Summary of Brutalist Architecture
Brutalism was a movement in modern architecture responsible for some of the most striking building designs of the twentieth century. But its achievements also proved shocking and controversial, partly because of its emphasis on the use of unfinished concrete for exterior surfaces. Brutalism emerged after the Second World War but was rooted in the ideas of functionalism and monumental simplicity that had defined earlier architectural modernism, including the International Style. Brutalism sought to adapt earlier principles to a post-war world where urban reconstruction was a pressing necessity. In this sense, it was partly inspired by democratic-socialist visions of community, but it was also propelled by the avant-garde idiosyncrasies of maverick architects, and it is remembered as much for the 'devil-may-care' brashness of its designs as for their communitarian ethos. In the decades following its zenith, Brutalism became redolent of urban deprivation and decline, largely because of its use in largescale social housing projects, but in the twenty-first century Brutalism is decidedly back in critical and popular fashion.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Brutalism's most famous stylistic motif was the use of raw concrete (French "béton brut") for exterior surfaces, leaving evidence of the construction process, such as the holes and seamlines left by the setting of liquid concrete, visible on the outsides of buildings. For Brutalist architects this approach showed a truth to the textural qualities of materials, and to the labor of construction, that epitomized their socially engaged, ethics-driven approach to their work.
- The way in which Brutalism emphasized the physical properties of building materials represented an update on Louis H. Sullivan's famous 'form follows function' maxim, which had inspired an earlier wave of modernist architecture culminating in the International Style. But whereas International Style often favored a sleek, streamlined efficiency of construction - doing the most with the least - Brutalism was more likely to emphasize the brash abundance of its materials, drawing attention to the weight, density, and mass of concrete, steel, and stone.
- Brutalism emerged at a time of urgent need for large-scale, affordable residential architecture. Europe's major cities were heavily bomb-damaged, while the need to clear urban slums, and a widespread desire to improve the lot of the common citizen, inspired largescale rehousing projects across much of the continent. With the scale of its designs and emphasis on cheap building materials, Brutalism became the style of choice for many of these projects: with mixed results for its own critical and popular fortunes.
- Brutalism was part of a broader wave of mid-century-modernist functional design. Whereas modernism in visual art and literature is generally associated with the early twentieth century, and often with notions of complexity and difficulty, this mid-century modernism was notable for the iconic simplicity of its designs, and for its egalitarian emphasis on mass production and utility, an aesthetic rooted in the advances of the Bauhaus and Constructivism.
- Brutalism undoubtedly owed an allegiance to the emphasis on brute materiality that defined the Art Brut movement. In Britain, Brutalist architects such as Alison and Peter Smithson were acquainted with Jean Dubuffet, the primary exponent of Art Brut, and sought to emulate his primitive, visceral approach through the spirit of their designs.
Overview of Brutalist Architecture
A pioneer of modern architecture, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, was not only the main predecessor of and influence upon Brutalism, but also created some of its most iconic structures. He first considered the use of concrete as a student with Auguste Perret in Paris, then in 1914 he studied the technology of reinforced concrete with the engineer Max Dubois. As Le Corbusier recalled, "reinforced concrete provided me with incredible resources, and variety, and a passionate plasticity..." His early design for the Dom-Ino House (1914-15), an un-built prototype for temporary residences required after World War War, used a concrete modular structure for which residents could build their own exterior walls using materials stored on site. The idea was, as he described it, "a juxtaposable system of construction according to an infinite number of combinations of plans."
Important Art and Artists of Brutalist Architecture
This 12-story housing complex of modular apartments, elevated on massive concrete pylons, is considered by many critics to represent the birth of Brutalism. It is finished in raw concrete, with the lines left by the moldings emphasizing the construction process, and the rough textures of its surface creating a sense of vitality and energy. Le Corbusier also pioneered the 'vertical garden city' concept with this building, including all the services a resident might need within the structure itself. Every third-floor functions as a city street, lined with shops, restaurants, recreational facilities and a nursery school, while the roof holds a gym, running track, theater stage, and shallow pool. As architectural critic Jonathan Glancey wrote, "[n]othing like this concrete megastructure had been seen before; the way it stood on those robust legs with its rough textured skin and its curious kinship to both a geological outcrop and an ocean liner. It is both a living creature and a purposeful machine." Le Corbusier called it "La Cité Radieuse", "the radiant city."
Until he was commissioned for this project, Le Corbusier had not completed a single project during the 1940s - all his proposals for largescale architectural works had been rejected. As a result, when Raoul Dautry, the French Minister of Reconstruction and Urbanism, agreed to go ahead with Corbusier's design for a "unité d'habitation de grandeur conforme" ('housing units of standard size') to be constructed in war-damaged Marseille, it was the architect's first public commission. He later wrote that his design had been inspired by his 1907 visit to the Florence Charterhouse monastery in Galluzzo, Italy, where he learned that "standardization led to perfection," and that "all of his life a man labors under this impulse: to make the home the temple of the family." Georges Candilis, who had joined Le Corbusier's studio in 1945, was appointed as project architect for the building. Containing 337 duplexes and housing 1600 people, the design involved modular apartment units that would fit into the larger structure, as Corbusier said, "like wine bottles in a rack." As each module extended the width of the building, both ends of each apartment had a view and a terrace. Residents could choose between twenty-three different apartment configurations, though Le Corbusier also designed the interior furnishings, leaving only the choice of interior color to the resident. The building is devoid of decoration with the exception of the roof's ventilator shafts, which were made to resemble an ocean liner's smokestacks, a form that Le Corbusier admired.
