Beautiful Brutalism, Muskegon

After seeing our daughters in Chicago, Stacey and I had a long afternoon to drive back around Lake Michigan to Ludington. The Dunes Highway and a hike to the lake offered one diversion. In late afternoon we stopped to see the St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Muskegon. Designed by the great Marcel Breuer, designer of a notable chair and many buildings, the church is a celebrated example of the Brutalism style of architecture. Brutalism earned its name from the French béton brut, meaning “raw concrete.” This utilitarian style was popular in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Its use of poured-in-place concrete was a counterpoint to the steel frames and glass walls of the contemporaneous International style. The inexpensive, strong material encouraged architects to add a sense of monumentality to their structures. The church in Muskegon certainly is an example of that.

Brutalism as a style faded quickly after the 1970s, and several noted concrete buildings are facing demolition. Brutalism is a difficult style. Breuer’s Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which we visited immediately after being enthralled by F.L. Wright’s Guggenheim Museum and its outstanding collection of paintings, seemed cold and crude in comparison. It didn’t help that the featured exhibit at that time at the Whitney was disturbing and ugly as well. But after our look at the church in Muskegon, I’m on the verge of becoming one of Brutalism’s new fans. (See Preservation, Winter 2013.)

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