The Smell of Concrete After Rain

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
There have been tens of thousands of deaths as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. All have been tragic. But there are two people in particular that we’ve lost to COVID that were part of the world of architecture and design that we want to honor with a couple of stories today. First, we are mourning the loss of architect Michael McKinnell, along with Gerhard Kallmann, McKinnell designed the unforgettable Boston City Hall completed in 1968. They won the commission for Boston City Hall after submitting their brutalist heroic monument in a contest when Michael McKinnell was just 26 years old. It was always a controversial structure. Much of the public found it ugly and too unconventional. But architects and critics tend to love it. This is often the case with brutalism more generally, and that is the subject of a piece starring Boston City Hall by Avery Trufelman and reported for us back in 2015. To celebrate Michael McKinnell’s life, we’re gonna play that story for you now. It’s one of my favorites. I hope you like it.

——————————–

Roman Mars:
The Best James Bond is either Sean Connery or Daniel Craig. I lean towards Daniel Craig. The new movies are just better, but the Sean Connery films definitely had the best villains. There’s Blofeld of course, who is so iconic that he turned the act of cat-stroking into a thing that supervillains do. But Bond’s flashiest nemesis has to be Goldfinger.

James Bond:
“And you expect me to talk?”

Goldfinger:
“No. Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”

Avery Trufelman:
Do you expect me to talk?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, I expect you to talk.

Avery Trufelman:
There’s this dorky, fun fact that the Bond villain, Goldfinger, was actually named after a real person.

Roman Mars:
That’s Trufelman. Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
The author of the James Bond books, Ian Fleming, named Goldfinger for a man he found so dastardly, so terrible that he immortalized him in pop culture.

Roman Mars:
The real Goldfinger was an architect, Ernő Goldfinger. And he made giant, hulking, austere concrete building.

Avery Trufelman:
Goldfinger’s buildings were decreed soulless. Inhabitants claim to suffer health problems and depression from spending time inside them. Some of Goldfinger’s buildings were vacated because occupants found them so ugly.

Roman Mars:
Yet many architects praise Goldfinger’s buildings. His Trellick Tower, which was once threatened with demolition, has it been awarded landmark status.

Avery Trufelman:
This divide, this hatred from the public and love from designers and architects, tends to be the narrative around buildings like Goldfinger’s, which is to say gigantic imposing buildings made of concrete. What some people refer to as brutalist architecture.

Roman Mars:
A lot of folks beyond the creator of James Bond, love to hate them.

Sarah Ramsey:
We are in Wurster Hall, which to my great dismay and frustration, is often considered the worst building on campus or Wurster Hall, more like worst.

Avery Trufelman:
I met up with Sarah Briggs Ramsey in Wurster Hall, a brutalist building at UC Berkeley.

Sarah Ramsey:
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been locking up my bike outside and I overhear undergrads walking with their parents and going, ironically, this is the architecture school and it’s the ugliest building on campus.

Roman Mars:
Yup. Wurster Hall is the architecture school. Sarah completed her master’s there.

Sarah Ramsey:
Buildings like this are pretty pervasive across most American and Canadian campuses.

Avery Trufelman:
Yeah, there was a big bulky, concrete building on the campus where I went to college and I hated when I had to go through it. It just reminded me of a bunker or a bomb shelter. These big concrete buildings just like bummed me out.

Adrian Forty:
Absolutely. I mean it, it has these connotations of, you know, Soviet-era construction, sometimes third-world construction, all these negative associations.

Avery Trufelman:
This is professor Adrian Forty. Author of the excellent book “Concrete And Culture”. He’s been researching concrete for around 10 years now.

Adrian Forty:
It has a bad name.

Roman Mars:
Apart from aesthetic criticisms, concrete buildings, present environmental concerns.

Adrian Forty:
Lost these buildings were built at a time when energy was cheap and they use up an awful lot of energy to heat and cool them.

Roman Mars:
Concrete buildings were built with the illusion of plenty that we will always have enough energy to build and heat and cool these massive, inefficient structures.

