Detroit’s Brutalist architecture deserves a clos...

Detroit’s Brutalist architecture deserves a closer look

The controversial style known for stark concrete facades hasn’t gotten much recognition in the city. But that should change.

Sweet, sweet concrete. Stock photo by Bromine from Pixabay

Brutalism is often described as a stark, cold, unforgiving architectural style. But that isn’t always the case in Detroit. 

The controversial style arose in the 1950s as an offshoot of modernism, giving primacy to a building’s function and materials. “The modernists were concerned with material honesty and transparency and structural exposure,” said Michael Abrahamson, an assistant professor at the University of Utah’s School of Architecture who’s written extensively about Detroit architecture. “Brutalism is really a return to those first principles and an exaggeration of them.”

Architecturally, Detroit is most known for its majestic 1920s Art Deco structures, like the Fisher and Guardian buildings. Its Brutalist legacy is less well recognized. But the city’s influence on the style can be felt in other ways.

The use of exposed concrete, one of Brutalism’s defining characteristics, can be traced back to one of the country’s leading proponents of the material: architect Albert Kahn. His bold yet humanistic industrial buildings in the early 1900s, like the Ford Highland Park and Packard plants, helped popularize the use of functional materials as design features. Fifty years later, Minoru Yamasaki further expanded on the uses of concrete with his proto-Brutalist designs for Wayne State University. 

Several well-known practitioners of the Brutalist style — including Gunnar Birkerts, William Kessler and Glen Paulsen — emerged from the seminal firms of Yamasaki and Eero Saarinen. 

According to Abrahamson, Detroit is also unique for the African American architects who harnessed Brutalism. An addition to Second Baptist Church in Greektown, as big as the church itself, was designed by the Black architect Nathan Johnson in 1968. The largest Black-led firm in the city, Sims-Varner and Associates, designed several Brutalist-adjacent buildings, like the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (1997) and the Redford Branch of the Detroit Public Library (1978). 

“These architects made some pretty impressive statements about the possibilities of this style,” Abrahamson said. “They’re not the purist statements, but they’re meeting a kind of cultural need for differentiation and identity.”

The Wright. Credit: Knight Foundation/Flickr

The Wright, in particular, is more “symbolically and ornamentally rich” than most Brutalist buildings. “Reinforced concrete is the symbol of some Brutalist buildings,” Abrahamson said. “There’s often nothing else to look at.”

History has not been kind to Brutalism. Some buildings were built in response to the civil unrest in the 1960s. Though this influence has been exaggerated, the fortress-like appearance of many municipal and campus structures hasn’t helped its legacy. 

Brutalism has also been associated with the Soviet Union and its desire for cheap, functional, imposing architecture. And in climates with a lot of precipitation, concrete takes on a weathered, stained look that many find unattractive. Today, numerous buildings are nearing the end of their functional life and may face demolition.

This controversy is perhaps best exemplified by Boston City Hall. One of the premier examples of Brutalist architecture, it has also faced constant criticism since it was built in 1968, including being called the “World’s Ugliest Building,” though it’s received new appreciation in recent years.

Abrahamson is doing his part to grow appreciation for the style. In addition to his academic work, he ran a popular Tumblr account, “Fuck Yeah Brutalism,” showcasing the architecture through stunning photography. He thinks that a positive reevaluation has taken place over the last 10 years. 

“There’s been a substantial change of opinion about the place of Brutalism within architectural history,” he said. “Though public opinion is still divided about these buildings.”

We’ll do our part, too. Here are some of the most notable Brutalist buildings in Detroit.

Second Baptist Church addition

Built in 1968, this Brutalist wing was added to the oldest African-American church in the Midwest. It features a garden on top of its attractive, floating roof.

Frank Murphy Hall of Justice

Credit: @auvet/Flickr

Built in 1970 and designed by Eberle M. Smith, this 12-story downtown building houses the Wayne County Circuit Court. It embodies both the best and worst features of the style.

Like many Brutalist structures, form follows function. According to Michigan Modern, the courtrooms are concealed behind large concrete slabs, giving the building a “heavy, monolithic appearance.”

Abrahamson suspects it was built in response to the uprising of 1967. “The chronology might not line up perfectly, but it’s an exaggerated concrete building which is, effectively, the embodiment of police power.”

Patrick V. McNamara Federal Building

Renowned local firm Smith, Hinchman and Grylls dabbled in Brutalism for this downtown building built in 1976. Another imposing municipal structure, it has a largely unvarying and unforgiving facade of windows framed by concrete climbing up its 27 floors. Tom Perkins, writing for DetroitIsIt, described it as having an “angular, repetitive, geometrical composition.” 

Wayne State University Shapero Hall of Pharmacy

Designed by Glen Paulsen in the 1960s, this striking building looks like an inverse pyramid with increasingly pronounced cantilevers above a glass lobby. This kind of design is a “characteristic Brutalist move,” Abrahamson said. “But what makes the Pharmacy Building interesting is that instead of being supported by columns, it seems to be floating.”

1300 Lafayette

Credit: Mikerussell/Wikimedia Commons

Built in 1964, this luxury condo building adjacent to Lafayette Park is the tallest Brutslist building in Detroit at 30 floors. Gunner Birkerts’s only residential building maximizes its proximity to the Detroit River through height and unobstructed views.

Kresge-Ford Building

A fine example of modular architecture, this building on the College for Creative Studies campus designed by William Kessler was built in 1975. Influenced by the Japanese architectural movement Metabolism, whose buildings could theoretically be disassembled, it looks like it was constructed with concrete Lego pieces. John Gallagher wrote in the Detroit Free Press that it was “designed to be expanded at will by simply adding more units.”

Hart Plaza and Chene Park

Purists probably wouldn’t describe either of these outdoor venues as Brutalist, but they share many qualities typical of the style, especially their emphasis on geometrical concrete shapes. 

But they deserve inclusion because Brutalism was also known for its landscape architecture (see: Lawrence Halprin’s Stepping Stone Falls in Flint). Sitting on the Detroit River, these plazas meld function and style in interesting ways. At Hart Plaza, designed in 1975 by Smith, Hynchman and Grylls in consultation with Isamu Noguchi, steps act as features to be both used and appreciated. At Chene Park, designed by Schervish, Vogel, Merz in 1982, concrete silos provide visual interest from both inside and out.

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.