Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Brutal DC is an Artful, Informative Look at Imperial American Architecture

If neo-classicism was the architecture of the American republic, brutalism became the style of the American empire. Under John F. Kennedy’s administration, the federal government prioritized funding for public buildings, infrastructure, and urban renewal projects at a time when the stripped-down, imposing style was in vogue in architectural circles. Brutal DC, at the Southern Utah Museum of Art, outlines the history of this development, its impacts and continuing transformation.

Brutalist architecture traces its roots to the post-World War II era when a desire for modernization and cost-effective construction techniques led architects to explore new design principles. Characterized by its prominent use of exposed concrete, geometric shapes and an emphasis on functionalism, brutalism sought to strip architecture of ornamentation and reveal the raw, honest qualities of building materials. Many people found the resulting fortress-like structures harsh and uninviting, even brutal (though the term “brutalism” derives not from some critic’s insult, but, rather, the French term for raw concrete: “béton brut”). Others saw it as an honest, progressive from of architecture, its robust, monumental character a testament to the transformative power of architecture to shape our urban environments.

From every angle and under every possible light, Ty Cole’s photographs embrace the aesthetic possibilities of an architectural style deemed ugly by many.

Photographs by Ty Cole, an award-winning photographer based in Brooklyn and LA, anchor Brutal DC, offering a captivating visual exploration of the city’s iconic architectural landscape. Through his lens, Cole captures the essence of these imposing structures with a keen eye for detail and composition, revealing the interplay of light and shadow on the textured surfaces. Cole’s work allows viewers to appreciate the often overlooked beauty of brutalist architecture, highlighting its bold geometric forms and the striking contrast it brings to the cityscape. In his hands, these buildings transform mere structures into compelling works of art, inviting us to reconsider our perceptions of this controversial architectural style and recognize the poetry in its raw and unadorned aesthetics.

The rest of the exhibit is as much informational as artistic. In the decades since the height of brutalism, some brutalist buildings have gained appreciation as iconic architectural landmarks, while others have faced demolition due to maintenance issues or changing urban planning trends. Through archival documents, architectural drawings, and construction photographs, the exhibit examines the past, present and possible future of brutalism in DC via seven iconic buildings: the Forrestal Building, home to the Department of Energy; the Hirshhorn Museum on the Mall; the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building on Pennsylvania Avenue; the Lauinger Library at Georgetown University; the Hubert H. Humphrey Building near the Capitol; and the Robert C. Weaver Building, considered the first brutalist building in DC and home to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (An example of the type of unintentiona. irony only the federal government can manage, the building displaced a diverse neighborhood comprising African-American and immigrant communities). Many of the displays feature reimaginings of the spaces that turn away from  the austere, imperial history of the architecture: The DC firm BLDUS reimagines the Humphrey building as home to a new federal “Department of Play,” while proposals for the circular Hirshhorn Museum have included an short-term inflatable structure that resembles some surgical intervention. 

A proposal for the Robert C. Weaver Building would add light and color in order to activate the building as a public space.


Diller Scofidio & Renfro’s plan to create more space at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum by inflating a translucent membrane, commonly referred to as “the bubble,” was rejected by the museum’s board.

Love it or hate it, brutalism has become part of our architectural vernacular. You can date certain buildings in Utah, like Snowbird Resort or the Art & Architecture building at the University of Utah, by their brutalist qualities. But in no city in the U.S. did the architectural style become so prevalent as in the nation’s capital. In a way, the raw concrete of brutalism matches the unadorned marble of places like the White House and U.S. Capitol, helping the brutalist architecture blend in to the monochromatic, height-restrained urban planning that characterizes the city. Brutal DC does an excellent job of helping us see more deeply this impactful architectural movement that has imprinted itself on our national character.

Brutal DC, Southern Utah Museum of Art, Cedar City, through Mar. 2, 2024.

All images courtesy the author.

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