The Archivist’s Nook: The Brutal Archives

1920s CUA Brochure to Prospective Students from the CUA Archives Photographic Collection Ca. 1887-1999: Box 71, Folder 7.

The construction of a Brutalist building at The Catholic University of America marked a departure from the existing architectural style previously seen at CUA and it was a departure from original conceptions of the growth of the university taking shape in a form that resembled a medieval village.

How did this shift in architecture challenge the ideas of public space? Was it a social experiment that was well suited to the academic environment?

I recently chatted with Eric Jenkins, a Professor of Architecture at Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning to get the answer to this question:

It was very expressionist; a lot of architects in the 70s were not concerned with making a typical campus, such as Yale, with its unified and orderly sense of space; they were concerned with making a modern statement” This modernist statement was invoked in the form of Aquinas Hall, the current home of The Catholic University of America Archives and 1 of 4 Brutalist expressions currently on campus.

The grand entrance stairway consists of a set of angulated right vertices and rectilinear striations of concrete whose descent to a planular surface of alternating rectangles adds an ethereal level of depth to the viewer’s field of vision.

Washingtonians are organically familiar with the Brutalist Aesthetic, due to the ubiquity of Government Brutalism in Washington D.C. In fact, The District is home to extremely beautiful examples of the Brutalist architectural style. From the trip to work, to the work place itself, a Washingtonian’s daily routine is saturated by the atmospheric essence of Béton Brut, which can be seen in the ceilings of the Metro’s cavernous stations and seen deep within the bowels of Downtown.

Washington’s Brutalist buildings are a communique of power, impenetrability, and the performative use of materials to create a remarkable psycho-social demarcation through jarring exaggerations in building scale that coerce the viewer to process the architectural form from a macroscopic perspective, in what Professor Jenkins noted as “object-oriented landscaping, in which the building becomes a landscape object.”

The atrium central staircase is an act of paradox: an acute involution of inflexible materials around a softer hexagonal social area presenting an unusual mix of refined textiles and raw materials.

Brutalism was the Federal Government’s de rigueur style during the 1970s; but tucked away at The Catholic University of America, a new player entered the field, in the form of a quieter, more pensive expression that emerged in divergent transition to the Federal Government’s translation of the Brutalist aesthetic.

In 1965, candidates for the Master of Arts in English, at The Catholic University of America, were asked during their comprehensive examinations to ruminate on a complexly layered observation made by Mark Shorer in the foreword of Society and Self in the Novel, a 1955 treatise edited by Shorer in which he made the following annunciation:

“…the problem of the novel has always been to distinguish between these two, the self and society, and at the same time to find suitable structures that will present them together.”

The central staircase appears dramatic in the morning sunlight due to the striking contrasts created by the deep shadows of the opposing faces.

From an interdisciplinary standpoint, the ontological consideration of the parallels, partitions and implications of what is real, what is imagined, and what can become, is one of the core considerations of designing a building—in other words: how to reconcile between anthropocentricity and design aesthetics to create a unified conversation between these aspects that are at times in harmonious communication and at other times in discordant miscommunication. The design of CUA’s Aquinas Hall squares this circle because the building was not designed through a psycho-social lens but rather as a form of psycho-geographical praxis in which scale is downplayed and the viewer’s gaze is shifted to the granular level. In this context, the juxtaposition of raw, coarse, unpolished, imperfect, cacophonous materiality results in theatric, unexpected geometries.


A melodic, psychogeographic exploration of the geometry and materiality of the Brutalist home of The Catholic University of America’s Archives.

Images and video of Aquinas Hall are by the author, Juan-Pablo Gonzalez.