If one is so inclined, an online search will uncover, in equal measure, vitriol and praise for the architectural movement of Brutalism (early 1950s to 1970s). In 2016, the New York Times proclaimed that not only were historians or preservationists lauding it, but also “an independent public has found beauty in [Brutalism’s] rawness.” Also in 2016, The Independent reported the “once-hated Brutalist social housing buildings in the U.K. have become some of the most sought-after addresses in Britain.”
Yet, Marcus Gee, writing in The Globe in 2022, called the University of Toronto’s John P. Robarts Library “a sci-fi version of a medieval castle” with “dull concrete walls [that] admit light grudgingly through tall slit windows.” In Western University’s student newspaper, The Gazette, Gabrielle Drolet wrote that Western’s D.B. Weldon Library “is ugly.”
“This is an objective fact,” she wrote, perhaps confusing objective with subjective. “Built in the 1970s (arguable the worst period for architecture), the massive building looks more like a windowless brick than it does a library.”
Ouch. Even with its thick concrete skin, that one had to hurt.
Perhaps it would help to understand that Brutalism, which most agree was ‘invented’ by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, a Swiss-French architect in the 1940s. It was popularized by British architects Alison and Peter Smithson in the early 1950s, and was a response to the open-airiness of European Modernism, which, by the 1940s, was already 25-years-old. Brutalism went beyond form-follows-function by expressing that function – whether a staircase or the HVAC system – on the outside of the building; it favoured asymmetry over the classical proportions of Modernism; and, lastly (and this is the one that really rankles with some) it favoured muscular forms and large expanses of opaque walls over window-walls, which resulted in catacomblike, dark spaces.
When the Toronto firm Perkins & Will first toured the D.B. Weldon Library (1968-1972 by Australian John H. Andrews and Ronald E. Murphy of London, Ont.), it was, admittedly, pretty dark in there. Even the great hall – or “meeting place” as Mr. Andrews termed it – was underlit and, adding to that, its original clarity had been lost over the decades.
“The lighting was very uneven,” agrees Jon Loewen, associate principal at Perkins & Will. “A lot of the concrete had been painted a whole array of very dark colours … [and there were] a whole series of interventions that felt as if they were fighting against what the building wanted to be.”
But while lighting was a problem – where Andrews and Murphy had pierced the concrete for sloped skylights they’d covered those openings with a semitranslucent fibreglass – original photographs did indeed show a clean, colourful space that would’ve been conducive to studying. As James Ashby wrote in the Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada (Vol. 44, No. 2, 2019), interiors “were animated by custom-designed fixtures and furnishings with a colour palette of orange, purple, yellow and blue. A program of graphic way-finding, based on Helvetica typeface, had a considerable presence within the library.” There were also “plants and visual art to enhance the complex spatial interplay.”
So, with much of that lost, it was up to Mr. Loewen and interior designer Martha del Junco to peel things back to that vision while bringing in more light, both artificial and natural. And, with a larger student population than a half-century ago, to work with Western’s vice-provost and chief librarian, Catherine Steeves, to move certain staff areas to allow access to the mezzanine and a few other spaces that, previously, were enjoyed only by library staff.
Today, standing on that mezzanine with Ms. Steeves, Mr. Loewen and Ms. del Junco, and looking down to the great hall, the transformation is breathtaking: two hundred glowing orbs dangle under the waffle-slab ceiling, bright terrazzo-look floors replace the original dark floor, warm woods via millwork and a new curvy staircase add visual and tactile softness, and furniture in sage green, light grey, medium blue and plumb tones brings colour back. And the giant “Info” letters at the main desk recall the original supergraphic letters of the 1970s.
There are also more ways students can use the building, says Mr. Loewen: “There was a uniformity to the kind of study space provision in the old building; there were lots of carrels and there were tables and chairs, and those were the two kinds of settings.” Today, he continues, there is “a range and variety” of ways to study, including in private gathering rooms (some with technology), in flexible, social spaces and in superquiet, secluded areas.
And, right near the front door, Perkins & Will have added an acoustically separated community room that can host “a symposium or a conference or a lecture … we’ve seen concerts happening in there.”
“Everything,” Ms. Steeves adds with a smile. “Campus partners are using it … student groups, faculty groups, community groups – we’ve had over 300 events in that space in a year.”
While some artwork made it back into the space, Western’s McIntosh Gallery “was more selective” when adding new pieces, continues Ms. Steeves. One enormous piece, made from dried moss, adds a touch of nature to the space. “We were exploring a living green wall and there was some logistical reasons that it didn’t happen,” says Ms. del Junco.
No matter: There is plenty of life in the D.B. Weldon Library now. And, with any luck, students who study, socialize, and cram for exams for the next 50 years will never, ever associate Brutalism with ugly.