A term with complex origins, “Brutalism” describes the progressive, dynamic architecture favored internationally from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s which gave form to truthfulness using raw concrete and other textured materials to express a “brutal,” unflinching honesty about the world. Seeing it as an advancement of modernism, mid-twentieth century architects from across the globe often employed this plastic, symbolic vocabulary to express the ambitious, new programs of public institutions.
Brutalism was especially appropriate for the UMass system. By the 1960s its administrators wanted buildings that signaled how it was helping students – many of whom were the first in their families to attend college – find a better future, a transformation symbolized architecturally by turning to the big, bold expressive forms in concrete of Brutalism. Paul Rudolph invented a cost effective concrete block which he used for all of the dramatic buildings he designed for the entirely new campus for UMass Dartmouth (1963-72). Its ubiquity symbolized the unified resolve of the institution. Kevin Roche molded concrete into a sculptural gateway for the arts to symbolize the enterprising cultural program of the Bromery Fine Arts Center at UMass Amherst (1974).
Brutalism’s meanings and buildings are powerful, and complex. The term itself has reemerged in recent years as both a negative and a positive descriptor, but one that is multivalent enough for present and future generations to redefine for themselves as they reexamine the architectural legacy of post-World War II America for the twenty-first century. Today, new appreciation is growing for how the UMass system architects and their patrons sought to express beneficial social programs and engage with their users and environments through architectural form. Buildings on both campuses are being reimagined for the twenty-first century by respecting their architectural integrity while enhancing their sustainability and accessibility.