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My Brutalist Past

June 24, 2010

There’s been a bit of love directed at brutalism lately – most of it out of Boston.  Recent news of the planned demise of the Mudd Library at Yale caught my eye – the story was covered elsewhere on the web with a picture of Mudd Library in Oberlin, Ohio, my alma-mater.  After a quick news search allayed my fears, I began to reminisce about Oberlin’s Mudd, by far my favorite brutalist building. A certain amount of my fondness for Mudd is certainly related to my feelings about Oberlin – I spent a lot of time in the library, and memories of it mark many of my college experiences, from all-nighters to stoned meanderings to post-breakup soul-searching.  Before the Internet, libraries were my favorite place to “surf” – to relax and let my curiosity lead me through a sort of bibliographic dérive – I knew my favorite places in the Dewey Decimal system by their locations in libraries I have spent time in. [This is getting more personal than I intended]

Mudd Library exhibits many of the familiar hallmarks of brutalism – the massive geometrical forms, the exposed concrete, the giant moat, nevertheless manages to avoid many of the behaviours that have caused the style to be villified in the last few decades.  Sitting on the Oberlin campus, which is most known for Richardsonian and Cass Gilbert sandstone (though it has two less-successful white Yamasaki classroom buildings), it sits like an incongruous monumental mothership in the central student commons.  It is roughly square in plan, with solid, windowless corners and central invaginations on each side which reveal complex compositions of windows and stepping up over your head like an inverted pyramid, so that rooms are almost always shadowed by the building above.  This, combined with the entrance bridge and concrete moat, lend an infrastructural feel to the building which is so familiar and deadly in urban brutalism.

What works in Mudd (that would never work in an urban setting) are the nooks and crannies created by the  shifting solids in the building.  One is always affirmatively in the building – it is never transparently framing a view of the outside.  As a college student, however, I found this sheltering to be quite intimate and welcoming – there were always private coves and glades deep in the stacks that you could retreat to.  The few offices I saw in Mudd seemed quite private, each having its own view  of a sheltered piece of the moat.  The moat, by the way, though it seemed to only be used by skaters and the occasional hacky-sack game, nevertheless created a grand entrance, up and into the library.

Section through entry ramp

Mudd reminds me in many ways of Breuer’s Whitney Museum in New York – a very similar moat-and-bridge sequence at the entry, a similar use of light grazing the rough concrete surfaces in the stairwells.  What Mudd lacks in refinement of detail compared to the Whitney, it makes up for with is it’s brightly-colored 1970’s finishing, complete with intense patterns, coarsely-woven fabrics in warm colors, bold graphic shapes, geometric clusters of upholstery and, of course, womb chairs.  This decor, much of which remains in its original glory, held up very well the last time I visited the campus.

Mudd was built in 1974, designed by the New York firm of Warner, Burns, Toan and Lunde.  Like many firms who span this period they seem to have had a brutalist phase, though Oberlin certainly got off better than Toronto – the John P. Robarts Research Library, designed around the same time, certainly seems to indicates that Mudd was in fact dialed down – The Robarts library featured unfortunate, heavy use of a triangular module.

I often mused when at Oberlin whether Mudd’s architects understood what sort of environment they were creating.  For a building that could have been a disaster of formal posturing, a monument to a client’s ego or (even worse) a pastiche of “friendly” educational architectural tropes, it strikes me that Mudd came out just about right – a design full of generosity and integrity.  I would love to know who the designer was – whether they designed other buildings and what their relationship to the project was.

[Images used in this post came from the library website, including a reprint of a 1975 Interiors article about the library]

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