Even if you’ve never heard the term, you’ll know Brutalist architecture when you see it. Most architects agree that its defining qualities include significant size and large quantities of concrete, often poured into monolithic slabs at crisp, imposing angles.
Buildings in this style both inspire and intimidate — they often appear to be built with a willful disregard for the aesthetic preferences of actual humans, which is probably why they appear so often in futuristic and dystopian films where it’s always overcast and there are giant television screens on every corner broadcasting frowning dictators.
Brutalism, a favorite of seemingly every celebrity architect at some point between 1950 and 1980, is not-so-secretly a dominant style in the urban design of Dallas.
Though the city may not celebrate its collection of Brutalist buildings with the same enthusiasm as the rest of the skyline, it’s hard to visit Dallas City Hall without feeling like you’re on the set of a sci-fi movie. Noted architect I.M. Pei designed this slightly intimidating, futuristic cantilevered structure in the 1970s, in an effort to counteract the “backwards” image of Dallas following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The building literally leans forward into the future, but it would be a stretch to describe it as “welcoming.”
Despite its odd looks, it certainly has its own sort of charm, in the manner of an eccentric relative — its most famous appearance, in the 1987 film RoboCop, features the building dressed up as the headquarters for evil corporation Omni Consumer Products, best known for its manufacture of killer robots.
You could shoot Dallas from the airport or from the south or the west and it just rose up like a phoenix. Those strange compelling buildings. It was quite an effect to see. You didn’t think it was the ‘80s, driving into Dallas.
Though Brutalism is long out of vogue, the style is not without its admirers. There is admittedly something rather intriguing about these buildings, with their unapologetic refusal to blend in with their surroundings. The bold ugliness of Brutalism means its buildings are often the first to fall to demolition and urban renewal, raising the question of whether historical buildings that also happen to be kind of ugly should be preserved, or forgotten like a bad haircut.
Once you’ve learned to recognize the style, it’s impossible to look around Dallas without seeing elements of Brutalism in buildings across the city. This isn’t surprising, considering the region’s rapid expansion during the heyday of Brutalist design, but should we bother to keep these bunker-like relics around? That’s a decision far beyond my reach — but personally, I kind of like them.