The beauty in Brutalism

While Washington, D.C. is home to many architectural styles — from neo-classical and federalist to post-modern — none inflame passions as much as the brutalist designs that make up a core of buildings constructed in the U.S. Capital in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

While D.C.’s brutalist buildings have been called everything from stark and boring to ugly and dystopian, the style also has its ardent supporters. Count D.C. photographer Mark Alan Andre among them. Andre, who also happens to be an architect, came to the defense of brutalism in a blog post he wrote in honor of World Architecture Day.

“More than any other, these buildings are being torn down only to be replaced by the banal developments that make every city look the same. If we can’t find a way to repurpose these buildings in meaningful ways, we may very well wipe an extremely important and influential style from our cities and architectural history,” Andre wrote.

We asked him to expand on some of those thoughts.

L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station © Mark Alan Andre

Focus on the Story: What draws you to brutalism and what story does the style tell about architecture, generally, and Washington, D.C., specifically?

Mark Alan Andre: I’m drawn to brutalism because of its simplicity and honesty to its materials. It’s a very “pure” form of architecture when it’s done well. The architectural expressions all work with the best features of its materials and express the materials in a very clear way. These buildings (the good ones anyway) show the prowess of the architect. The architects (like Breuer in the case of the HUD building) knew the materials they were working with very well and put them to use in a way that took advantage of the intrinsic properties of the concrete. There’s a quote from one of the master archiects of the 20th Century Louis Kahn:
“You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ And brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ And you say to brick, ‘Look, I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel.’ And then you say: ‘What do you think of that, brick?’ Brick says: ‘I like an arch.’ ”

Repetition of shapes created an economy in these buildings that made them more constructible and cheaper to build. Lifting the mass of concrete off the ground (HUD and the Forrestal Building) creates an amazing contrast between the lightness and lifting of the architecture and the heavy, massive material used to build it. These buildings were very popular with public architecture during the post-war period. They have similar proportioning systems as the classical buildings that occupy federal triangle, but they don’t have the ornamentation. Brutalism and DC are a perfect match DC’s height limit (twice the street width plus 20 feet) works very well with concrete construction and doesn’t require a steel frame like the high-rises of New York. The long and wide city blocks also lend themselves to more horizontal expressions that tend to exist in brutalism.

© Mark Alan Andre
© Mark Alan Andre
© Mark Alan Andre

FOTS: What is your favorite brutalist building to photograph in D.C, and why?

MAA: That’s a tough question. The Hirshhorn is much too easy of a target, but I love it. I love being in the courtyard in different lighting conditions. I took a shot a couple years ago with my 16mm lens, laying on my back on the ground where the whole courtyard looks almost like a dome with the oculus at the top. I’m also fascinated by standing underneath it. As cool a shot as anyone of us will capture, I don’t know that anyone can eclipse the Ezra Stoller shot from when it was brand new. The building is so different from every angle and in every light, that I can’t help but go back again and again.

I also love the metro. Its always a challenge trying to sneak using a tripod past the station managers, but sometimes I get lucky. I love the transition from street level to below ground station and all the architectural moments. the stations are also great places to catch people in the architecture.

Escalators in D.C.'s Metro © Mark Alan Andre

FOTS: Great architectural photographers have a way of seeing shapes and angles in ways that less attuned people do not. How has being an architect influenced your photography?

MAA: It’s the nature of the architectural education. We spend our professional lives looking at photos of architecture and we’re taught the same graphic rules and proportioning systems that all creatives learn in school. We are simply looking for more than the average person because we’re taught how to “read” the spaces. As a profession, we’re constantly trying to analyze the spaces we’re in and understand what makes them good or bad and use that knowledge to improve our own design work.

FOTS: We usually think of storytelling as something that involves people. As someone who shoots a lot of architecture and landscapes, what role does storytelling play?

MAA: Just as a portrait photographer would try to coax the personality and humanity out of a person in their photographs, I try to get the same out of buildings. Each building and place have their own personality and its fun to try and find the unique qualities within them. It might be the unique way light falls across a certain area because of the shadows cast by adjacent structures or the way someone always walks through the light in the Hirshhorn courtyard rather than walking through the shadows. I’m drawn to the unique things these buildings bring to the world around them. Half the fun is even in their urban context. Many of the buildings would be horribly boring if they were sitting in the middle of a parking lot somewhere out in suburbia. The contrast of the shape of the HUD building with all the buildings around it brings a relief to the city and the urban fabric of that neighborhood.

Hirshhorn Museum © Mark Alan Andre
© Mark Alan Andre

FOTS:  You also do a lot of infrared photography. Do you convert to infrared in post processing or do you shoot your images using an infrared sensor? Tell us about your set up. How can you tell whether a certain building or scene will make a good subject for an infrared image?

Kennedy Center © Mark Alan Andre

MAA: The infrared converted camera I have has the OEM filters removed from in front of the sensor and replaces those with one that only allows light with a wavelength longer than 720 nm (just outside of the visible spectrum) to pass through. That was the easy part – there are several companies you can send cameras away to have them converted. I chose LifePixel. The harder part is getting the camera to capture the infrared light in a way that makes sense. If you snap an image without any changes its like you put a red filter over it. It has no color, no white, just red. You have to create a custom white balance in the camera and make a custom ACR profile for Lightroom (The default color temp sliders can’t accommodate the magnitude of change you need). I’ve also messed around with color swapping the channels after the fact. It’s fun, but I find I prefer the black and white.

Infrared for me is really about the contrast between the natural and manmade worlds. I’ve taken some beautiful landscape shots and beautiful building shots in infrared. But where the technology really shines is contrasting the two against each other. With some of the old Kodak HIE films, photographers have gotten some really other-worldly shots of people. I haven’t messed around with that yet (but I’d like to at some point). Edward Thompson’s work is a great example of it. I find that the way it captures fabrics is also fun. It makes the people in the photos feel ghostly. It also makes almost all the flags around DC go almost blank.

I’m really still experimenting with the technology. I’ve had the camera about a year and a half and I have some favorites of the shots. The one of the Vietnam Memorial and the Old Capital Columns are my favorites by far.

Photography also makes you more aware of light. In the words of Louis Kahn again, “The Sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.”

FOTS: We talked about how architecture has influenced your photography. What about the other way around? Has your photography influenced your work as an architect?

MAA: Photography influencing architecture is a bit of a trap. It’s really easy to get sucked into making a building or space really great from just one viewpoint and miss something in the rest of space. Photography has made me more observant. It also helps with understanding the spaces when I walk into them. So often when I’m visiting a building, I try to understand the decisions the design architect made – breaking down a space into its component parts and learning from the space, taking away both the good and bad lessons. Photography also makes you more aware of light. In the words of Louis Kahn again, “The Sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.” Light is so integral to good architecture, that anything that helps you understand how it moves and behaves makes you better. It helps you create spaces that use both natural and artificial light as part of the architecture, rather than an afterthought.

All images © Mark Alan Andre. Mark is an architectural designer and amateur photographer. You can see more of his work on his website and on Instagram at @markalanandre and @dcinfrared.

D.C.'s Metro © Mark Alan Andre