Avery Trufelman:
As harsh as it looks, concrete is an utterly optimistic building material. Arguably too optimistic.

Adrian Forty:
Really from the 1920s, it was seen as being the material that would change the world. It had the potential to build things in a way that hadn’t been seen before.

Avery Trufelman:
Concrete was this material that seemed boundless, readily available in vast quantities, and could create massive spaces, unlike any other material. So concrete sprang up everywhere.

Adrian Forty:
It’s the second most heavily consumed product in the world.

Avery Trufelman:
The only thing we consume more of than concrete is water.

Roman Mars:
We use concrete for sidewalks and bridges, tunnels, and highways and of course for giant buildings.

Adrian Forty:
Whether we’re talking about stadia or auditoria.

Avery Trufelman:
Or condominia or gymnasium or planetaria.

Roman Mars:
So, historically government programs all over the world loved concrete.

Adrian Forty:
Particularly in Soviet Russia, but also later in Europe and North America, it was used for welfare state projects.

Avery Trufelman:
Concrete presented the most efficient way to house huge numbers of people. And philosophically it was seen as humble, capable, and honest. Concrete was just out there and all of its rough glory, not hiding behind any paint or layers saying, here I am, love me or hate me.

Roman Mars:
And as concrete buildings came to signify humility, honesty, and integrity, they were erected all over the world as housing projects, courthouses, schools, churches, hospitals, and city halls.

Chris Grimley:
You’ll stand outside and a tour bus will go by and there’ll be “Ladies and gentlemen voted the most ugliest building in the world – Boston City Hall. How do you compete with that?”

Avery Trufelman:
Chris Grimly is up against a lot, but he’s trying to restore Boston City Hall’s reputation.

Chris Grimley:
My name is Chris Grimly. I’m with my fellow heroic people. Mark Pasnik and Michael Kubo.

Avery Trufelman:
Chris, Mark, and Michael have embarked on what they call the Heroic Project, chronicling the concrete structures in and around Boston.

Roman Mars:
Rather than referring to these concrete buildings as “brutalist”, they prefer the term “heroic” because like so many superheroes, these structures have the best, most noble intentions but are sorely misunderstood.

Avery Trufelman:
Also, just generally, “brutalism” is a big broad label that gets used inconsistently in architecture. People tend to disagree on one precise definition.

Roman Mars:
The name “brutalism” also just sounds intense even though it’s not actually related to brutality.

Chris Grimley:
It comes from “béton brut”, which is a French term for raw concrete.

Avery Trufelman:
In any case to these guys, “heroic” feels like a better term, especially in Boston, where concrete architectures swooped in and saved the day.

Chris Grimley:
You’d have to situate Boston in the late fifties-1960s. It is America’s first city. Well, it is America’s most historic city.

Roman Mars:
Again, not really, but I get your point.

Chris Grimley:
And yet it finds itself in the doldrums.

Roman Mars:
Boston, like a lot of other American cities, was plagued by loss of manufacturing jobs and white flight to the suburbs. And for decades, Boston had the highest property taxes in the nation and almost no development.

Chris Grimley:
There is this recognition from civic authorities that something needs to be done and something needs to be done quickly.

Avery Trufelman:
So Boston sets an agenda to make the city great again with big soaring, capable, thoroughly modern buildings made, of course, out of concrete.

Roman Mars:
And though some of these buildings were celebrated, others were really not.

Chris Grimley:
What we call the third rail of Boston Concrete Modernism is City Hall.

Avery Trufelman:
When Boston City Hall was built in 1968, critics were put off by this concrete style. It was called alienating and cold. And since it was a government building, this criticism became impossible to remove from politics.

Roman Mars:
Boston City Hall became a political pond. Mayors and city council members kept trying to win public support with promises to get rid of the building like John Tobin did when he ran for city council.

John Tobin:
Hi everybody. This is Jon Tobin. Thanks for visiting www.votejohntobin.com. Here we are on City Hall Plaza in front of Boston City Hall. I’m not an architect, but I know bad architecture when I see it. This is a bad building and I think we can do a lot by knocking this building down.

