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Winnipeg's Public Safety Building (John Woods For The Globe and Mail)
Winnipeg's Public Safety Building (John Woods For The Globe and Mail)

The Brutalist truth: 1960s concrete is part of history Add to ...

The young man behind the desk was a BRUTALIST. That’s what the button on his lapel said, although he looked friendly enough, with his nerd-chic black glasses and skinny frame. The building around us was another story: The newly opened Met Breuer museum is an odd hunk of concrete and granite. It stretches its brawny bulk up between the dowager apartment-houses of Manhattan’s genteel Upper East Side.

The building, which once housed the Whitney Museum, was never easy to like. When it opened in 1966, the critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that it “grows on one slowly, like a taste for olives or warm beer.” But 50 years later, it’s a beloved relic: it reopened in mid-March as an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, housing modern and contemporary art. It’s been renamed in honour of its architect, the Bauhaus-trained modernist Marcel Breuer.

It’s an example of the current in modern architecture known as Brutalism, which Canadians know well, and often dislike. A wave of centennial building around 1967 led to Brutalist-style architecture from Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre for the Arts to Simon Fraser University. And in Winnipeg, one important Brutalist building may soon become a pile of rubble.

Yet, at the Met Breuer, museum director Thomas Campbell called the Breuer building “a sculpture in its own right.”

New York’s rechristened Met Breuer museum.

And as I took my ticket from the not-very-brutal staffer, I found the place rammed with people, none of whom seemed to have gotten the memo that this is a difficult building to love. A few wore BRUTALIST buttons of their own. Nobody seemed put off by the nubbly concrete walls of the lobby; a couple lolled on the the built-in concrete benches, while a pair of tourists aimed their cameras at the flying-saucer grid of lights that Breuer designed for the ceiling.

Upstairs, the story didn’t change. The building recently received a subtle polishing by the restoration architects Beyer Blinder Belle. The interiors of the galleries – each floor larger and taller than the one below it – looked pristine: the bluestone floors restored, bronze accents spruced up.

The architect’s original grid of hollow concrete squares lined the ceiling, hiding mechanical clutter. Breuer’s few windows – irregular trapezoids that push out the façade at weird angles – seemed to wink out at the passing parade of brick towers and brownstones.

The curators had found a clever use for the spaces. The exhibit Unfinished is a broad show of studies, incomplete and unpolished work, that opens a dialogue with the building. It made Breuer’s architecture, with concrete surfaces that revealed the texture of the wood that formed them, seem very much of a piece with 400 years of art history.

Which it is: Ornery, but exceedingly well-crafted, it’s a fine artifact of the moment when Modernist architecture fractured in some interesting directions. Breuer’s building is part of what is called brutalism, the style of architecture from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s that uses unfinished concrete extensively. The term brutalism borrows from the French béton brut, or raw concrete.

Depending on who you consult, those surfaces represent honesty, technological innovation or sheer newness: as the critic Reyner Banham wrote, “a radicalism that owes nothing to precedent.”

This is a legacy that is especially strong, and contentious, in Canada. For many, especially those who remember watching those centennial structures go up, these buildings don’t feel historic. But they are.

Winnipeg's Public Safety Building, the former police headquarters and jail, is a fine piece of design by the local architect Les Stechesen and the firm Libling Michener and Associates. (John Woods for The Globe and Mail)

In Winnipeg, the city is leaning toward demolishing the brutalist Public Safety Building. The former police headquarters and jail in the Exchange District is monumental, bold and fortress-like. It’s a fine piece of design, by the local architect Les Stechesen and the firm Libling Michener and Associates, that wraps its concrete structure in slats of local Tyndall stone.

The place comes with some negative karma. “This is where people paid parking tickets; it’s where they went to get kids out of jail. It’s not a building with a lot of happy occurrences,” says Susan Algie, executive director of the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, who has been raising awareness about the building. “But I think it’s interesting and I think it works well in the context it’s in: It responds to the warehouse district in pattern and scale, and it responds to the modernist context also.”

With a mildly thoughtful renovation, it could be repurposed as a public building that is urbane and full of character. Open up the ground floor, repair the rest of its historic façade, and the city would have a new-old gem – much like the Brutalist public library and farmers’ market in Hamilton, rebuilt in 2012 by architect David Premi on a $14-million budget.

Instead, the Winnipeg Public Safety Building may be scrapped; on Tuesday, the city’s property and development committee could recommend it be demolished to make room for a park, while a park next door gets sold for commercial development. Or the site could get a new parking garage.

This brutalist building has some bad karma, but it could be repurposed as a public building that is urbane and full of character. (Henry Kalen)

Tearing down a solid building that’s seen as outdated, building a parking garage in a downtown full of parking, or creating a new vacant lot in a downtown full of vacant lots: That was urbanism in 1960. Today, it is spectacularly wrong-headed. Well-governed cities are pushing sustainability, adaptive reuse, pedestrian alternatives and public transit; and Winnipeg is poised to drive, fast, the other way.

A December, 2015, report to the city by consulting firm Deloitte called the PSB “an iconic Winnipeg building.”

Mayor Brian Bowman, however, told local TV that he would “like to see it bulldozed,” and that the Public Safety Building “is essentially beyond repair.”

But what does that mean? The building is not falling down. I requested an interview with the mayor this week, and his director of communications Jonathan Hildebrand responded by e-mail. “The Public Safety Building interior is currently safe for occupancy, but it is at the end of its lifecycle,” he wrote.

To translate: It needs some work. The question, then, is how much value the city places on it. The Deloitte report – which worked from estimates, not a detailed assessment, of the building’s condition – pegged the cost of renovation at nearly $66-million. But it also suggested that since the building is near City Hall, it could become home to city staff, who are now scattered around downtown. That’s one clear, sensible case for the building’s reuse.

Aside from local political concerns, including huge cost overruns and allegations of fraud in the construction of Winnipeg’s new police headquarters, the real problem here is that the Public Safety Building is a tough sell to popular tastes. Olives, or warm beer.

But tastes change. There is a moment in any building’s history when it is out of fashion and that is when a city’s own heritage-preservation machinery should go into motion. If the Winnipeg nominates the Public Safety Building for heritage protection, that would trigger a full physical exam and an assessment of its cultural value. This should happen immediately. But it’s a move the mayor and some members of city council don’t want to make.

They are, no doubt, afraid of what they are going to find: that our history includes fortresses of concrete, and some of them are works of art.

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