Sharp angles, sun-bleached concrete, monolithic silhouettes. Some decried it as cold and soulless, even an ominous reminder of totalitarian regimes; others praised its raw utilitarianism and technology-oriented approach. Nonetheless, Brutalism remains a unique case study of post-war architecture in Europe (and later overseas).
Rising and falling
Many point at Brutalism as an example of trends and tastes wearing off or suddendly changing: what was celebrated, in the post-war architecturale landscape, as the logical endpoint of “form follows function”, ended up being regarded, by the 1970s, as crude and even in bad taste, only to see a modest revival in recent years.
Altough the official term was coined in 1953 by Alison Smithson, Brutalism’s origins date as far back as the 1940s, first observable in Le Corbusier’s body of work.
The Swiss architect marks the beginning of the movement with his Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, his first project after a ten year gap (including the years of World War II), collaborating with painter-architect Nadir Afonso. Designed as a low-cost apartment housing option for working class families, the project, completed in 1952, was a mammoth complex, an enormous building with a 1600 people housing capacity; its concrete frame – a material Le Corbusier was very fond of – and absence of decorative elements, not to mention massive proportions, would constitute the framework for all future projects in the same vein.
The very name “Brutalism” comes from Le Corbusier’s statements, where he linked his work with Art Brut and the term “betòn brut”, French for “raw concrete”.
[…] if there is one single verbal formula that has made the concept of Brutalism admissible in most of the world’s Western languages, it is that Le Corbusier himself described that concrete work as ‘béton-brut’.Rayner Banham, excerpt from his 1966 book, “The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?”, over the still clustered approach to European architecture during the then recent decades.
Another important “precursor” to the movement at large would be defined by Swedish architect Hans Asplund, who, upon examining Villa Göth, a modern brick house designed in the 1950s by fellow architects Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm, defined ita s “Nybrutal” (New Brutal), owing it to its visible beams over the windows, exposed brick and woodwork, and abundant naked concrete. The term, and its associated stylistic features, would soon be picked up by visiting British architects, with the effect of
[…]spreading like wildfire, and subsequently be adopted by a certain faction of young British architects.Hans Asplund
As such, the architecture made from “bèton brut”, now under the full name of “New Brutalism”, would see its true beginning at the hands of the British Alison and Peter Smithson, when in 1953 they used the term to describe an incomplete project for a warehouse in Soho, attributing its concrete, wooden and brick layout as “the first exponent of New Brutalism”.
From this, in turn, came their own approach to the genre, as their project for a school at Hunstaton, in Norfolk, completed in 1954, bore the same, uncompromising marks of “Nybrutalism”, with its bold display of steel and bricks, soon followed by the 1955, Watford located Sugden House. These exploits were ultimately catalogued and circumscribed by architectural historian Reyner Banham, whom reviewed the two architects’ buildings, likening them to previous “bèton brut” approaches and defined it as the “reference by which the New Brutalist architecture may be defined”, terming their approach as both ethic and aesthetic.
The Smithsons would further pursue their Brutalist ambition throughout the 1960s, as the style quickly gained popularity in the rest of England, Northern Europe, but America and Canada as well, often drawing inspiration by local influences. Eventually, the two British architects would go on to experiment with concrete patterns, size scaling, and studies over shape and mass. In 1972, they realized the East London’s Robin Hood Gardens council housing complex, a mastodonthic complex echoing Le Corbusier’s and Van Der Rohe’s exploits, built from precast concrete slabs and planned around the Smithsons’ ideals for ideal living. Sadly, it never quite lived up to its goals, and eventually, by 2017, the eastern block was demolished as part of a refurbishment plan.
It is our intention in this building to have the structure exposed entirely, without interior finishes wherever practicable.Alison Smithson, over her and her brother’s philosophy of New Brutalism.
During the 50s and 60s, Brutalism quickly gained popularity, thanks to the confident austerity of those decades: universities, government buildings, high rise megablocks of flats were all taking advantage of this new current, leading to the style being associated with progressive, modern housing, defined by urban planners as “streets in the sky”. Brutalism began cementing itself around the world as well, proving extremely popular in Soviet-led states such as Bulgaria or Yugoslavia, where it saw use both as a symbol of the State’s supposed might and power, and as a solution to pre-fabricated housing for great volumes. Many American Universities began incorporating Brutalism-type buildings in their architecture, and the style gained a strong footing in Japan and South America as well.
However, by the 1980s, Brutalism had started to quickly fall out of favor; its critics were now many and vocal. The overabundant concrete used in its buildings did not age well, often showing grit, decay and damage, especially from European maritime weather; the iron in the exposed components was prone to rusting as well, not to mention how the expanded and overwhelming views of nothing but grey and decaying raw concrete were often coloured and vandalized with graffitis.
