For some, Herter Hall is an eyesore. Our department’s little-loved home is a concrete monolith, one of several scattered across the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass), the flagship campus of the state of Massachusetts. Like many Brutalist buildings, Herter Hall’s concrete form seems unyielding, resistant to the very landscape it is situated in and to the individuals that make the building their academic home. We are supposed to accommodate to Herter Hall, rather than the other way around. This is a common critique of Brutalist buildings, and one that I hear my colleagues and classmates intone with frequency. Yet too often in (sometimes heated) conversations about Brutalism, we deny ourselves agency to influence and shape our built environment—especially if that built environment is concrete. But when Herter Hall was papered with recruitment flyers for a white nationalist hate group earlier this semester, a group of graduate students and faculty in the History department and the Languages, Literature, and Classics (LLC) department co-opted Herter’s concrete shell to articulate a response. Our own act of resistance aimed to transform Herter from an anonymous academic building to one that conveyed a united front against acts of hate.
When the Coletti Brothers of Boston designed Herter Hall in 1969, they added one of a growing number of Brutalist buildings cropping up across campus. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the UMass administration hoped to shift our campus’s identity from a small state agricultural college to one of the nation’s leading research universities. Brutalism was the integral visual keystone to this process, reflecting the university’s commitment to providing modern, state-of-the-art academic facilities. Beyond simply increasing physical space to a growing university, this commitment invoked a much broader ideal of public investment in education. As a modern architectural style, Brutalism hoped to explore concrete’s “fundamental properties,” what UMass professors Marla Miller and Max Page refer to as “the search for the ‘rough poetry’ of materials in their raw state.”
While many would think Herter is “rough,” few would associate it with “poetry.” But Herter’s more poetic sensibilities resonate in the simplicity of its engineering, its interior functions laid bare upon the exterior. The building’s stairwells and classrooms protrude from the west façade, while repeating rows of windows on Herter’s east side make obvious the building’s interior functions of offices and seminar rooms. In other words, Herter Hall clearly expresses itself in a way that most observers can understand.
That Herter can be so easily “read” by those passing by or waiting to catch a bus from Haigis Mall proved fundamental in articulating a response to instances of racism and hatred. Earlier in the semester a white nationalist hate group peppered Herter Hall with recruitment posters, one of a growing number of racist and hateful acts occurring across campus. This incident deeply disturbed many of us who call Herter Hall our academic home. UMass was just the latest in a string of universities targeted by this specific group, and this racist incident was just one of many targeting people of color on UMass’s campus this fall. As soon as the posters appeared, their perpetrators disappeared into anonymity. Such an act of hatred is frustratingly nebulous; our counterparts two floors below us in LLC and those of us in the History department hoped to formulate a response as concrete as Herter Hall. Our small coalition in Herter joined a growing number of cross-campus efforts to address racism including statements from UMass chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and History department chair Brian Ogilvie, the “Hate Has No Home At UMass” campaign, and coordinated efforts from the Graduate Student Senate and Employee Organization. For our History and LLC coalition in Herter, we settled on utilizing Herter’s Brutalist form as our own canvas to reflect a unified front against hate at UMass.
LLC, located on the fourth and fifth floors, and History, located on the sixth and seventh floors, each selected phrases grounded in our own academic fields of study. LLC chose “Zivilcourage,” a German phrase historically connected to anti-fascist movements that roughly translates to “courage to stand up for one’s beliefs.” Conversations within the History department resulted in the selection of “Solidarity” and “Resistance,” two words that carry immense historical weight for a number of social movements that hoped to achieve greater equity in the world around them. We painted each letter of these phrases on large sheets of paper to hang within individual office and seminar room windows, thus utilizing Herter’s rows of windows that face out onto Haigis Mall like blank crossword puzzle lines to be filled in.
As Herter’s original Brutalist design intended to reflect its interior properties, so too have we projected our values as academics committed to rejecting racism and hatred from UMass onto the exterior of Herter Hall. Likewise, our simple mapping of words and phrases transformed Herter from a monolithic concrete block to a pliable canvas. Our own act of resistance refutes the idea that Brutalism is an architectural style unyielding to human intervention. Rather, we have agency to shape our built environment to better reflect our values as an academic department and a society. It feels as if it is no accident such a response came from within Herter Hall. Brutalism itself remains visually and historically associated with the ideals of a strong public sphere, one increasingly under attack. These ideals, while perhaps obscured behind poor maintenance and dirty concrete, still shine through in acts of resistance, however small, that help unite us in solidarity against acts of hatred.