Buffalo Brutalism

In response to:

The Brutal Dreams That Came True from the December 22, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

Martin Filler’s important survey of the ebb and flow of our love/hate relationship with Brutalism [“The Brutal Dreams That Came True,” NYR, December 22, 2016] was long overdue. Although he did mention Le Corbusier’s early influence in exploring the topic, he might have noted that Walter Gropius’s early article in Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes (1913) was what really sparked the interest of architects such as Erich Mendelsohn, one of many who made a pilgrimage to Buffalo for the sole purpose of viewing those gigantic silos on the city’s lakefront. One can make the argument that Buffalo and its silos helped to pave the way for many of those Brutalist structures that subsequently found many admirers.

G. Stanley Collyer
Louisville, Kentucky

Martin Filler replies:

Mr. Collyer is correct to point out Walter Gropius’s early interest in the concrete industrial structures of Buffalo (and other cities), one of many vernacular prototypes for Brutalism. However, it was actually Le Corbusier’s appropriation of Gropius’s images of these grain elevators for his Vers une architecture (1923) that gave them their widest currency. And even though such utilitarian landmarks did indeed influence early modernist architects, three decades later the Brutalists did not invest them with any particular significance and were looking much more closely at Le Corbusier’s postwar works in concrete. The definitive account of Buffalo’s central place in this development can be found in A Concrete Atlantis: US Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture (MIT Press, 1986), the last book by the greatest scholarly proponent of Brutalism, Reyner Banham.