Avery Trufelman:
Former Mayor Thomas Menino actually started a study to really look into tearing it down.

Thomas Menino:
It turned out, as a result of this study, that you would need something like a nuclear grade weapon basically to destroy this building because it was so heavily overbuilt in concrete.

Roman Mars:
And so when they couldn’t tear down City Hall, officials chose to ignore it.

Thomas Menino:
People that occupied the building for decades and decades didn’t like it, and so they didn’t invest money into the building and effectively wanted to see the building go away.

Avery Trufelman:
This is called active neglect and it happens with a lot of concrete buildings. They are intentionally unrepaired, unrenovated, and uncared for.

Roman Mars:
Which only makes the building more awkward and then more hated and then more ignored and creates this vicious cycle where the public hate of Boston City Hall feeds itself.

Thomas Menino:
And then the discussion in years on really became about what the original architect had done wrong, as if this were not a failure of maintenance, but a failure of the initial design.

Avery Trufelman:
When people built these mammoth concrete structures, no one really thought about maintenance. They seem to be indestructible.

Adrian Forty:
In the early days of concrete, people assume that this was an everlasting material that wouldn’t need any attention at all and that’s wrong. We know that it does need to be looked after. It does deteriorate. It does decay.

Avery Trufelman:
But it can be hard to tell when concrete is decaying.

Adrian Forty:
If you think of brick and timber, the decay takes place on the surface of them, but with concrete, the deterioration is internal.

Roman Mars:
Concrete deteriorates chemically from the inside out. Part of this has to do with the metal reinforcements that help hold up most concrete buildings, the rebar, where it can rust and deteriorate the overall structure.

Avery Trufelman:
But Adrian Forty says, tearing them down is not the answer.

Adrian Forty:
Because as soon as you tell them down, then you have a problem. First of all, what you do with the detritus that’s left. And secondly, you’ve got to replace them with something else and use up a whole lot more energy and create a lot more CO2 in building something in their place.

Avery Trufelman:
They already used up all that energy when they were made. They’re already there.

Roman Mars:
We can adapt these buildings to make them greener and make them more appealing places to be by adding windows, for example. But basically, Professor Forty things we can all develop the capacity to love these concrete brutes in all their hulking glory.

Adrian Forty:
Yeah, sure. People can learn to love anything, but you know, as with any art form, whether it’s opera or painting or literature, the more you know about it, the more you’ll get out of it, the more you’ll appreciate it.

Avery Trufelman:
And this is especially true of concrete buildings. Architecture students appreciate them because they know that concrete actually requires a hell of a lot of skill and finesse to work with.

Adrian Forty:
To do architecture in concrete is proof that you are really are an architect. It’s the test of being an architect.

Avery Trufelman:
For, the concrete building, every little detail needs to be calculated in advance. Concrete is wildly intimidating to work with. Once you pour it, there’s no going back

Adrian Forty:
With a concrete building. It’s like the result of an immaculate conception. The whole thing is an integral monolithic hole and it has to be right.

Roman Mars:
Aside from the interesting design challenges it poses, concrete itself, as a material, can be subtly beautiful if you look closely.

Sarah Ramsey:
What we think of as just a monolithic, consistent homogenous texture, is actually really rich and has a lot of interest when you actually go up to it and consider it.

Avery Trufelman:
Sarah Briggs Ramsey, the one I spoke with at Berkeley’s Wurster Hall, did a year-long project traveling around the world looking at concrete buildings in Europe and Asia and South and North America.

Sarah Ramsey:
To create a global comparison of one material that I think is sort of under-considered. It’s like the background of all the cities, but no one actually stands to look.

Avery Trufelman:
We call the city “a concrete jungle” to talk about the artificialness of the urban landscape. But concrete can actually be a very natural expression of the environment. Concrete’s color and texture can be dictated by local climate, local earth, and local rock.

Sarah Ramsey:
This is the Harvard Science Center on the Harvard campus and it’s got a very purple-y, like really pronounced purple-y color, and that’s the ground from the site.

