One of Marcel Breuer’s final designs on claass HAUS today.
A master of both the Bauhaus box and the Brutalist beast, architect Marcel Breuer spent a legendary career creating sophisticated modernist monuments serving both the private individual and the public good. One of the last projects designed by Breuer before his retirement in 1976, the Strom Thurmond Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, reflects the master's audacious aesthetic, a bold concrete complex situated in the heart of Columbia, South Carolina.
Following decades of work in the Bauhaus mode, Marcel Breuer shifted toward a more radical concrete expression in the years following World War II, embracing the (often maligned) Brutalist aesthetic. Blending unadorned raw concrete with soaring, sculptural forms, Breuer’s brutal style came to define the second half of his prolific career with buildings like the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building acting as catalysts for the concrete takeover. Perhaps by destiny, Breuer's interest in the monumentality of concrete happened to coincide with a significant push by the federal government to construct new facilities. With a federal contract in hand, Breuer and partner Herbert Beckhard explored the possibilities of concrete, committing to the assertive aesthetic of the exposed Brutalist mass.
Columbia’s federal complex is in many ways a continuation of Breuer’s concrete experiment, its stark and sophisticated façade enthusiastically embracing the rawness of its material. Situated on a 3.6-acre site in downtown Columbia (it replaced a five-unit motel), the complex consists of a soaring sixteen-story office tower and a long and low three-story courthouse, both set within a landscaped plaza. Like much of the period's federal architecture, the complex is a brooding, unadorned block, elegant in its mass and minimalism.
Constructed between 1975 and 1979, Breuer's Brutalist-style complex is a skillful expression of unadorned forms, raw materials, and monolithic structure. Within the landscaped plaza, the tall office tower rises over the low, rectangular courthouse in a balance of the individual and the institution. Both steel-frame structures are clad in pre-cast concrete panels and dark gray granite. On the first floor of each building, long expanses of glass create a dialogue between forms, blurring the usual division between indoor and outdoor space. Serving as the primary ornament, a repetitive pattern of recessed one-light windows, each shaded by a blocky brise soleils (sun shades), unites the paired facades, emphasizing an austere monumentality.
Acting as a counterbalance to the hulking concrete architecture, a plaza is executed at human scale, a formal yet inviting space. The plaza's granite and concrete surfaces are softened by green trees, round planters, a sunken pool, and many opportunities to sit and retreat. A large-scale aluminum sculpture painted a bright white curves over the hardscape, casting shadows over large expanses of concrete and stone. Designed by Florida artist Barbara Neijna for the General Services Administration's (GSA) Art in Architecture program, Right Turn on White (see above photograph) uses refined geometry and straightforward proportions to activate the plaza, adding dimension and visual interest to the rational language of Breuer's complex. (A second GSA-sponsored public art piece, a textile work by Marla Mallett, originally hung in the lobby but was later removed due to environmental damage.)
On the interior of the building, Breuer continues the use of high-quality materials and a geometric vocabulary to evoke modernity. Glazed brick, concrete coffered ceilings, massive columns, and repetition of the square add pattern and variation to the public spaces. Referring to the exterior's blocky forms, massive granite cubes serve as building directories, while granite water fountains, seating areas, and stairwells all employ the same thoughtful geometry.
Only a year after construction began on the Strom Thurmond Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Breuer's declining health forced the architect into retirement. Oversight of the project transferred to Beckhard, while Charlotte-based architect James Hemphill, Jr. oversaw the complex's construction. Unfortunately, like many large-scale projects, costs skyrocketed as construction lagged, a combination that drew much local ire. But just 25 years after its completion, the federal complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, an exceptional example of American Brutalism and a formative design of master Modernist Marcel Breuer.
You can read other claass HAUS entries on Breuer here, here, and here.
All Images are part of the Carol M. Highsmith Archive at the Library of Congress, available here.
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer and donor. Photographs of the Strom Thurmond Federal Building and U. S. Courthouse in Columbia, South Carolina. Columbia, South Carolina, 2006. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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