Beauty and the Brutes

Brutalist Architecture in Coral Gables

One of the liveliest ongoing conversations in the City Beautiful centers around the concept of beauty itself, especially when it comes to our rich architectural heritage. Does the city’s design sensibility begin — and more importantly end — with the 1920s? Or does it expand over time so that, with the benefit of hindsight, we’re able to envisage our built environment as a dynamic work in progress, a “moveable feast” of diverse building styles that reflect changing standards of beauty, utility, and sustainability?

There was a time when concrete was king. For better or worse, it was an era that produced what has been labeled “Brutalism” — a “form-follows-function” building style that rose from the ashes in post-WWII Europe and continued to influence modern art and architecture for decades thereafter, from Marseilles to Miami. It was a signature component of the Bauhaus Movement and generally featured raw concrete surfaces and bold, large-scale sculptured forms of such brash originality as to be considered “incompatible” when they landed like intruders among the genteel Villages of the City Beautiful.

Their rarity in our current urban landscape allows the three buildings shown here to draw ever more attention and appreciation. Extant Brutalist and Modernist structures around the world are being reappraised and re-purposed as new conversations about the adverse effects of demolition advance our thinking about adaptive reuse as a viable alternative.

As older buildings seemingly outlive their usefulness or desirability, is the wiser course of action to demolish or to repurpose them? While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, what’s certain is that demolition and subsequent new construction release vast amounts of poisonous carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

The new Modernist building style arrived in the U.S. on a wave of optimism following WWII. Car culture (eventually to undergo its own reappraisal) and dance music had reached new heights of popularity, while architecture had brought functionalism to the fore. What you saw was what you got.

As art historian Alexandra Lange stated in reviewing the exhibition “Toward A Concrete Utopia” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art: “My theory about why we love concrete architecture now is simple; it has body.” It also has green appeal when we consider the words of architect Carl Elefante, past president of the American Institute of Architects: “The greenest building is the one that already exists.” And, one might add, “that still exists.”

The “City Beautiful Movement” — of which Coral Gables is a stunning example — actually began around the time of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, which espoused the then-novel idea that comprehensive, organized urban planning could make cities more livable. “Livability” still exists as the core identity of the Gables, even as we consider that now may be the perfect time to conflate aesthetics and ethics. Wouldn’t that be shocking.

What is now to be lauded is the preservation of the former Public Safety Building by Mercedes-Benz Coral Gables. When police, fire, and emergency services moved to the new Public Safety Building on Salzedo between Minorca and Alcazar, its former HQ was up for demolition. But through a swap between The Codina Group, which acquired the building, and the car dealership, it is now being used to house a fleet of sleek new cars. Repurposing at its finest!

Story written by Karelia Martinez Carbonell, the president of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables, and Bruce Fitzgerald. Photographs by Robin Hill.