Roman Mars:
Concrete can also be an expression of local style and custom, like how UK concrete has big, thick textured chunks of rock. While Japanese concrete is very fine and flat.

Avery Trufelman:
But the beauty of concrete architecture is all the better when you can just observe the buildings, like pieces of sculpture, without actually having to live and work in them which brings in concrete, surprising ally – photography.

Adrian Forty:
Concrete looks good in photographs.

Roman Mars:
It provides this kind of neutral background.

Adrian Forty:
It provides a wonderful setting for people’s skin tones, color of clothes.

Roman Mars:
Fashion photographers realize this first, and then pockets of the internet started to appreciate these concrete buildings.

Adrian Forty:
There are lots of these blogs of which show a kind of extraordinary enthusiasm for concrete.

Avery Trufelman:
Photography is allowing a new audience of non-architects to appreciate these buildings for their strong lines, their crisp shadows, and increasingly, the idealism they embody.

Adrian Forty:
They represent a set of ideas about the state of the world on what the future was imagined to be, that we want to preserve. We should remember what people were thinking 50 years ago. We tear these buildings down, we will lose all of that.

Roman Mars:
Architecture, whether we want to admit it or not, has this sort of shelf life. A time after which buildings fall out of fashion and then are allowed to fall apart.

Avery Trufelman:
Back in the 1960s, Victorian-style buildings were considered hideous, falling apart, impossible to repair, and we were tearing batches of them down. All the while erecting big concrete buildings. But enough Victorians were saved that today they are these beautiful, lovingly restored treasures.

Roman Mars:
Brutalist, heroic, whatever you want to call it. Concrete architecture now finds itself at a potential inflection point. Too outdated to be modern, too young to be classic. And a small but growing band of architects, architecture enthusiasts, and preservationists would like us to just wait a bit and see. Maybe with a little time and love, we might discover some architectural diamonds in the rough that we just can’t see right now.

——————————–

Roman Mars:
Michael McKinnell, architect of Boston City Hall, died of a COVID-related illness at the age of 84. He is survived by his wife and architectural partner, Stephanie Mallis. Our heart goes out to all who know him and loved him.

(music)

Roman Mars:
After the break, we honor a true vanguard of architectural criticism, Michael Sorkin. Stay with us.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
In late March, we also lost designer and architecture critic Michael Sorkin to complications brought on by COVID-19. When he started writing for “The Village Voice” in the 1980s, he brought a totally new kind of approach to writing about buildings, one that focused on people and politics.

Alexandra Lange:
I feel like he really stretched the boundaries on how confrontational you could be in print.

Roman Mars:
This is architecture critic at “Curbed” and friend of the show, Alexandra Lange. Sorkin became famous for ripping into conventional wisdom and sometimes ripping into important builders and other critics, too.

Alexandra Lange:
It gave a vitality to architecture criticism and stretched the boundaries of what it could be in a way that really kind of brought it to a new generation’s attention and has continued to be really important for younger critics.

Roman Mars:
Michael Sorkin wrote about buildings, but also the much bigger factors that make up an urban landscape.

Alexandra Lange:
You know, one of the things that comes through really strongly in his work is this idea that it’s not– architecture isn’t just this pure profession of mostly men, you know, thinking about forms and then placing them in the city. You know, architecture is something that is shaped by social change, political change, dirty money, all of these things. And Sorkin always really brought that into the mix.

Roman Mars:
In 2009, Sorkin published a book called “20 Minutes in Manhattan,” which traces the walk from his home to his studio in New York. Sorkin wrote about paying special close attention to the little details of his neighborhood and how those small details taught him so much about history and community. It’s the kind of book that 99% Invisible listeners would love, and it feels especially relevant right now.

Alexandra Lange:
The kind of attention that he was paying to that part of his city is something that we all can do now. I mean, people are obviously feeling stir crazy in their homes, but if they’re also feeling stir crazy in their neighborhoods, one way to get over it is to, you know, add another layer of attention or go down streets that you don’t normally go down. And I feel like that 20-minute limit could actually be a little form of freedom if you really want to drill down and think about your neighborhood in a deeper way than you usually do because you’re rushing through it to go somewhere else.

