Design for and against community

How news sites with the goal of fostering community stepped on it with the heavy boot of a totalitarian state.

News websites and brutalist architecture don’t share the same aesthetics, but the architecture and forces underlying them are surprisingly similar.

David Lister High School, Kingston-upon-Hull, East Yorkshire, UK, 1960s

Brutalism is an architectural movement known for its large concrete buildings, devoid of additional ornamentation. The name comes not from the word brutal, but from the French word for concrete.

béton brut

“raw concrete”

From the 1960s to 1980s, college campuses and other state institutions relied heavily on brutalist designs. They were popular choices for buildings because they were cheap to construct at a time when baby boomers were driving more demand for new campus buildings.

SUNY StonyBrook Medical Center

These buildings were also the perfect response to protests and sit-ins. Brutalist buildings were easier to defend from the populous.

Their sprawling barren landscapes reduced the focal points where people could gather. Multiple entrances were harder to block.

Their scale and presence on the landscape clearly conveyed the strength and stability of the unwavering state during a period of upheaval.

Although, writing in Slate, Bryan Lowder points out these social factors were urban legends. In this case though, the narrative overshadows any lack of agenda because if the occupants believe that a place discourages community, then it discourages community.

Before brutalist buildings became a tool for defensive positions of bureaucratic institutions, they were a legitimate attempt at creating spaces that were orderly, efficient and economical. In another word: utopian

Le Corbusier’s 1935 vision for a “Radiant City,” where people are housed in orderly rows of towers, as are factories and businesses. A perfect city, organized reproducible.

Le Corbusier is one of the fathers of modern architecture and more specifically brutalism. His goals were to improve cities and people’s lives by creating better places. He started with the slums of 1920s Paris and tried to improve lives of its residents through modern design that was highly organized. He sought a place for everything, and to put everything in its place both on a small scale within buildings, and on a larger scale across cities.

The depth of Le Corbusier’s insistence on order at the cost of humanity is frightening. I won’t get into it too deeply here, but Theodore Dalrymple has a great piece in City Journal about Le Corbuiser that strongly makes the totalitarian connection. Le Corbuiser’s insistence on order and structure and the landscape bowing to his whims was egomaniacal at best and at worst and attempt to dominate the world through architecture.

Pruitt–Igoe public housing in St.Louis demolished 18 years after opening.

Despite noble stated intentions, his tactics were uttlery heavy handed and completely unsympathetic to the human needs he was trying to serve. His legacy can be felt in many now demolished large-scale public housing complexes. While he was not the architect of these spaces, they were the realization of many of his ideals of factories for living set amongst a garden. These projects did not work and rarely took into account human needs, or the squishy aspects of community.

Furthermore, he believed that one solution was all we needed for every city. There should be no differences from place to place.

Le Corbusier wanted architecture to be the same the world over because he believed that there was a “correct” way to build and that only he knew what it was. The program of the International Congress for Modern Architecture, of which Le Corbusier was the moving spirit, states: “Reforms are extended simultaneously to all cities, to all rural areas, across the seas.” No exceptions. “Oslo, Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Algiers, Port Said, Rio or Buenos Aires, the solution is the same,” Le Corbusier maintained, “since it answers the same needs.”
As quoted by Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal

What does that have to do with news ?

Brutalism strives for order, as do most news sites. Templated sites and mass production needs drive many sites into designs that require little human effort on a daily basis. From one day to the next, sites remain the same, but content shifts in and out of the same predefined slots. While there is not a single homogenizing vision, across news sites, we have wound up in a place where there is little difference from one news site to the next.

Where are the differences? Homepages from five publications over a few days. Via
University of Leeds.

One of the design hallmarks of brutalism is striving to make purpose abundantly clear. Walkways are there so we know that people should walk here. There are stairs and skylights here, better put the side of the building at an angle so you can’t miss it. Those steps outside, they are there for people to gather on. All set in concrete and completely unescapable.

News sites do this too, but with words instead of concrete. Labels are everywhere on news sites, particularly around things that the organization is trying to make visible. Obviously, no labels at all would not work, but adding labels is usually a symptom of a problem, not a symptom of a great design. Brutalism created spaces that were not familiar, creating the need to be abundantly clear. News sites suffer from the same malady and cure. It’s unclear, so we’ll make it unmissable.

