy, as opposed to aesthetics; people simply don't think it is good-looking." You can judge that for yourself. But among the people who don't much care for the church are its owners, who want to replace it with something friendlier. "This brutalist, unwelcoming, bunkerlike building is not a proper representation of our practice or our theology," says church spokesman J. Darrow Kirkpatrick.

Too bad, says Washington's Historic Preservation Review Board, which in December declared the building a landmark. Never mind the persistent mildew, the expense of heating the building and changing light bulbs in fixtures that can be reached only by scaffolding, the cavernous atmosphere of the 400-seat sanctuary, or the sheer ugliness of the exterior. The board has deemed the building historically significant, citing its "amazingly high integrity (in all respects: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association), down to the original carpeting and seat upholstery in the church auditorium." This sort of architectural diktat is in some respects worse than using eminent domain to transfer land from its owners to politically favored developers, since in this case there's no compensation, just or otherwise. Why collect donations from fans of brutalism, or even allocate taxpayers' money, to buy and preserve this "rare Modernist church" when you can force the current owners to maintain it as a monument to aesthetic imperialism?

Last week, with help from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the church challenged the historic landmark designation in federal court, arguing that it violates the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Since the Supreme Court has said that "neutral laws of general applicability" do not violate the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom even if they ban a religion's central rite, the First Amendment argument probably won't succeed. The statutory argument looks more promising: The law cited by the Christian Scientists says a land use regulation that imposes "a substantial burden" on religious freedom is permissible only if it's the "least restrictive means" of serving "a compelling governmental interest." Much hinges on whether preserving the church building counts as a compelling interest; the plaintiffs should hope the case is not heard by a brutalism booster.

A better approach would be to recognize the restrictions that accompany historic landmark designations as a kind of "taking" for "public use" that requires "just compensation" under the Fifth Amendment. If taxpayers were compelled to pay for the maintenance of modernist monstrosities, they might start to object, and this safeguard would protect property owners regardless of their religious beliefs. In 1978 the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the designation of New York City's Grand Central Terminal as a historic landmark qualified as a taking, but that was before a string of cases in the 1980s and '90s establishing that land use regulations, if severe enough, can amount to a taking. The Christian Scientists might not fare very well under those precedents, since they still have use of their church. Yet it's clear the government has taken something of considerable value from them, allegedly for the benefit of the general public. Even assuming that historic landmark laws are justified in principle, why should the church alone bear the burden of its building's forced preservation?

Brian Doherty noted the dispute over the church's future back in December.

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  • ||

    I'm sure there's a few pyromaniacs in DC who would happily help the church leaders out. Though the church should cancel any insurance policies they have first to keep the moral high ground.

  • Antiglobalist||

    Paint it pink. Should help lighten up their image.

  • bubba||

    If the building is so historic, maybe the gubment should pay for the maintenance.

  • Nigel Watt||

    They should just abandon it, build a new church elsewhere, and tell DC to suck it.

  • Episiarch||

    Did they commission that monstrosity in the first place?

  • ||

    Gosh, why can't they just pray a new building into existence? Being Christian Scientists, they should know that the building isn't really ugly; it's just a state of mind...

    I think the Third Church of Christ, Scientist's bunker-like appearance may well be justified. After all, what happened to the First and Second Churches of Christ, Scientist? Were they built of straw and twigs?

  • ||

    Much hinges on whether preserving the church building counts as a compelling interest;

    If that qualifies, everything qualifies, and the work the SCOTUS began in Lochner will finally be complete. With the odd exception for abortion, flag burning, and so forth, of course.

  • ||

    I can't help but wonder if the "Washington Historic Preservation Review Board" designation is entirely in good faith.

    Perhaps there's another adgenda at work here?

  • ||

    Even assuming that historic landmark laws are justified in principle, why should the church alone bear the burden of its building's forced preservation?

    An excellent question. Unfortunately, the Hysterical Preservation types are incapable of comprehending it.

    When I tell somebody, "If you want to control what happens to that building/ land, get your fucking checkbook out." they almost invariably look at me as if I have two heads.

    As for this particular building, I think they should put some hcannons on the roof.

  • ||

    hcannons

  • Abdul||

    To be fair, the Church must have made a bundle when it was used as the set for HBO's prison-drama "Oz."

  • ed||

    What's that sticking out the side? Looks like a gun belt. Are those bullets or bells? Egad.

  • ||

    Assuming there are a bunch of Star Wars fans with Imperial Stormtrooper uniforms living in or near DC, that would be the perfect place for them to hold their gatherings.

