Student-led Instagram account juxtaposes brutalist architecture with … cats!

Cats peeking through a building.

by David J. Hill

Published February 2, 2021

Cats and brutalist architecture: Who knew the two were a perfect pair?

UB urban design graduate students and their professors have generated a fanatical following through an Instagram page, called Cats of Brutalism, that ties the hard edges of brutalist architecture with soft, fuzzy, super-scaled cats.

The New York Times recently featured Cats of Brutalism as one of “5 Art Accounts to Follow on Instagram Now.”

Launched by UB architecture master’s students Emily Battaglia, Madelaine Ong and Michaela Senay in collaboration with the studio’s professors, Gregory Delaney and Brett Doster, the playful account — described as “Your daily dose of cats and concrete” — has a larger purpose: to raise awareness of brutalism, the often misunderstood and under-loved period of mid-to-late-20th century architecture, while promoting adoptable cats.

“Cats of Brutalism juxtaposes brutalist buildings with super-scaled cats as a means of introducing warmth, softness and whimsy to the often-perceived-as cold, hard and severe forms of brutalism,” says Delaney.

The page has more than 41,000 followers, far surpassing the group’s initial goal of 1,500. “I don’t think any of us expected it to get this big,” says Battaglia.

Adds Ong: “The account has managed to take a life of its own and I'll never stop enjoying receiving messages from across the world asking us to see this brutalist building posted or have their cat featured. It's really something special and rewarding to be a part of a community that continues to show us their unconditional support.”

The Ellicott Complex on UB's North Campus bears a striking resemblance to a series of large cat towers, perfect for Cats of Brutalism.

The Ellicott Complex on UB's North Campus bears a striking resemblance to a series of large cat towers, perfect for Cats of Brutalism.

Appreciation for brutalist buildings

A native Buffalonian, Battaglia’s only real familiarity with brutalist architecture was the Rudolph-designed Shoreline Apartment complex near downtown Buffalo, which had long sat in disrepair before finally being demolished last winter.

“But as I looked into other projects, I realized how celebratory, raw and creative the style of brutalism could be,” she says. “This project really opened my eyes to the style of brutalism and honestly changed my opinion and passion toward the style.”

The project arose from an urban design graduate studio that studied the Paul Rudolph-designed Earl W. Brydges Public Library in Niagara Falls, New York.

Cats of Brutalism furthers the studio’s goal of challenging the misconceptions of brutalism. The Niagara Falls Public Library, meanwhile, a cathedral-like structure that embodies Rudolph’s style at the height of his career, is challenged today by building performance issues and years of deferred maintenance, drawing real questions about its future.

“As an important work of brutalism and an anchor for its community, our studio’s objective was to raise awareness about this building — not merely to promote its preservation, but as a means to advance architectural discourse in the public realm,” says Delaney, clinical assistant professor of architecture in the School of Architecture and Planning, who co-led the fall studio with Doster, an adjunct instructor of architecture at UB.

What inspired Cats of Brutalism?

Inspired by some of her favorite animal and architecture Instagram accounts, Senay came up with the idea to Photoshop pictures of her own cats onto different Brutalist buildings. “Obviously, because of COVID-19 I’ve been home a lot, and I have two cats, so I’ve splurged in taking pictures of them,” she says.

The black-and-white styling of Cats of Brutalism was an intentional choice. “The black and white almost makes a funny image look somewhat realistic,” Senay says.

“If you’re scrolling, you might think it’s just a regular architecture picture. But if you actually stop and look, you’re like, ‘There’s a giant, 50-foot cat on the top of that building.’”

The pairing of brutalist buildings and cats is intentionally absurd, but also fitting. “Brutalist buildings have multiple textures and massive, rigid, concrete-block forms that cats would love to play on, perch on, lay on, climb and scratch,” says Ong.

This is Naima, a Russian Blue cat, superimposed onto the Tower of Shadows in Chandigarh, India. Courtesy of Cats of Brutalism.

This is Naima, a Russian Blue cat, superimposed onto the Tower of Shadows in Chandigarh, India. Courtesy of Cats of Brutalism.

Saving brutalism — and kitties

Plus, the page has a purpose.

While the first batch of images featured Senay’s cats, the posts that have followed spotlight adoptable cats from the Erie County SPCA, the ASPCA and other adoption organizations across the country.

“That was always a part of the initial idea,” says Senay. “We wanted to correlate how brutalist architecture needs saving and how there’s also so many cats looking for homes that need saving. We wanted a purpose behind the project.”

Each post tags the adoption agency that supplied the feline photo.

Battaglia, Ong and Senay update the Instagram page regularly, and will continue to do so. There’s even a website and Cats of Brutalism merchandise in the works.

In addition, the group has received a few commissioned projects. One came from a follower in Brazil who wanted to do something funny for a friend’s 40th birthday. She sent photos of her two cats and asked if the team could superimpose them onto her friend’s favorite building, a basilica in Brazil.

Instead of accepting payment, the group simply asks that their clients donate to an animal-adoption agency or an architecture- or preservation-based organization.

In the end, says Battaglia, Cats of Brutalism is “a fun commentary on a style that is more criticized than others. It isn't just us advocating for a style of architecture and cats, but creating something anyone can enjoy, smile and laugh about.”

It doesn’t hurt that the internet is obsessed with cats.

“It’s a phenomenon, the cats,” Senay says. “It just works.”