Brute of a Building : The Northridge Medical Arts facility is an example of once-popular Brutalist architecture.
A Goliath among Lilliputians. A departure from a world-famous architect’s metier. The Northridge Medical Arts Building is a study in contrasts.
Set among the fast-food eateries, hardware shops and pet-grooming palaces of Reseda Boulevard, it squats like a hulking Titan. Crude concrete is its skin. Its form is heavy and immutable, like an Old Kingdom Egyptian pyramid.
Dion Neutra, son of world-renowned architect Richard Neutra, co-designed the Northridge Medical Arts Building in 1963. In prior years, the Neutras gained international reputations for creating innovative, lighter-than-air “built environments,” such as the Mariners Medical Building in Newport Beach, an oasis of light and glass. Certainly, the ponderous Northridge Medical Arts Building departs radically from that style.
“The building evolved into its present form,” says Dion Neutra, who now devotes his architectural practice to restoring Neutra-designed buildings. “We had hoped to create a concept that would complement the construction” of nearby Cal State Northridge.
“The original design was very open, with lots of glass, allowing outside light and air to flow into the building. There was even an inner courtyard planned. But because of space and expense considerations, we had to alter the design quite a bit,” he says.
With architect Paffard Clay, Neutra refashioned the Northridge Medical Arts Building, completed in 1964, into its present form.
A mammoth breton brut (bare concrete) slab rests upon an impossibly slender base at the building’s entrance. This giant piece of crude sculpture--solid, intractable, intimidating--merrily flaunts the virtues of concrete. Exterior stairs flow toward a cavernous entrance. Surrounding foliage is minimal.
Narrow glass panels separated by bare wood posts comprise the building’s first-floor facade. Its upper two stories are dominated by grids of windows, partially obscured by repeating bris-soleils, fixed louvers that block direct sunlight.
As daylight shifts in the sky, the building’s deep balconies become gashed with shadows that slink across its concrete landscape. Inside, ultra-wide corridors and high ceilings carry military rows of fluorescent light squares.
Northridge Medical Arts Building’s facade bears close resemblance to two of Le Corbusier’s great creations, the Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles, France (1952), and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University (1963).
Together, these three buildings reflect a style of architecture called Brutalism that was popular in the 1950s and ‘60s. Brutalist buildings are heavy, monumental and defiantly unbeautiful. Their concrete surfaces are intentionally left exposed. Their ambience is austere.
Brutalism evolved as a revolt by certain European architects against a more widely accepted elegant design of the 1940s called Corporate International Style, which glorified “glass box” construction in a style that emphasized lightness, anonymity and rectilinear precision.
Brutalist advocates shunned it, however, maintaining that the International Style was an elitist fashioning that ignored the cold, harsh realities of post-World War II working-class life.
By the end of the ‘60s, Brutalism also fell out of favor, as other architects embraced new classically influenced styles to convey messages of optimism, humor and hope.
WHERE TO GO
What: Northridge Medical Arts Building.
Location: 9535 Reseda Blvd., Northridge.