    That building just cues the Imperial Theme in my head.

  • ||

    I want to hear the lawyer for Washington's Historic Preservation Review Board arguing that requiring the Third Church of Christ, Scientist to preserve this butt ugly, energy wasting architectural sacrilege constitutes a "compelling government interest".

    I'm sure there already exixts sufficient eyesores in D.C. for the public to appreciate shudder at as they walk by.

    This is a case of petty bureucratic tyranny* by sinecured liberal art dumbasses if there ever was one.

    * OK, tyranny is a slight hyperbole. Petty bureaucrat, eyesore, butt ugly, dumbasses and architectural sacrilege are not.

  • ||

    Maybe the building was designed as a landing pad for the Mother Ship- it would explain a lot.

  • ||

    "I can't help but wonder if the "Washington Historic Preservation Review Board" designation is entirely in good faith.

    Perhaps there's another adgenda at work here?"

    No. There is no other agenda than that they are nuts and think anything over 50 years old is a landmark. Also, they get support from archatecture critics who think anything that is so ugly and awful that the philistines in the general public hate it must be a landmark of historic significance. If only the 9-11 highjackers had missed the Pentegon and hit that thing.

  • Warty||

    I can't express how awesome it is that there is an architectural school called "brutalism". Fuckin' metal, dude.

  • Bearded Beavis||

    Pei is a hack and apparently his former associate is also.

  • Walter||

    I'm going contrarian here. I like the building, at least that picture of it.

    That said, the owners should just bulldoze the thing. Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, right?

  • ||

    When I tell somebody, "If you want to control what happens to that building/ land, get your fucking checkbook out." they almost invariably look at me as if I have two heads.

    Tiger Stadium, Detroit has sat unused at the corner of Michigan and Trumball since 1999, long enough that I had to look up the date to be sure. At last count, the preservationists have floated 16,241 different schemes to save that butt ugly monstrosity. Money to buy the damned thing from the city always is the stumbling block.

    As I type, the stadium is finally getting partially demolished, but the Tiger Stadium Fan Club still is attempting a rescue of ~1/3 of the stands plus the playing field. This is all over a city owned piece of property that has been off the tax rolls the entire time. I like history as much as the next guy, but Jesus H. McChrist, sometimes you just got to let go.

  • ||

    That said, the owners should just bulldoze the thing. Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, right?

    Walter.

    It works every time I've tried it. Just ask the pilots who used to land their planes at Meigs Field.

  • ||

    Looks like a parking garage...or a prison.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Landuse law has not yet been established yet concerning "historical landmarks"? I suspect Radley is correct that the Church's legal argument will prevail.

  • ed||

    it cost up to $8,000 a year to change the light bulbs because scaffolding must be erected

    Yes, but if they switch to CFLs they can lengthen the replacement cycle and brutalize their few remaining worshippers with harsh white light. Stalin would be so proud.

  • mary baker eddy||

    christian scientists should be able to heal their buildings through prayer.

  • Elemenope||

    If that qualifies, everything qualifies, and the work the SCOTUS began in Lochner will finally be complete. With the odd exception for abortion, flag burning, and so forth, of course.

    True that. Compelling interest should mean something, on the order of "if we don't do this, thousands of people will die and/or we'll lose the War for sure!"

    Historical preservation as compelling interest is bullshit on a stick.

  • ||

    Gosh, why can't they just pray a new building into existence? Being Christian Scientists, they should know that the building isn't really ugly; it's just a state of mind... - Mister DNA



    christian scientists should be able to heal their buildings through prayer. - mary baker eddy



    CSs think everything is Mind, so, to them, the building isn't really there, is it? How can you get in trouble for bulldozing a non-existent building?

    Kevin

  • Rick H.||

    I like the building, at least that picture of it.

    I dig it too, quite separate from the issue of anyone being forced to maintain its existence.

    Though occupation of the structure might start to feel a tad wearying after a while, the thing is pretty damn cool in its "ugliness."

  • The Extispicator||

    I think my downtown parking garage may actually be a brutalist masterpiece. Thanks, Uncle Sam! Stupid, unenlightened me thought I was going into an ugly, moldy concrete death trap, but now I know it's actually art -- because you say so! Is there anything you can't do??

  • Seer||

    I like the building, but I'd use it for something else. It doesn't make much sense as a Church.

  • ||

    They need to start hanging pro-Second Amendment banners on the building. D.C. will relent in a week or so.