Roman Mars:
A lot of Michael Sorkin’s writing is not online, but one of the pieces that has made the rounds a couple of times on the Internet was a provocative meditative list called “Two Hundred and Fifty Things an Architect Should Know.” I thought it’d be nice to read some of it now. Some selections from “Two Hundred and Fifty Things an Architect Should Know.”

Roman Mars:
The feel of cool marble under bare feet.

How to live in a small room with five strangers for six months.

With the same strangers on a lifeboat for a week.

The distance a shout carries in the city.

The distance of a whisper.

The number of people with rent subsidies in New York City.

In your town (include the rich).

The flowering season for azaleas.

The insulating properties of glass.

The history of its production and use.

And of its meaning.

How to lay bricks.

What Victor Hugo really meant by “this will kill that.”

The rate at which the seas are rising.

Building information modeling (BIM).

The energy embodied in aluminum.

How to turn a corner.

How to design a corner.

How to sit in a corner.

How Antoni Gaudí modeled the Sagrada Família and calculated its structure.

The rate at which that carpet is specified off-gases.

The migratory patterns of warblers and other seasonal travelers.

The basics of mud construction.

The direction of prevailing winds.

Hydrology is destiny.

Jane Jacobs in and out.

Elementary ergonomics.

The color wheel.

What the client wants.

What the client thinks it wants.

What the client needs.

What the client can afford.

What the planet can afford.

The theoretical bases for modernity and a great deal about its factions in inflections.

What the brick really wants.

What went wrong in Pruitt-Igoe.

What went wrong with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Where the CCTV cameras are.

The secrets of the success of Robert Moses.

The reciprocal influences of Chinese and Japanese building.

The proper proportions of a gin martini.

How the crow flies.

How the pyramids were built.

Why.

The pleasures of the suburbs.

The horrors.

The quality of life passing through ice.

The meaninglessness of borders.

The reasons for their tenacity.

The need for freaks.

It is possible to begin designing anywhere.

The smell of concrete after rain.

The angle of the sun at the equinox.

How to ride a bicycle.

The depth of the aquifer beneath you.

The slope of a handicapped ramp.

The wages of construction workers.

Where materials come from.

How to get lost.

The pattern of artificial light at night, seen from space.

The reasons for the split between architecture and engineering.

Many ideas about what constitutes utopia.

Woodshop safety.

The architectural impact of colonialism on the cities of North Africa.

A distaste for imperialism.

The history of Beijing.

Dutch domestic architecture in the 17th century.

The rate at which copper acquires a patina.

The levels of particulates in the air of Tianjin.

The capacity of white pine trees to sequester carbon.

The fire code.

The seismic code.

The health code.

How to listen closely.

That there is a big danger in working in a single medium. The logjam you don’t even know you’re stuck in will be broken by a shift in representation.

How to escape a maze.

QWERTY.

The proper way to behave with interns.

The history of big machines, including those that can fly.

How to calculate ecological footprints.

Three good lunch spots within walking distance.

The value of human life.

Who pays?

Who profits?

What to refuse to do even for the money.

The fine print in the contract.

A smattering of naval architecture.

Burial practices and a wide range of cultures.

The density needed to support a pharmacy.

The density needed to support a subway.

The effect of the design of your city on food miles for fresh produce.

Squatter settlements via visits and conversations with residents.

The history and techniques of architectural representation across cultures.

A bit of chemistry and physics.

The importance of the Amazon.

How to patch leaks.

The components of a comfortable environment for sleep.

Strengths of materials (if only intuitively).

Why you think architecture does any good.

The depreciation cycle.

What rusts.

Good model-making techniques in wood and cardboard.

How to play a musical instrument.

The acoustical properties of trees and shrubs.

How to guard a house from floods.

How to give directions, efficiently and courteously.

How close is too close?

Bicycle safety and etiquette.

