The European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 is focusing attention on a piece of architectural history that many would just as soon see torn down—the Brutalist buildings of the post-war period. HOCHTIEF erected many of these structures, and in some cases is also involved in efforts to have them modernized.
Standing in front of the Grugahalle is an overwhelming experience, even 60 years after it was first opened. This monument of the modern era perches on the asphalt in Essen like a butterfly of stone. Its outspread wings slope skyward over the Ruhr district. At night, when thousands of lights illuminate the concert hall for 10,000 guests, it appears supremely self-assured. But in the dreary daylight of an overcast summer day, that luster suddenly fades. Terrible, say the critics of its massive architectural style. Beautiful, counter the supporters of this outstanding monument of the early post-war period, which was erected by HOCHTIEF in the late 1950s. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles performed here, and from 1977 to 1986 the hall was the venue for the Rockpalast nights of TV broadcasters WDR and ARD.
Many buildings of this period were and are extremely controversial. They are examples of the style known as “Brutalism,”—an era when many new structures were designed with bold clarity and large dimensions. The meaning of the term is twofold. It’s true that many of these structures seem like a brutal encroachment upon the cityscape, but the term derives from the French béton brut, meaning “raw concrete.” That original sense had nothing to do with violence.
TIM RIENIETS, STADTBAUKULTUR NRW
Cement, stones, water, binder: the builders of antiquity were already acquainted with the forerunners of concrete, a practical and durable composite material. A couple of thousand years later, it helped to rebuild a Europe wrecked by war. Compared with the red clinker bricks that were still widespread at the time, concrete didn’t seem nearly as cozy. In the eyes of visionary architects like Le Corbusier, however, it was not only functional and affordable but also, because of its smooth, flat surface, more honest than the highly ornate pre-war architecture and the exact opposite of the half-timbered houses that had dominated Germany’s towns before the Second World War. You still find traces of this gray interpretation of modernity if you wander through large German cities: museums, multi-story parking garages, administrative buildings, entire residential developments, even schools and swimming pools turned their inmost parts outward and showed the world facades that were rough, raw and realistic. It isn’t just the fans of half-timbered houses who shudder at the seeming coarseness of this brawny exposed concrete. But where critics complain of uniformity, Tim Rieniets mostly raves about the diversity. Together with the Technical University of Dortmund, Rieniets, the managing director of the initiative StadtBauKultur NRW in North Rhine-Westphalia, has created a network whose name itself is replete with warm feelings for the supposedly cold structures of brutal concrete: Big Beautiful Buildings.
In cooperation with HOCHTIEF, the group from Gelsenkirchen aims to celebrate the architecture of the 1950s to 1970s. That was an extremely productive time, during which 38 percent of the current building stock was constructed between the Rhine and the Oder, between the Alps and the Baltic Sea. Rieniets and his colleagues are working to preserve an architectural heritage that deserves better than its tarnished reputation. Despite all the mistakes that Rieniets detects in architecture of the post-war years, “the first three decades brought forth breathtaking architecture that wanted to do away with the past,” he says. Confinement gave way to openness, darkness to light, and uniformity to creativity.
When the trained architect talks about this revolt of exposed concrete, his tone of voice suddenly becomes exuberant. Consider Bochum’s Ruhr University, for example, with which HOCHTIEF, as part of a consortium, helped turn the Ruhr district into a center for science and research in the early 1960s: “Pioneering!” Consider the 200-meter-high Florianturm tower in Dortmund, which HOCHTIEF erected shortly before that: “Audacious!” And then there are the terraced buildings of the Finnstadt residential development in Dorsten, where tenants lived not only with greenery and away from cars, but also as an integrated community: “Truly architecture for the people!” In the view of the curator Rieniets, all the big beautiful buildings to which Stadt-BauKultur NRW is now directing attention typify the “effort back then to win acceptance internationally as an open, progressive and democratic country.”
Thanks to full coffers, generous municipal councils and ambitious goals, even the small town of Marl in North Rhine-Westphalia managed to become a hotspot of urban utopias in the early 1970s. Distinctive structures include the “air cushion” roof of the shopping center, the pyramid-shaped “Wohnhügel” residential complex, the starshaped, interleaved Marl School designed by Hans Scharoun, or Marl’s monumental but transparent City Hall. As it charted a course to become a major city, the local seat of Marl was “prepared to try experiments that no one would risk today.” On the contrary. As almost everywhere else, Brutalism has long since become a target of criticism in Germany too. While monotonous lattice-window dreariness dominates new construction in the public sector, and even more so in the private homes, the sculptural, post-war architecture is in jeopardy. The latest example of this disdain is the Hamburg “City Hof” of 1958. The intention of the city is to tear down the four prominent high-rise buildings at the central train station. Well-known architect Volkwin Marg presented a highly praised renovation plan that was rejected because of formalities, and the controversial gem is therefore near its end.
In contrast to the building material concrete, there are hardly any shades of gray left in the contest of opinions regarding the beautiful cityscape. For a long time, friends of rural life, such as Prince Charles, have been calling for the total demolition of Brutalism. Urban sociologists such as Walter Siebel from Oldenburg, on the other hand, assess buildings not as individual objects but as ensembles of various “spaces of remembrance and memory,” in which every era has its place. Eventually, even today’s. Slowly, as this example shows, defenders of béton brut are appearing too. The Brutalism Appreciation Society, for instance, has rapidly gained about 60,000 Facebook friends.
Under the hashtag #SOSbrutalism, the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt is likewise fighting for acceptance of this style. The big beautiful buildings don’t just have adversaries. And the reasons for that go beyond aesthetics. Today, it may seem better to tear down what you don’t like. “But wrecking something that’s worth preserving is an economic perversion,” says Rieniets. An alternative is being demonstrated by HOCHTIEF at the Ruhr University in Bochum. Since 2011, employees have been working to free the buildings of PCB, a toxic substance once widely used in building materials. Just two buildings couldn’t be saved. “But even after over 50 years,” says Project Manager Jörg Kocian, “the objectives of modernization, preservation and renovation have a major role to play.” And without the PCB, the university remains in its essencewhat it’s always been: brutal but beautiful.