  • Dog\'s New Clothes||

    JsD,

    It would piss me off even more if I lived in Corktown, an otherwise nice neighborhood blighted by that rotting monstrosity.

    But we NEED to save Tiger Stadium so fathers can tell their sons about the great times they had watching Bobby Higginson and Damion Easley.

  • ||

    We are the Village Green Preservation Society

  • Rhywun||

    "Modernist monstrosities" are usually what we get without preservation. See: Penn Station in NYC.

    That said, it is absurd to believe that 1971 qualifies a building as "historical".

  • ||

    "Compelling interest" means that the government felt compelled to act. "We just couldn't sit around and do nothing!"

  • ||

    But we NEED to save Tiger Stadium so fathers can tell their sons about the great times they had watching Bobby Higginson and Damion Easley.

    I'm much older so I actually have fond memories of the old ballpark, Kaline, Lolich, etc. It was a great place to watch a game but the building is ugly as sin from the exterior. Professional baseball is not coming back to the corner, and it is long past time to put that prime piece of real estate to productive use. We have enough decaying abandoned buildings in Detroit, developers want to buy this one. And pay propert taxes too.

    Fuck me, the world is stupid.

  • ||

    That thing looks like it something in Doom.

    I think my downtown parking garage may actually be a brutalist masterpiece. Oh, so YOU'RE the *assh*le who keeps putting his Chevy Caprice in the choir loft!

  • ||

    That's nothing. Check this out:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:SBUHospital.jpg


    This is SFW, but not exactly easy on the eyes.

  • ||

    That was funny, joe.

  • Highway||

    Historical Preservation Societies often have very skewed ideas of 'significance'. There's a bridge in Maryland that's been preserved, even though a new road and bridge has been built right next to it, because it's the only 'Aluminum Box Bridge' in Maryland.

    The reason it's the only one? Because it's terrible. Maintenance was awful, construction was awful, and they never built any others. But we have to keep this one, according to those folks.

  • ||

    Contrast that hideous thing with the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley, designed by Bernard Maybeck. I doubt if many object to the landmark designation in that case.

    Mister DNA: You'll no doubt enjoy the name of the Fifth Third Bank.

  • ||

    Mister DNA: You'll no doubt enjoy the name of the Fifth Third Bank.

    Ever since to expanded into my area, I've called them the Fifteenth Bank.

  • Mike Laursen||

    the expense of heating the building and changing light bulbs in fixtures that can be reached only by scaffolding

    Maybe, that's their way out: "Why doesn't the Washington's Historic Preservation Review Board care about the earth?"

  • ||

    The 1.4 Bank?

  • ||

    I wish I could say that the building I work in is much better. It kind of isn't though.

    Lots of people work in ugly buildings like the one I work in, but I live in a "Olde Towne". The local yokels here would love to see my building plowed under. Anything under 100 years old is ripe for detonation in their eyes.

  • ||

    UIC in Chicago was built with a "Brutalist" aesthetic as well, and it nicely captures a Soviet style not seen in many other places.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/pgoyette/453882399/in/set-72157600061475925/

    They are starting to make headway in bulldozing many of the old structures and replacing them with buildings that are a little less horror-inducing in recent Eastern Bloc immigrants.

  • Nigel Watt||

    joe, I was thinking 1.666666666666666666666666666666666666666666666666666666666666666666 bank.

  • ||

    Never mind the persistent mildew

    Health risk...get it condemned then tear it down.

    Churches are notoriously terrible at the land development game. At least up until they hire someone who knows what the hell they are doing.

  • ||

    joe,

    5/3 = 1.66666666...

  • ||

    There you go again, Nigel, with your elitism and your, quote-unquote "correct math."

  • Rationalitate||

    I used to intern for NORML who have their offices in the building right next door, and the idea that anyone would expend even a breath trying to save that building makes me want to break down and cry.

  • ||

    So I guess if the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board gets its way, I can forget about ever realizing my dream of seeing the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building leveled.

  • ||

    Rationalitate,

    You want to cry, read this. Big ego archetects are a menace.

    http://www.city-journal.org/2008/eon0722td.html

  • ||

    Maybe they could lease the building to The Phantom.

  • ||

    I guess it's no secret that churches have enough money to discard a functioning building in order to satisfy their vanity. Don't you remember when Jesus cast off his lowly sandals for Otto Tootsi Plohound?

  • ||

    Just for the record: Fifth Third is a terrible bank. They shut off your debit card if you use it more than three times in one day if you are out of town. NYC is fun, when you have to call your bank 4 times a day.