The acoustic performance of Boston Symphony Hall.

How to open the window.

The diameter of the Earth.

The number of gallons of water used in a shower.

The distance at which you can recognize faces.

How and when to bribe public officials (for the greater good).

Concrete finishes.

Straw-bale building technology.

Rachel Carson.

Your neighbors.

The remediation capacity of wetlands.

The capacity of wetlands to attenuate storm surges.

The depths of desire.

The heights of folly.

The Golden and other ratios.

Roman Mars:
Those are our selections from “Two Hundred and Fifty Things an Architect Should Know” by Michael Sorkin. He died on March 26, 2020, from COVID. He was the head of the Michael Sorkin Studio and president of Terreform, a nonprofit research group. He is survived by his wife, Joan Copjec. She is a professor of modern culture and media at Brown University. We sent her our sincere condolences and thank her for giving us permission to air Michael Sorkin’s writing.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Avery Trufelman and Chris Berube. Music by Sean Real. Katie Mingle is the senior producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the group is senior editor Delaney Hall, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, Sharif Youssef, Emmett FitzGerald, Vivian Le and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which is distributed in multiple locations throughout the East Bay. But in our heart, we’ll always be in beautiful, downtown Oakland, California.

We are a proud founding member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative listener-supported podcasts in the world. Find them all at radiotopia.fm. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. But our forever home on the web is 99pi.org.

  1. Lisa

    Wonderful episode – thank you for marking the loss of these two men and our loss throughout right now, for the inspiration of 250 Things, the quality of 99PI episodes, Mars’ leadership (that would be a good episode), and charmingly bookended throughline of concrete. You couldn’t convince me on the cement buildings but I so appreciate the opportunity to have explored the point. Thanks for lifting us up today.

  2. John Gotaskie

    Loved this episode the first time, and loved it again. The CODA at the end was especially poignant in that inimitable Roman Mars way. Further, I had the pleasure of spending large periods of my education in Brutalist, concrete buildings: Lauinger Library at Georgetown University, and the Barco Law Building and Posvar Hall (née, Forbes Quadrangle) at the University of Pittsburgh. While I can appreciate the visceral dislike, I find these buildings to be charming and special in their own way.

  3. Corrianne Billings

    Beautiful. My initial reaction after being moved to tears during the reading of Sorkin’s work, was the realization of just how many of the 250 things have already been 99PI episodes.

  4. Corrianne

    Beautiful. I have never managed to donate to this podcast and am not sure why as it has consistently been my favorite for years. This episode changed that. In listening to Roman read Sorkin’s work, I realized just how many of the 250 things have been parts of 99 PI episodes that I have thoroughly enjoyed and how I must support this work. “Devils Rope” was my gateway into being a devoted listener and “The Smell of Concrete in the Rain” the one that I will remember moving me to tears.

  5. Dansgoingcrazy

    Love how you talk about how concrete reflects it’s environment. If you look at the high court of Australia for instance, you can actually see the concrete pours change colour slightly as there was a large dust storm that occured while it was being constructed.

    But also, you can get concrete in so many different grades and textures. Grade 1 concrete is beautiful. So is polished concrete. Then add in different aggregate and you can change the colours, and even make it sparkle. Beautiful.

  6. Bevguy

    Nice article, am looking forward to listening to the podcast episode.

    99pi is far and away my favorite podcast. Keep up the great work!

  7. I’ve been playing a lot of online social games during the pandemic and was humored when I saw that Boston City Hall is being used as a visual stand-in for generic government buildings.

    As an architect who lived in Boston for 20 years, I am very familiar with the criticism of it’s concrete form: elegant and light to some, imperialistic and imposing to many others, but always instantaneously recognizable.

  8. I think Roman hit the nail on the head when he says we should all take a step back and give buildings a time before making hasty decisions about them. Buildings like most things will quickly fall from fashion and this is the most dangerous time for them. They appear outdated and are often poorly maintained which makes them look worse. In Britain we have the twentieth Century Society which tries to get these often unloved building protected before it’s too late

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