What is Brutalist Architecture?
You may have heard of the term Brutalist architecture and thought, that sounds a bit harsh.. But the rough and aggressive name is the perfect moniker for this love-it-or-hate-it style of architecture. The word ‘brutal’ comes from the French béton brut, referring to the ‘raw cement’ used in many of these buildings. In Brutalist architecture this rawness refers to the stripped back and glaringly conspicuous concrete that composes the designs. Arguably the most controversial design movement of the 20th century, here is everything you wanted to know about Brutalist architecture.
Where and When
World War Two put an end to the frivolity of previous decades’ design styles. With determination and optimism, areas destroyed by enemy bombs were rebuilt across Europe. The post-war population boom exaggerated the need for housing around the world. To meet demand for affordable homes, architects moved to concrete as an inexpensive material that allowed for quick construction.
Throughout the 1950s, 60s and through to the mid-70s, Brutalist architecture was popular with government clients looking to produce high-rise housing, shopping centres, educational institutions and other projects. The United Kingdom and the USA exhibit many buildings in this style, but it can also be seen around France, Germany, Italy, Japan and countries that formed the Soviet Bloc.
Le Corbusier and The Unité d’Habitation
An ardent supporter of Modernist design, Le Corbusier was a designer, architect, and urban planner in France. It’s his Unité d’Habitation project in Marseille that is oft-cited as the influential inspiration for the popularity of the Brutalist architectural style.
Hatching plans to create an entire city within one space, Le Corbusier became a pioneer of Brutalist architecture. The 1952 Unité d’Habitation housing unit opened to great fanfare from the design community. A social housing unit built from cement, the 337 apartments have split levels to maximize on sunlight, balconies painted in bright colors, and community facilities feature as a hallmark of the project. A communal rooftop offers a garden, gallery and children’s paddling pool. Incorporated into the blueprint was space for useful amenities on different floors of the development. That means the creche, doctor’s office, shops and cafés are all right on your doorstep. Even a 21-room hotel was built in.
Interiors were carefully thought out to have enough space for storage, and be the optimal size for living conditions. Many of the kitchens are still fitted the same way thanks to Le Corbusier’s thoughtful proportions. Art historian George L. Hersey asserts that Le Corbusier’s derived his Modular measuring system from the proportions of the human body, which in turn generates sections of the Fibonacci sequence. In using this as a guideline for architecture, he carefully calculated the homes to ensure adequate housing sizes for the average person.
It was so radical for its day that the port workers for whom the project was intended, refused to move in. It became a hot spot for architects, teachers and doctors to move to. In this sense, his project was a huge success, a pioneering response to the social requirements of the time. Soon, plans were drawn up for other units around the world, and the Brutalist architecture style grew. The site became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2016.
Le Corbusier’s housing unit idea spread throughout the globe. Designers embraced the roughness of the material, relished in the sharp, fortress-like buildings and reveled in the brutal nature of raw cement.
How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Brutalist Architecture
“This is a hard thing to have to say about a seriously considered building by a reputable architect of some standing, but contact with Brutalist architecture tends to drive one to hard judgements.” – Architectural Critic Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism (1955)
Architects adored the bold styling, but Brutalist architecture was never fully embraced by the public, given the harsh and looming bulk of these buildings. It wasn’t just films like A Clockwork Orange that displayed these estates as a symbol of a dystopian future. Brutalism’s cold appearance presents a reviled front of totalitarianism, and the damp concrete looks pretty grim against an already gray sky.
The Prince of Wales is outspoken about his distaste for Brutalist architecture. He described the (since-demolished) Tricorn shopping centre in Portsmouth as a “mildewed lump of elephant droppings.” By the mid 1970s, Brutalist architecture had fallen out of favor. Social housing lost its funding, and the buildings started to fall into disrepair.
But tides are turning, and a new-found love for these hulking masterpieces is emerging. Barnabas Calder explores the modern relationship to Brutalist architecture in his new book Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism. He points out that there are now mugs, t-shirts and tea towels celebrating the beauty of Brutalism.
London is home to a number of Brutalist architecture masterpieces, which are being hailed for their brutal yet beautiful demeanour. The Barbican Centre, The Royal National Theatre, and Trellick Tower are all listed in Blue Crow’s Brutalist London Map (2015). Trend pieces, dedicated Tumblr pages and series of books are emerging that celebrate Brutalist architecture. The love for this style is perhaps safe in the knowledge that Brutalism remains a phase left in history, rather than one to further develop into the metropolis.
Preservation or Devastation?
Brutalism’s roughness presents from the outset the designer’s desire to rub your face in raw concrete. But missing in the discourse was that initial optimism that Le Corbusier imbued with his designs; an aim to cement a social idealism into a way of life, uniting people through art.
Instead of uniting, the battle is now to safeguard these buildings from demolition. Many receive recognition of their worth from national heritage lists, or UNESCO status. Others are cleared to make way for new architecture, new social ideals and new technologies.
For the buildings demolished, derelict and defaced it’s a welcome goodbye for many. Where many buildings inspire awe and wonder, it’s rare for these Brutalist buildings to generate enough wonder and excitement needed for their preservation. Many of the best examples of this style have become icons, and it would be difficult to get rid of them. So it’s safe to say, those that remain are protected for now, by their devoted fans.
Love it or hate it?
Is Brutalist architecture a thing of boundless bulky beauty or a concrete car-crash? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.