Brutalism, also known as Brutalist architecture, emerged in the ‘50s as an offshoot of the early 20th century modernist movement. The concept behind the Brutalist style was to make buildings visually complex through minimal design and repetition, featuring vertical components, over-scaled proportions, unfinished surfaces, and small windows. It was most commonly used for governmental projects, university buildings, shopping centers, and high-rises; however, there also exist many residential examples. A prominent style throughout the ‘70s, the movement began to decline in the early ‘80s, eventually deemed as austere and unwelcoming.
Here in Boulder, as Brutalism gained notoriety throughout architectural circles in the ‘60s and ‘70s, our more progressive architects incorporated the style into their portfolios. Three of Boulder’s most (in)famous Brutalist buildings are the University of Colorado’s Williams Village towers, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and downtown’s West End Plaza.
Cresting Highway 36 on your final descent into Boulder, the city’s penchant for Brutalism is evident. The Williams Village towers, or “Will Vill”, are two commanding monoliths that spring up from the sweeping valley landscape, proudly welcoming both residents and visitors alike. While Will Vill is not universally adored, the buildings did receive an award as “the most outstanding building built in Colorado in the past 25 years.”
To the west, perched on Boulder’s undulating hillsides, is NCAR. This design truly deserves the moniker, “Boulder Brutalism”, as the poured-concrete exterior towers are tinted with native red sandstone to blend with the dramatic Flatirons backdrop. Architect I. M. Pei refers to the NCAR complex as his "breakout building.” To boot, its iconic stature has been cemented (no pun intended) by its inclusion in the movies Sleeper and The Arrival, as well as being featured prominently in the video game Horizon Zero Dawn.
The West End Plaza, originally known as the Edwards Center upon its completion in 1981, rarely receives praise. Built on the site of the Arnett Hotel, West End Plaza garnered criticism from its inception, being called a “red brick tank”, "the fortress”, "a child's garden of basic errors”, and “a pregnant whale”. Consequently, its Brutalist styling has been softened over the years, with larger windows eventually installed on the second and third levels.
Other Boulder buildings were also inspired by the Brutalist style. The Masonic Lodge (now the Museum of Boulder) has all the trappings of Brutalism. When the Museum moved in, the basic design didn’t change much, but like the West End Plaza, a few minor exterior adjustments were made to give the building a more welcoming appearance.
But Brutalism has not met its brutal demise just yet. In fact, there’s been a recent revival of interest in Brutalist buildings; historical societies petition regularly for their survival, architectural historians celebrate their design origins, and the general public has developed a fondness for their strong, imposing nature.
It’s no secret that architectural styles come and go at a breakneck pace; one decade’s treasure can be the next decade’s monstrosity. Luckily, within the architectural world, there are often younger counter-culture movements who learn to appreciate and protect what’s commonly considered passé. Whether ironic or sincere, these laudations are welcome and appreciated.