It looks like yet another modernist architectural landmark will soon disappear. The Cuyahoga County Commissioners are expected to approve the demolition of the AT Tower, also known as the Cleveland Trust Tower and the Ameritrust Tower. The tower, completed in 1971, was designed by the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer. He's best known for the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, the HUD building in Washington, DC, and for the Wassily chair, one of those remarkable objects that look years ahead of its time. Breuer's tower was designed in the Brutalist style, admittedly a hard form to fall in love with at first sight. Perhaps because of its rather unfortunate name--derived from the French beton brut, meaning "raw concrete"--or because its simple, forceful forms can appear chunky and cheap when not designed properly, Brutalism has generally been tepidly embraced by the public when it hasn't provoked outright scorn. The AT Tower is no exception, with the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Steven Litt an outraged mob of one coming to its defense.
Modernism has never become part of vernacular architecture, so modernist buildings can be treated cavalierly, especially when they're made of concrete. When iconic modernist buildings fall into disrepair, there's a tendency to blame the building for its own dilapidation. It's as if a modernist building's decay validates the negative reactions when it was built. See, I always knew that boxy thing was ugly. Now look at it! A fuller expression of this blame-the-building sentiment can be seen in an article by the art critic Robert Hughes. Not long ago he paid a visit to Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles. Hughes reports,
Just about everyone in the profession adored it, or said they did; the only people who couldn't stand the great grimy beast were the luckless ones who lived in it. We found when we arrived there in 1979 that it was in pitiable condition. Corbu's béton brut couldn't be cleaned, the metal-framed windows were hopelessly corroded, the electricity kept shorting out, the brise-soleils or concrete sunscreens were permanently foul with pigeon shit, the "shopping street" halfway up inside was locked and shuttered because ordinary French people prefer to do their marketing on real streets (an obvious aspect of social behaviour that eluded the intellectual grasp of the formgiver, who believed that folk ought to behave in accordance with the dotty authoritarian notions of idealist philosophes like Saint-Simon and Fourier). Saddest of all was the roof, which Corbu had imagined as a sort of concrete Acropolis dedicated to the cult of the sun and of physical culture, like a Greek palaestra, complete with pools and jogging track. It was a chaos of dried slime and broken cinder-blocks.
It's as if nature herself is extracting retribution on a modernist architect arrogant enough to believe he could change the natural order of society. The lesson we're supposed to learn is clear: the Unité d'Habitation is falling to pieces, thereby proving that architecture is powerless to change anything.