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Burnside Basement Brutalist Blues: The Surprising Architectural History Behind The Bleakest Building on Campus

Arts students and Science students must put their differences aside and face the greater evil: the depressing, claustrophobic, asbestos-filled concrete dungeons of Burnside Basement. This stuffy underground hole that permits no light is where student’s hopes come to die. A nice warm soup from the Soupe Café, the heartwarming bathroom graffiti, and a lesson in the history of brutalist architecture might cheer you up though.

Depression is an epidemic among McGill students. Whether it is the long dark winter, the depersonalized education with its 200 people intro classes, or the academically competitive atmosphere that encourages imposter syndrome, it is safe to say that the gloomy architecture surrounding us does not help. Often, students have no choice but to confine themselves to sad-looking buildings for hours to cope with the academic rigours of McGill. Anyone who has sat longer than 3 hours in the concrete dungeons of McGill can figure out why basements are always haunted in horror films and attest that brutalist architecture can be, well, brutal. Or is that really true?

Home to the departments of Geography, Mathematics and Statistics, and Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Burnside Hall's main attraction is its concrete slab basement. It is home to clasrooms, computer labs, Soupe Café, the Science Undergraduate Society (SUS), Neuroscience Undergraduates of McGill (NUM), Society of Undergraduate Mathematics Students (SUMS) offices, a group study area, and of course, samosa sales. As one of the social hubs of campus, it is also where students from various faculties and departments cross paths.

Originally, I had started writing this article to complain about how ugly some McGill buildings are, and how being surrounded by gray concrete all day, never seeing the sunlight did not help with my depression at all. What started out as a pretty bleak article about some bleak buildings turned into an exploration of brutalist architecture, the history of McGill buildings, and a stroll through them, seeing them with new eyes.

I never thought I would come to appreciate these concrete blocks as raw, honest, democratical, and beautiful in their own way.

Sketch of the campus in 1875. 

Brutalist architecture is an architectural style that emerged in 20th century and gained popularity in 1970s. It is characterized by geometric gray shapes and raw block-like concrete construction. Montreal is home to quite a few brutalist buildings (and metro stations), a big example being the landmark Habitat 67, designed by Moshe Safdie for his master's thesis at McGill and built for Expo 67.

Brutalism was initially popular in the UK as poorer communities sought inexpensive construction for low-cost housing. In the 50s and 60s, many North American university campuses also constructed brutalist buildings to accommodate rising enrollment. On McGill Campus, brutalist architecture is very common with buildings such as Leacock, Arts, Burnside, Stewart Bio, and McLennan Library being examples. The ugliest buildings of our campus I would have said, if you had asked me a few days ago.

Critics of brutalism, and there are many, because brutalism's "concrete monstrosity" has never stopped being controversial, find it cold and unappeling. Brutalist buildings are expensive to maintain and difficult to destroy. The concrete walls that lay everything bare cannot be covered, except in graffiti. The brutal truth of brutalist architecture may be hard to swallow for some. 

Safdie designed Habitat 67 as a piece of utopian experimental housing project to bring suburbian homes with their gardens, fresh air, and privacy to urban centres. The building ended up failing its supposed brutalist ideals. Today, the apartments are privately owned, luxuriously renovated, and very expensive. Habitat 67 continues to stay an important landmark in Montreal.

Apparently, brutalism has more in common with that softboy that's making you sad: it's been misunderstood. The ideology of brutalism is in fact all about equality, connectivity, accessibility, transparency, and democratic use. 

The raw concrete that does not conceal itself challenges more sophisticated and hierarchial styles. Before Brutalism, the plain raw material was usually hidden beneath the surface. But brutalism's brutal honesty hides nothing. Transparency is crucial to brutalism. That's why the large glass walls of Leacock allow passerbys to see what is going on inside, opening up the building and its inner activities to public.

Brutalism also aims to foster a sense of equality and spatial democracy through unity and shared space. The repetitive patterns of the glazed windows of Burnside signify that every office and its occupants are equal. Another brutalist principal, connectivity, is apparent in the connecting steps and tunnels that bridge the building with the rest of campus. Even graffiti that aggravates critics of brutalism, can serve as a way of bringing a community together.

Graffiti in Burnside Basement bathrooms is distinctly feminist and LGBTQ+ friendly. The last stall on the left in the women's bathroom is the "The Lesbian Stall" where "everyone is welcome and all shit is valid". Messages of positivity and acceptance surround the walls and offer bathroom users encouragement as they take a break from their busy day.

Can I say that I've come to love the dark halls of Burnside Hall and that I'm looking forward to walking through them at 8:30 everyday? That might be an exaggeration. But learning about the history behind the concrete has allowed me to see it with new eyes and conclude that brutalism has not failed us yet. What do you think? Are you convinced by brutalism's ideals? Do the brutalist blues of Burnside Basement still dishearten you? We can talk more over a warm Soupe Café chili.

(Disclaimer: This post is not sponsored by Soupe Café. The author just really loves their vegetarian chili.)

(The author would like to be sponsored by Soupe Café. Please contact her if you know anything.)


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Bathroom graffiti image captured by the author.


While studying English, Media, and Cultural Studies at McGill, Zeynep was Her Campus McGill's Editor in Chief (2019-20). Born in Turkey, Zeynep moved to the US when she was 15 after receiving a scholarship to study at a Maine boarding school. She then finished high school in Nova Scotia before settling in Montreal. When not writing essays, she can be found speed walking everywhere, queering texts, or making feminist memes. Zeynep is now starting her Masters in Film Studies at Concordia University.
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