  • ||

    So what would happen if they said "fuck you" to the preservationists and some dynamite accidentally went off in the building while it was completely empty?

  • dhex||

    i kinda like brutalism, from a distance. it's futuristic in that 1970s dystopian future sense.

  • ||

    i kinda like brutalism, from a distance. it's futuristic in that 1970s dystopian future sense.



    50s through the 70s, actually. I generally like Modern architecture and even some Brutalist as well if it is done right. But if it is done wrong, it often goes VERY wrong.

  • ||

    Any comments on this new synagogue in a residential SF neighborhood?


    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/object/article?f=/c/a/2008/08/11/BA9Q126FDN.DTL&o=0

  • Howard Roark||

    "So what would happen if they said 'fuck you' to the preservationists and some dynamite accidentally went off in the building while it was completely empty?"

    Just say the word.

    By the way, Mary Baker Eddy gives me the creeps. Megalomaniac female cult leader with her brainwashed followers . . . uh, never mind.

  • ||

    Vanessa: Just saw that. As a house of worship, I'd give it a 2, the Cossutta a 1, and the Maybeck a 10. Glad I don't live in the house next door that it seems like it's leaning on.

  • ||

    Ya know, if I had the cash, I'd love to buy that building...

    Given its history, it'd be great as either a "Lost Liberty Hotel" or Museum.

    As a "Brutalist" building, can you think of a more apropos setting for government over-reach? Hell, it even looks the part!

  • ||

    PapayaSF: I gotta say, I don't think I care for it. I might prefer it to the dirty looking Church of Christ, Scientist. I doubt either could put me in touch with God.

    I'm curious to see the synagogue for real now.

  • Elemenope||

    By the way, Mary Baker Eddy gives me the creeps. Megalomaniac female cult leader with her brainwashed followers . . . uh, never mind.

    The best cheap shots are the funny ones.

  • ||

    I can't express how awesome it is that there is an architectural school called "brutalism".



    They didn't consider themselves "brutalist" at the time, brutalism is what they called "modernism" after it jumped the shark.

    After the protest movements of the 1960s, modernists couldn't build glass-walled boxes lest they be smashed by some stinkin' no good hippie, so they replaced the glass and steel with concrete.

  • ||

    So what would happen if they said "fuck you" to the preservationists and some dynamite accidentally went off in the building while it was completely empty?

    The owner of the Madison Lenox hotel(s), Mike Ilitch, wanted to tear the rotting buildings down and the preservationists got a court order preventing it. Mike then got the city inspector to declare the building(s) a public safety hazard. The detruction had been going on for a few hours before the preservationists could get another court order to stop it. Happily, enough damage was done to the structures to make the whole point moot. They were definitely beyond preserving after about four hours of hydraulic assault.

    I laughed my ass off over the whole comedy/drama.

  • Russ 2000||

    Far be it for be to defend joe, but 1.4 is their current CD rate.

  • Russ 2000||

    Are there any examples of brutalist buildings that aren't either a) government-owned or b) church-owned? I'm sure there must be, but all the ones I can think of in Chicago are either a or b.

  • Rhywun||

    I myself rather like the Boston City Hall, one of the more famous--and extreme--exercises in brutality. That little thing pictured above doesn't hold a candle to it.

    Any comments on this new synagogue in a residential SF neighborhood?



    It's no better or worse than much of the other mediocre stuff going up there. The modern art museum, the new museum in Golden Gate Park, the new central library and now this are all rather dreary if you ask me. Examples of being "clever". Meh.

  • ||

    I agree with the earlier poster who mentioned Imperial Stormtroopers -- this place looks like it should be blown up by Harrison Ford and a mob of teddy bears.

  • Bryce||

    Russ

    The Joseph Regenstein Library on the University of Chicago campus is a Brutalist building.

  • ||

    Rhywun - I haven't perceived those other buildings as attempts to be clever, but I am largely ignorant about architecture. I drive by the library every day. Seems kinda ordinary to me. But the new synagogue is about as clever as a brick to the head, the attempt is so obvious. Still, I'm really curious to get a look at it in actuality because the impact is bound to be striking, however I react.

    Re: Brutalism in architecture - news to me and I'm glad to learn of it.

  • Rhywun||

    Yeah, you have a point. I guess by "clever" I had in mind "ugly" :) But also a certain disrespect by the architect towards the common folk. See the Dalrymple article John linked to. Actually the library isn't too bad, it at least makes an attempt to "fit in". The de Young museum is in a category by itself though. Ugh.

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  • Nike Dunk High||

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