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What do we Mean by Brutalist Architecture ?

June 26, 2016
Runs, does yoga.

Concrete monstrosity, the architecture we love to hate – that’s how people used to describe brutalist architecture. There was probably not a single architectural style (and whether it is a style or not is yet to be discussed) that was demonized and hated as much as Brutalism, especially during the 70’s, the 80’s and even in the 90’s as well. The reasons for this unsolicited crucifixion of a seemingly harmless thing – such as the aesthetics of a building – come from various sources. Some of them are mediated through human incapacity to separate societal circumstances from the physical occurrence that unwillingly becomes its symbol. Others simply rely on the universal canons of beauty, and apparently, raw concrete was not exactly the prettiest sight back in the day. However, since the society continued progressing and changing its perspective, a strange phenomenon struck us in the 2010s – Brutalism became popular. So here we are in 2016, watching the style finally reaching its long overdue recognition, even being fetishized and replicated through collectible vinyl toys and similar consumerist products. So how did the ultimate villain become a hero all of a sudden?

brutalist architecture house - housing project in France, city of Marseille. Library of architectural house history and famous brutalist buildings made in the 20th century. Marcel Breuer worked in city building design
Le Corbusier – Unite d Habitation, Marseille, France

Origin of Brutalist Architecture

Stylistically, Brutalism probably came from the prominent Modernist architect Le Corbusier and his project for Unité d’Habitation in 1952. The style was quite quickly embraced by British architects, and it gradually became easily relatable to the capital itself. This was moderately strange, given that Modern architecture came to Britain quite late, and it was then soon sort of “replaced” by Brutalism. Although it was (probably unintentionally) inaugurated by Le Corbusier, Brutalism cannot be fully assimilated with Modernism. Perhaps we could describe it as some kind of an alternation – Modern architecture with a livelier character, maybe. Some would even argue that Brutalism comes as a crossover between Modernism and Postmodernism in architecture history.

a university building brutalist architecture housing international library university new century 2016. Marcel Breuer worked in city building design
Left: Alison and Peter Smithson – Robin Hood Gardens in London / Right: Marcel Breuer – Torin Corporation Factory, Nevilles, Belgium

Explanation of the Term

Still, the term Brutalism did not come from Le Corbusier. There are several versions of the story that make the truth hard to determine, but none of them involve the first thing that comes to mind. Brutalism has nothing to do with brutality as such, at least it did not intend to. It was either derived from the French term béton-brut, which quite appropriately means raw concrete, or adopted from the Swedish architect Hans Asplund who used the term New Brutalism to describe Villa Göth in Uppsala (New Brutalism was also used by the English critic Reyner Banham, who wrote the book New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? which is now seen as a precursor of the movement). The house itself, however, doesn’t have much to do with Brutalism as we know it today. There is a third version of the story, which says that Peter Smithson’s nickname, Brutus, was the one to decide the movement’s name. In reality, it was most probably a combination of the three.

international post brutalist architecture building in 2016, the city of London - house of Brutalism the library of architects new century for house. Marcel Breuer worked in city building design
Ernő Goldfinger – Balfron Tower, London (1967), via genericarchitecture

What Is Brutalism?

So, Villa Göth is not brutalism, but what is? Peter Smithson, the aforesaid architect, and his wife Alyson Smithson, used to be one of the leading figures when it comes to Brutalism in Great Britain. So was Erno Goldfinger, the architect of Hungarian origin, who designed the famous Trellick Tower and Balfron Tower, both of which are often mentioned as the most iconic buildings to represent the movement. When you take a look at their designs, there is no doubt that all brutalist buildings have one thing in common: concrete, of course. But there is more to their design than a simple use of a classic constructive material, which was, by the way, definitely not chosen by accident. Concrete was deployed because it is a simple, pliable material which responds to the genuine architectural expression, but still very clear and remarkable once dry. Interestingly, concrete acquires the properties of the mold which it was poured in, and then straightforwardly conveys the honesty, a word commonly used to describe the bare essence of the brutalist ideology. As much as the word “honesty” seems seductive by itself, let us try to explain why it is used with such confidence both by architects and theorists.

While this was obviously not the first time concrete was used in architecture, it was the first time that concrete was used for the facade. Before Brutalism, the plain raw material was usually hidden beneath the surface, be it an embellishing floral facade or the one made of steel and glass. Now that the bare concrete was the true protagonist for once, it showed its sculptural qualities, embodying monumentality and achieving formalism, and so the decision could be seen as a sort of truthfulness to the material. But on the other hand, since Brutalism is often associated with something referred to as “architectural ethics”, honesty was important because of the idea that nothing is “tidied up” or kept hidden beneath the mask. It is what it is – and Brutalist architecture counts on the people who live in it, or work in it, to understand that and to appreciate it. This is also one of the reasons why the word “style” is sometimes avoided, since the general term style somehow seems to downgrade the initial endeavor of Brutalist ideology, which was supposed to take things to a higher level.

Brutalist Buildings as a Victim of Society

Given that most of this architecture emerged during the 60’s and was pursued in the 70’s as well, you can probably imagine the mindset that surrounded Brutalism. It was partly based on the idea of social equality and hope, especially in the communist countries (where it played an important role as well). The idea of unity and shared space was somehow best transformed into shape through the means of brutalist suburban blocks, with lots of open space and moderately tall buildings and houses that have a capacity to accommodate many people. It was also often associated with futurism, a bright outlook on the future, which is how it was presented at first – close to how people used to imagine utopia. But as you know, utopia turns into dystopia quite easily, especially under the influence of the 1968 revolution and among the Orwell-influenced youth. So thanks to all the uninvited political and societal connotations, Brutalism suffered the consequences of communism being transmuted into totalitarianism, which made the popular culture portray Brutalism differently. Shared spaces become hazardous grounds, “honest” buildings become concrete monstrosity, and before you know it, Brutalism is associated with violence, which was crowned in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange once and for all. Now you can find a vast number of movies that use Brutalist architecture as a background for violence.

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Building in Petrovac, Montenegro (Aleksandar Stjepanovic)

Brutalism 2.0

Defining the reason we find some things to be beautiful or not is beyond the concern of this article. Therefore, we cannot really discuss whether concrete was first hated for reasons explained and proclaimed ugly afterwards, or whether it was the other way around. In any case, we can easily say that the new generation does not find brutalist buildings ugly at all. You can even see that some architects, such as the Japanese Tadao Ando, use concrete extensively even today, emphasizing all of its inherent qualities (although it historically does not belong to the era of Brutalism we’re talking about in this article). Could it be that Brutalism simply came too early, and that people weren’t ready for the new concept of “brutal” honesty in architecture? The British writer Owen Hatherley recently used the example of Park Hill to explain this phenomenon, a complex of buildings in Sheffield which was preserved from demolition and is now revitalized, in order to be used by “new” people. The advertisement for Park Hill reflects on the previous state of the complex, saying that the new project aims to bring back the vision, optimism and personality that seem to have vanished. Wittily, Hatherley uses this to address the core of the problem – the people, who apparently “lacked personality, had no optimism and no vision”. Let’s hope that today’s people are the ones who do.

Featured image: Monument (Spomenik) in Kolasin, Montnegro, Former Yugoslavia; Center for Urban Planning, Belgrade, photo via beforeafter.rs; Banjica building complex in Belgrade, Serbia, Former Yugoslavia. All images used for illustrative purposes only.