God, It’s Brutal Out Here
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
Celebrating a controversial semicentennial in Harlem architecture.
By Margaret Connor
Break out the cake and candles: 2023 will be the 50th birthday of the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building, Harlem’s tallest, strangest, most controversial building. Designed to evoke the form of an African mask, it’s an odd example of brutalism, a little too mediocre to be remembered, but not bad enough to earn a tearing down.
(In ten thousand years, when the archaeologists of the future dig through the remains of what was once the United States, they will find themselves encountering, again and again, the beige horizon of our pulverized concrete Ozymandia.)
I won’t say I like the mask building or that I don’t like the mask building—only that I feel the need to proselytize the good/bad/brutalist world of the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building. I’ve spoken to people who grew up in Harlem and weren’t even aware of its existence. That’s incredible, since it’s the tallest building in Harlem’s skyline, unfortunately. People hate tall buildings, and hate tallest buildings even more. I fear the mask building doesn’t get a fair shake, and while its height does it no favors, its design aesthetic is peerless in that there are practically no other examples of Afro-brutalism in the United States. When our modern architecture pines for the exotic, it usually harkens eastward. (See: the pagoda-like Deere & Company Administrative Center in Moline, Illinois.)
Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I thought the past looked like Revolutionary War–era graveyards and that the future looked like Boston City Hall. City Hall’s brutalism is visually busier than what we see in New York—its underpinning ideology is that architecture ought to be transparent. The design of precariously jutting, offset rooms reflect their diversity of functions. Big Apple brutalism is more brutal; more “box,” less “modern.” The style has become a pet interest of mine, a strictly amateur, meandering fascination for right angles and concrete. When I came to the city last fall, I set out to learn my way around Manhattan with an off-hours, self-guided tour of the Wikipedia category “Brutalist architecture in New York City.”
The mask building is a conception of its moment—a mid-century urban-renewal moment. Born in 1973 as the Harlem State Office Building, it was renamed for congressman and Columbia graduate Adam Clayton Powell a decade later. This was only one step in the building’s long dance of racial negotiation, beginning with an eminent domain land seizure followed by organized, vocal criticism from the Harlem community. First, young people from local organizations squatted on the site to protest its construction. Then, Harlem community delegates voted 178–55 to nix the project, proposing alternate uses for the land: low-income housing, a cultural center, educational facilities. Perceived as a white incursion into a Black community, the mask building has never sat easily in its locale. The ’83 rename didn’t change that. That a Black architecture firm designed it didn’t change that. The “African mask” shape didn’t change that. (In Latin, the word persona has several meanings: person, lord, character, mask. A persona non grata.)
I went down to see the Long Lines Building, another specimen of New York brutalism, when I was trying to write a short story about an increasingly unstable and antisocial architect. The story, by my estimation, failed, but the sight of this pipe-organesque pillar couldn’t fail to make an impression on me. The eponymic long lines stretch up, up, up, without windows, without interruptions. The building is beautiful, if a little horrific. Such concrete hulks of telephone exchanges are found throughout America, usually of a smaller and more discreet breed. Built to survive an atomic blast, the Long Lines Building is highly conspicuous in a city of glass. It is also probably TITANPOINTE, one of the National Security Agency’s primary U.S. surveillance sites.
Brutalism is nearly congenitally incapable of stoking our sympathies. I will defend it to say, however, that even mediocre examples of the style achieve aesthetic populism. The Silver Towers of University Village aren’t as argent as the Silver Towers of Hell’s Kitchen. They’re gray and dull, but they’re easy to photograph. Getting an expectation-satisfying picture of the Empire State Building or the Chrysler is next to impossible without the right skill and equipment, but brutalism’s rectangular children show up well on pixels and film. Even my smartphone camera takes a lovely snapshot of the Breuer and the Long Lines Building. (Be warned, however, that stalking around a probable NSA site taking photos by yourself may give somebody reason to mark you a “suspicious individual.”)
I won’t sugarcoat it: The Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building looks awful. The photos you take of it will be awful. This is because it is fundamentally awful. But, by God, in this city of awful-looking, awful-feeling buildings, we can at least say it’s weird. For every Long Lines, Manhattan has 10 mind-numbing fish-tank skyscrapers. Weirdness is a feat. To be ugly and weird and somehow forgettable is an accomplishment. So, in 2023, let’s wish the mask building a happy 50th birthday, then go back to pretending it doesn’t exist.