Never did I imagine I would one day inhabit a real-life city partly made of plastic. A few years back, I began noticing what I privately refer to as “Legoland Brutalism”1 cropping up around Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I used to live. Building after building went up appearing to be constructed of plastic Lego blocks. Like vinyl siding with fake wood grain, the exteriors of these buildings mimicked the look of their modernist predecessors albeit in an ersatz way. Perhaps this was to save on materials, plastic being cheaper than concrete. Or perhaps this was on purpose, as part of a new way of envisioning the city. Either way, it is slightly unsettling. If this trend continues, will we one day be completely surrounded by plastic buildings? Though that was the world I inhabited as a boy, I would never want to see it writ large.
It’s been several years since I first started noticing “Legoland Brutalism” in the Boston area. I now live in Baltimore, and see the same thing happening here. I suppose it’s fine in small doses. But if this trend of late-capitalist architecture catches on too much, we may find ourselves increasingly surrounded by these synthetic facades. I still love Legos. (Whenever I visit my sister’s place for the holidays back in Boston, I have to fight off my nephew to play with them.) And, since becoming an adult, I have gained an appreciation for architecture. I just hope that, moving forward, architects break free of the need to follow the instructions, and try to think outside of the box.
- 1. But there’s an important distinction to make here: Brutalism is technically about material. The word itself comes from the French béton brut, translating to “raw concrete” in English, meaning the unfinished look of concrete after being cast. It was this raw, unfinished look that was favored by modernist architects. They actually had idealistic, positive associations with this “anti-aesthetic” as it was meant to suggest architecture stripped of its history, shorn of the calamities of the past. By strict definition, if we were to adhere to the “instructions” of architectural theory, Brutalist buildings must be composed of poured concrete, not plastic. However, the more popular understanding of the word “brutal” (as in harsh, inhuman, severe) often eclipses the technical definition. This populist understanding of Brutalism is what I’m referring to when I think of “Legoland Brutalism.”