AJ deputy editor Rory Olcayto asks why US critic James Russell has linked a concrete campus to the Boston Marathon tragedy
Sometimes smart guys say the strangest things. James S Russell is a very smart guy. He must be. He’s the architecture critic for Bloomberg News. Before that, and for 18 years, Russell was an editor at Architectural Record. He’s a professor, too, at the Spitzer School of Architecture in the City College of New York. So why did he suggest Brutalist architecture caused the Boston Marathon bombings?
In a Google-friendly blog post, ‘Paul Rudolph and the Marathon Bomber’, Russell takes readers on a tour of the University of Massachusetts campus, 60 miles south of Boston. Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two prime suspects, was a student there. Russell’s aim is to convince you the concrete campus helped foment the mind of a killer. He visited the campus on 18 April, a day before Boston was put in ‘lockdown’ as the hunt for the bombers ramped up.
Russell doesn’t like what he finds: ‘a gigantic, eerie, dozen-building concoction of grim ribbed-concrete hubris designed by Paul Rudolph’. It’s not that Russell has it in for Rudolph. He confesses to being ‘won over’ by the architect’s government centre in Goshen, New York – ‘a startlingly intricate composition, also in his characteristic Brutalist style’. Rather, it is the university’s plan – ‘a vast parade ground posing as a campus green runs between lines of identical buildings’ – that makes Russell boil over. It ‘tyrannizes the place,’ he says.
The campus layout does look iffy on Google Maps. But individual buildings look good. And, though it means compromising his absurd conclusion, which blames the architecture for alienating Tsarnaev, Russell quite likes them. ‘Rudolph devised endless skillful variations on the bravura formula he concocted,’ he writes and much of the concrete is ‘beautifully cast’. The interiors, as well, impress Russell: ‘Numerous spectacular yet inviting atriums (pictured) hinge each building of the megastructure together. ’ Other than the masterplan, his main problem, it seems, is that ‘maintenance is minimal’, even though ‘roof leaks have been kept at bay’ (Russell has a habit of debunking his own assertions). He is even critical of designLAB’s renovation of the library: ‘the design has no real feeling for Rudolph. Old usually meets new pretty clumsily’. Make your mind up, Russell!
But it’s the final paragraph that tips his blog post over the edge. ‘As I sat stewing under the lockdown order … I wondered about the effect of such a deeply impersonal place,’ he writes. ‘It’s isolated at the suburban edge and unintentionally expressive of the assembly-line education that’s become the cost-driven norm. Does such a place aid the alienation – or, at least, impede the forming of deep personal bonds – of even a smart, sociable kid? … I can’t help thinking it.’
Russell, more often, is a fine critic. He is brave, too, to speculate on how a suspect killer may have been waylaid while much of America calls for his head. (Though asking whether a ‘sociable kid’ with ‘many friends’, had trouble bonding, is typical of the confused nature of his enquiry).
The aftermath of the bombings has caused some Americans to question the integrity of their famously inclusive culture and Russell is clearly of that mind. But making a link between Tsarnaev’s alienation and Rudolph’s Brutalist architecture is crass. Yet there are questions architecture critics can ask: Will lockdowns influence new urban design? What is the value of a public realm that can be so speedily militarised? When freedom of movement is so heavily restricted, what does it mean to be a citizen today? I’m sure Russell will come to consider them. In the meantime, he can start by letting Rudolph off the hook.