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Knight Gallery director takes interest in Brutalism to her own photography show
Aug. 9, 2012
The Community College of Rhode Island’s Knight Campus building in Warwick, visible from a busy stretch of routes 95 and 295, commands attention, but not all of that attention is admiring. Some people see a unique piece of architecture and enjoy the building’s ramps, walkways and window walls; others find the structure's concrete facade and twisting corridors confusing, imposing or even prison-like.
CCRI Knight Campus Art Gallery Director Viera Levitt was fascinated with the building from the moment she came to work here in 2009. She was inspired to host an exhibition and panel discussion about the campus and its controversial architectural style, known as Brutalism, during 2011 All College Week called "We Talk About Architecture, Architecture Talks Back."
Earlier this year she received a New England Art Award for this show in the Concept/Theme Show curatorial category. The New England Art Awards are given annually by the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research to artists or curators who represent the year’s best work in categories including drawing, painting, sculpture, performance, installation or curated shows.
“I was quite pleased when we were nominated,” Levitt said. “It’s nice to be acknowledged because I worked on this project for a long time and put lots of creativity and effort into it.” She said this is the first time that CCRI has been nominated for or received one of the awards.
The publicity surrounding the show – including the marketing materials, press kit contents and resulting media coverage – also won the college’s Department of Marketing and Communications a Gold Medallion award from the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations, an organization that represents communications professionals from two-year colleges.
Levitt also said that all of the attention she paid to Brutalism in organizing the event inspired her to put together her own photographic show about the style called “Beauty in the Beast: Photography of Brutalist Architecture” which will run through Sept. 1 at the Hera Gallery in Wakefield.
In organizing last year’s “We Talk About Architecture” event, Levitt solicited artwork in many different media about and inspired by the Knight Campus from 24 artists from New England, as well as CCRI students and faculty.
Levitt also organized a panel discussion about the building and its architectural style that included Kate Dunnigan, CCRI history professor and chairwoman of the Department of Social Sciences; Providence-based architect Christopher “Kip” McMahan, whose firm designed the 1999 additions to the Knight Campus; Michael Kubo, a co-curator of a project on Boston’s modernist concrete buildings; Ipek Tureli, a professor in the History of Art and Architecture Department at Brown University; and Andrew Thurlow, a partner at Thurlow Small Architecture and associate professor at Roger Williams University. Levitt’s husband, Marc, an independent writer, storyteller and host of the radio program “Action Speaks,” moderated the panel.
The panelists sought to give historical perspective to both the Knight Campus building itself and the design philosophy behind it. Members of the CCRI community filled the audience and shared their own thoughts on the building in which they work and learn.
“That show was exciting because there were so many different perspectives that helped us to rediscover the megastructure and see it in new ways.” Levitt said. “Also, some people changed their minds about the building because of the forum.”
The Brutalist style began in England but was inspired by the work in concrete of the French architect Le Corbusier, hence the name Brutalism from the French phrase béton brut, meaning “raw concrete.” The style was popular in the 1950s and into the ’60s and ’70s when the Knight Campus was designed and built. It is known for extensive use of concrete and often leaves the activities of occupants – as well as duct work and pipes – exposed to the outside.
Panelists agreed upon the idea that the style is most often seen in public buildings and represented the hope that government works could be used to improve society. Levitt believes that the buildings, with their fortress-like aspect, conveyed strength and stability during the Cold War (the style was used equally in the United States and other Western countries as well as within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.) In her Hera Gallery show, Levitt points to the similarities between Brutalist buildings in her native Slovakia, a former member of the Soviet bloc, and buildings she has photographed in the United States.
Brutalism might be out of favor today, Levitt said, and many people find it ugly, but it also has a growing number of supporters. In fact some architecture enthusiasts are quite interested in it. Levitt said students of architecture sometimes travel to CCRI to see one of the finest examples of Brutalism in the region.
“There are people who care about unusual and bold architecture, so for me it’s a confirmation that there is an interest in this building and that it’s good to talk about it,” Levitt said. “It’s something special that CCRI has.”
She added, “I think it’s important to acknowledge this building; it’s not going anywhere. We might as well try to learn more about it and understand it as the building celebrates its 40th anniversary this September.”
Levitt explored this and other Brutalist buildings in the area, including the Brown University library, Boston City Hall, the campus of UMass Dartmouth and similar structures in Slovakia for her “Beauty in the Beast: Photography of Brutalist Architecture” solo show.
In her photography, Levitt tries to reveal some of the idealism inherent in the Brutalist style and also find hidden beauty in buildings that many find to be cold and imposing. For example, close examination of some concrete reveals imprinted memory of the wooden frames used in its pouring, expressed in unique patterns. She has been able to capture abstract and geometric sculptural forms, elegant details and even harmony in these architectural "elephants." Levitt also closely examines the geometry of the buildings, geometry in art being a particular interest of hers since she completed her master’s in fine art thesis on the topic.
With her background as a curator, Levitt insisted on giving a gallery talk about her exhibition because she feels that discussion is important to the appreciation of art. “Artist talks are important because they give artworks more life,” Levitt said, “and show the angle from which the artist looks at the world – or, in this case, frames the world by photographing its details.”
The Hera Gallery is located on 10 High St. in Wakefield. The exhibition was supported in part by the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts Project Grant. Admission and all events are free and open to the public. Learn more about the gallery.
View a photo gallery of Levitt’s award-winning “We Talk About Architecture, Architecture Talks Back” event.