Across the web, labels from sites trying to show what is happening here.

What would Kentucky Fried Chicken be called if newspapers named it:

Dead Hot Chicken.

Clear, concise, accurate and completely unappetizing.

One of five such nearly identical buildings across Europe.
The “Corbusierhaus” in Berlin (Unité d’Habitation, type Berlin)

Another element of brutalism is massive scale achieved through repeated modular elements. News sites also share this characteristic.

The drive for lower costs is the same between buildings and websites. homepage (below the fold)

Repetition of a common solution happens on a small scale within single projects, where a box is often designed for one purpose, then reused and stacked to create a right rail, or a page section.

Solutions are also repeated on a large scale with many new sites using the same design across multiple markets. Arguments can be made against the need for localization. Google and Facebook use single designs. The difference though is that on those destinations, the content is so intensely personalized to the individual that it creates its own localization through algorithms.

The problem is that you wind up with forced solutions. Perhaps it worked in one place, but does not in another. Repetition of modular elements means that less thought goes into individual spaces and those spaces get filled with what we have, not what the community wants. This is the soul of the brutalist approach to architecture and site design.

Noble Intentions + limited budgets = limited solutions repeated

Where do we go from here?

My college experience was dominated by two brutalist buildings. One housed my college paper, The Daily Targum. The other, my geography major. Either buildings would have served admirably in a zombie apocalypse or student uprising, whichever came first.

Each of these spaces became a place that I found a home in despite their inhumane postures. In both, that home was a niche within the building. A tucked away corner where individuals were able to connect.

The places where true community grows are in the nooks and crannies isolated from the whole. To make mass online spaces enabling of community, we need to focus on creating spaces where individual actions can have meaning and individuals can create community through one to one interactions.

Structural Expressionism came into favor as the brutalists found concrete rocks to hide under in the 1980s. High-tech architecture as it is also called ushered in more flexible spaces where the underlying structural elements were made visible, but not in ways that dictated the way the space must worked.

There was also a fundamental shift in materials. Pre-fabricated steel replaced concrete. Pre-fabrication meant that the parts that had to be repeated to achieve cost savings were smaller units. Smaller parts allow more flexibility in how those parts are put together, creating more variety of solutions.

We see this today on news sites as well. The shift in materials away from monolithic CMSes to APIs, javascript and native app development are a fundamental shift in the materials that we’re building with. Just as new materials allowed new expressions of buildings, such is true of digital spaces as well.

Quartz and Los Angeles Times are nice examples of structural expressionism in news site design. Their use of javascript along with minimal design to render connected articles that effortlessly move people from page to page feels like the shift from concrete to steel.

A few examples of vernacular architecture, from

Before the concrete of brutalism, there was Vernacular architecture, which is constructed with traditional technologies using available materials, and drawing on local cultural influences. Built to meet specific needs, and utterly unique to every location.

In the race for efficiency from analog to digital, vernacular has been lost in news products. The vernacular helped to strengthen local connections to local community and should be cultivated. To reclaim the outward appearances of local quirks would be a skeuomorphic disservice to all involved.

The underlying philosophy of drawing on local materials and culture should be considered. In today’s digital world local is individual.Personal is vernacular. The online spaces where people gather are not the ones where there are predefined rules and functionalities, it is in the places that let you bring your own vernacular elements in. In architecture, this means materials, but online that means data. new account screen -screenshot from

Slack may be a team communication tool and not a mass tool, but they do community right and create spaces for people to create their own meaning by pulling in the data that exists around us. By allowing many other types of content to flow into their space through integrations, they connect to the individual, the local and the vernacular.

Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and others do the same thing, they create empty flexible spaces into which we pour our own meaning and grow community. These are places that are about the individual and less about the choices of the architect who wants to dictate that these steps shall be for the community to gather on.

Spaces make places.
Great architects create spaces.
Utopian failures make holes that are already filled in.

Views are my own, not my employer’s.

Top image of stairs
Boston City Hall from:
Rutgers Student Center photo:

Epic Hat tip to @mkramer for the idea seed behind this post.