Concrete plans

by Yule Heibel on February 4, 2008

Spacing Toronto published an interesting entry back in November, which I just stumbled across when I read Shawn Micallef‘s entry today, Concrete Toronto: Looking at our city. Today’s entry announces a panel discussion about concrete and Brutalism, taking place tomorrow evening in Toronto. It’s organized around the book, Concrete Toronto, published last fall.

I started to write a lengthy comment in response, and then thought I’d better just post it to my blog instead.


There is, I think, an interesting (and unspoken) relationship between concrete architecture (which is often “car-centric”) and what it replaced (“heritage”). I just finished writing an article for the March issue of FOCUS Magazine, where I look at our city’s Centennial Square once again. This 1960s-era plaza, which everyone agrees is a pretty big failure as far as creating urban vibrancy is concerned, is officially hailed on UVic’s Maltwood Museum website as “the beginning of a vast scheme to preserve, restore and revive downtown Victoria.”

What it actually accomplished was the demolition of an old public market and the deletion of an entire block of street (in favour of an overlong, car-friendly street block). Centennial Square was plunked into that sundered fabric, and it’s still just a big concrete plaza that no one seems to use or love. The Maltwood Museum website goes on to enthuse that Centennial Square’s civic impetus was based on “the Norwich plan.”

And that’s where one really has to look if one wants to understand the questions around energy & funding, as well as ideology, behind the sort of urban renewals which Centennial Square (and probably many “renewal” projects in Toronto and other Canadian cities) depended on. The “City of Norwich Plan 1945″ was finalized by 1938, and had more to do with a hatred of urban density and Victorian architecture than German bombers (the usual excuse given for the make-over of many British cities, countered by Gavin Stamp’s 2007 book, Britain’s Lost Cities, and a great review by Stephen McClarence in the Times Online.

Meanwhile, in the fight(s) to preserve 19th and early 20th century heritage architecture, it seems all the blame for its destruction and/or its being threatened is put on the shoulders of “evil” developers. But what Centennial Square and researchers like Gavin Stamp actually prove is that the mind-set for destroying “heritage” was hatched and nurtured by civic planners for reasons of urban renewal.

My own sense is that this is a peculiarly English phenomenon, a sort of psychic hangover, if you will, of traumas experienced by the British during the UK’s rapid (and socially corrosive) industrialization. That process, let’s not forget, produced urban crowding and density of an altogether different order than had ever been experienced before, and I’m convinced that in the British imagination, this history fused the concepts of “slum” and “density” into a single (and consequently frightening) idea — even though “density” no longer equals “slum” in Western cities today.

Hence, the notion of car-centric architecture — and let’s face it, many examples of the 50s-through-70s concrete building type are first and foremost car-centric, with loss of detail and richness at the pedestrian level — fuses in Anglo-Saxon cultures with both a love of the (low density) suburbs and the concomitant attempts actually to decrease the density of cities. Density is at some deep psychological level reviled and feared, and 50s or 60s era rat experiments only served to deepen that revulsion. No one seemed to ask whether it was indeed a “natural” revulsion (because then you’d have to wonder why southerners or Asians manage to live in density without cracking up) or whether it was a lingering social hangover, aided by the strenuous reactions of planners against the “evils” of density as manifested in Industrial Revolution era slums.

As for the concrete or brutalist architecture that either replaced denser, older buildings or that in-filled urban space: what (many) people intuitively reject in those concrete utopias is their sterility. If my argument is right, one could say that concrete renewal was done to “innoculate” against urban density, against slums, against diseases — because in the historical imagination of anyone associated with Britain’s progress through the Industrial Revolution, “slum” and “density” became linked. Through its style, Brutalism tends to banish, minimize, or erase the pedestrian through

  • monumentalism (you are insignificant and matter not);
  • erasure of the kind of detail experienced at 5 mph (walking speed) in favour of more massive form/shape impressions experienced at 35 mph (car speed), for nothing isolates you from (or “inoculates against”?) rubbing up against other people like cars do;
  • and a tendency to be interventionist in the street-scape (what people mean when they talk about its refusal to “fit in” or be “in scale”) — think of someone scouring the kitchen: that’s intervention if you’re mere “dirt”

All of these style factors, I’d argue, point to something programmatic: the desire to embrace the kind of sterility that “cleans up” the germ-laden, densely-populated immigrant or slum areas, typically festooned with “old” and “dirty” buildings. Cleanliness is progress toward godliness and all that, and some want their godliness to be low density…

We’re only now coming away from that and accepting density as a good (urban) thing, which furthermore doesn’t equate to dirt and disease.

Heritage preservation works on the flip side, perhaps: heritage is still approached at times as something that should be kept pristine or separate or pure (apart) from other influences (like encroaching density, development), which seems to me to repeat the attempt to avert contagion or pollution. We’re still treating style as a kind of mental hygiene, even while changing our minds about what’s clean and what’s dirty.

What’s “clean,” what’s “dirty”?  Photo of postwar urban buildings in Norwich, England:

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt February 5, 2008 at 11:36 am

Great post. Always good to have reasonable discussions about brutalist and victorian architecture that isn’t fused with condescension. keep it up.

Yule February 6, 2008 at 11:52 am

Thanks for reading — and commenting, Matt. I wrote a follow-up entry, I am rat? Not, on Feb.5, which references an earlier post that discussed Edward Hall’s The Hidden Dimension and referenced Calhoun’s rat experiments. I was prompted to do this in part because I was thinking about density anyway (and its “hidden” relation to fear of slums), then your excellent entries got me thinking some more about concrete architecture, and that all reminded me of an entry by Richard Florida on Feb.2, very brief, just a pointer to an article by Christopher Ketchum, The Genius of the Development Industrial-Complex in CounterPunch. Ketchum’s article seemed to repeat all the “rat anxieties” about density, hook line & sinker — including, it seemed to me, the association of density and slum (or depravity, degradation, etc.).

On Florida‘s comments board, someone named Zoe B. (no link included) posted a really intelligent counter-punch (ha) to Ketchum. Quite good, and spot on, too.

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