The aesthetic itself did not sit well with many: the blocky, raw appearance of the megalithic buildings brought to mind cold totalitarianism, its high rise nature often associated to crime, social deprivation and urban decay overtaking the landscape, leading to the demolishing of many Brutalist buildings out of sheer revilement. Critics like Anthony Daniels or Theodore Dalrymple were particularly scating, likening the concrete blocks to dictatorial nightmares, a “spiritual, intellectual, and moral deformity.” The words used to describe them ranged from “cold-hearted”, “inhuman”, “hideous” and “monstrous”, to stating that concrete“does not age gracefully but instead crumbles, stains, and decays”, even blaming Le Corbusier for architects’ love of concrete, stating that a “single one of his buildings, or one inspired by him, could ruin the harmony of an entire townscape.”
With widespread unpopularity among the public – even the Prince of Whales deriding them as “piles of concrete”, Brutalism quickly faded – or, to be more precise, was demolished – into obscurity, only recently seeing some efforts to preserve its building and a moderate interest, thanks to the advent of styles such as Deconstructivism or Postmodernism, with similar qualities and principles.
Falling into the pragmatic Modernist philosophy of architecture and design, Brutalism’s most defining characterstic, as its name suggests, is the almost crude way in which its buildings are assembled – as to perfectly adhere to a “form follows function” approach, its materials – all hypermodern, cold, and aseptyc: concrete, glass, brickwork, steel, rough-hewn stone – into massive, monolithic blocks, following a rigid geometry, with rough, unfinished surfaces, odd, angular shapes, straight lines, small windows, and modular layout; formal mediations were almost entirely eschewed, in favor of leaving mechanisms, components and implants in plain sight, the inner workings of the buildings reversed into covering the walls: the best example is Boston City Hall, designed in 1962, whose strikingly different and projected portions of the building indicated the purpose of the rooms behind them, such as the mayor’s office or the city council chambers. From another perspective, the design of the Hunstanton School included placing the facility’s water tank, normally a hidden service feature, in a prominent, visible tower; therefore, rather than being hidden in the walls, Hunstanton’s water and electric utilities were delivered via readily visible pipes and conduits. This approach – often accused to be inhuman – was due to a desire to let the materials “speak” for themselves, putting “simplicity” and “honesty” at the forefront, so that their inhabitants could be best accomodated.
Brutalism is not concerned with the material as such but rather the quality of material […] the seeing of materials for what they were: the woodness of the wood; the sandiness of sand.Peter Smithson
A similar rebuke of common criticisms, by architect John Voelcker, explained New Brutalism as something that
[…] cannot be understood through stylistic analysis, although some day a comprehensible style might emerge […] [it is] an ethic, not an aestheticJohn Voelcker
Brutalist body of work
Despite lasting a few decades at most, Brutalism leaves behind an enviable assortment of architectures and buildings, the majority located in England, Canada, and former USSR territories. Among them, we can cite:
The Barbican Centre and Estate, London, a giant rising from the ashes and craters of WWII bombings almost as an act of defiance, its majestic and intimidating size has turned it, from being voted 2003’s “London ugliest building” to a beloved local spot.
The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, located in San Francisco, was created by italian master Pier Luigi Nervi, whose experience with concrete pushed the interior space to the limit, introducing a dramatic, almost logic-defying dimension – pheraps a church for a God of modernity, where marble and stained glass have given way to concrete and electric lights.
London, nexus and birthplace of widespread New Brutalism, used the need for low cost housing – due to the war’s damages – and tall, concrete tower were the most efficient way was tall, massive towers. Much like the Barbican, Trellick Tower, once reviled, has now become a hugely popular apartment complex; its architect, Ernő Goldfinger, was rumored to be such a tyrannical presence on the worksite – and his creations so menacing and unappealing – that James Bond writer, Ian Fleming, named one of his most infamous villains (the eponymous Goldfinger, featured in the omonymous novel and later film adaptation) after him.
A unique and modern addition to the Brutalist panorama, this monumental creation avoids the blocky, jagged lines typical of the mid XXth century brutalism; the Hill of the Buddha is a modern reinterpretation of the genre, blending with the sorrounding landscape – letting snow and flowers add to the suggestive majesty of the giant statue – and still allowing concrete to be the undiscussed protagonist; the complex can be traversed via much simpler, classically Brutalist walkways and tunnels.
The Met Breuer is a perfect expression of renowed Bauhaus exponent Marcel Breuer; already well known for his tubular steel furniture, the massive, inverted ziqqurat forming the Met Breuer – meant to house the Whitney Museum of American Art , it has, since its 1966 creation, been cited as one of Breuer’s best works and a definitive example of the brutalist movement; despite all the masterpieces that have passed through its doors, the building itself continues to be its own star, and one of Manhattan’s greatest avant-garde buildings.