The building made Le Corbusier the leading French architect of the 1950s, and in 1952 he was named a Commander of the Légion d'Honneur. He went on to create similar 'habitations', and his vision of urban living influenced Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, and many other leading architects. Known affectionately by locals and residents as "La Maison du Fada," or the "House of the Crazy Guy," the building was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016. Today the home of many artists and architects, the structure has also been the site of art projects such as Christian Chironi's third installment of My house is a Le Courbusier (2015).
The different exterior sections of this building are created with either brick or concrete cast in a number of patterns. They fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece reflecting its interior function. Areas of public access are located on the ground floor, partially built into a rising fold of land, and employing red brick that blends with the surrounding brick plaza. The second floor, supported by massive concrete pylons and featuring exposed crossbeams, indicates the presence of the city council and mayor's offices, while the precast upper level, its small windows framed by concrete cast molding, contain the administrative offices. Like much Brutalist architecture, this bold design represents an update on the famous axiom of architectural modernism that form should follow function.
Half of the structure's concrete was precast in steel molds and used darker cement, while the rest was cast in wooden frames onsite. Both were left unfinished so that contrasts in color and texture are created, as the second-floor pylons are darker and rougher in appearance, rising to the third floor's lighter and smoothly repetitive forms. The sense of tonal shift created as the building ascends contrasts with the inverted pyramid shape that draws attention downward through the vertical lines of the pylons and window frames to the ground floor, as if emphasizing the building's public function.
The building's architects were influenced by Le Corbusier, as well as by Italian Renaissance town halls, and the nearby granite structure of Alexander Parris's Quincy Market (1825). Kallman was a professor at Columbia University, while McKinnell was a graduate student at the university, when their design won the 1962 competition for the project to build an accessible city government building, featuring the most heavily-used departments on the ground floor. From the beginning, the building was controversial, with calls for its demolition beginning while it was still under construction. In the decades since its construction it has often been named in public surveys as one of 'the world's ugliest buildings.' By contrast, polls conducted with architects have consistently found it to be considered one of the top ten architectural designs in the United States. This split of opinion is typical of the passionate and divergent views that Brutalist architecture can arouse.
The design of Ernő Goldfinger's Trellick Tower creates a distinctive and iconic silhouette, with its left-hand service tower, including its lift shaft, linked by sky bridges to the central block on the right. Made of exposed concrete, the 31-storey tower forms a geometric grid of horizontal and vertical lines, complemented by the horizontal lines of the sky bridges and the towering verticals of the service structure. The bold profile dominates the local skyline, as architectural critic Tim Winstanley wrote, "evoking the purified silhouette of a mediaeval castle. With its uncompromising materiality ...the tower is a daring presence in London's post-war landscape, an expressionistic monument for the masses." The sky bridges, outlined against the empty space between the two major components, seem to capture the sky itself within the building's horizontal and vertical grid. As Winstanley noted, "[t]here is no doubt that the void resulting from the separation between the two elements will stand as Goldfinger's real masterwork, and it is a powerful architectural legacy."
The Greater London Council commissioned the building as social housing in 1969. Goldfinger's design was substantially derived from his smaller, twin construction Balfron Tower (1965-67) where he lived for a period of time, and questioned residents for details about how to improve the building, reflecting his belief that architecture was "work that is only appreciable from within." As a result, Trellick Tower exemplifies Goldfinger's attention to detail, including features such as dual-pane glass to dampen sound, gaskets on the sky bridge to reduce vibration, windows with pivoting mechanisms for ease of cleaning, various space-saving features, and installation of the heating boiler and water storage tanks at the top of the service tower to reduce the need for piping and pumps.
Upon opening, the Trellick Tower was struck by several acts of vandalism that flooded entire floors and destroyed electrical circuitry. Subsequently, it became known as a high crime area. Dubbed the "tower of terror," it exemplified the social issues that became associated with Brutalist tower blocks, as the public saw their rough exteriors as reflective of distressed social populations. The building was thought by many to be the inspiration for J.G. Ballard's High Rise (1975), a dystopian novel where the 2000 residents of an apartment building violently turn upon one another, and the details meant to make the building a machine for living become, in Ballard's words, "a machine for war."
However, the tower's reputation began to turn around in the mid 1980s, as the government decided to sell some of the flats to people who wanted to live there, leading to the formation of new tenants' associations that lobbied for improvements. In 1998 it was given a Grade II listing, reserved for buildings of special historical interest. Today the building is considered to be trendy, coming to stand for what Winstanley calls "a fashionable image of an anaesthetized ghetto that is no longer dangerous."
Useful Resources on Brutalist Architecture
- 44k viewsThe Beauty of BrutalismBBC News
- 1k viewsThe Labour of Peter and Alison SmithsonSymposium AA School of Architecture
- 2k viewsPeter Smithson - The Two Lives of Patio and PavilionAA School of Architecture
- 57k viewsThe architecture of Moshe Safdie: A man of the world
- 7k viewsHabitat of the FutureSafdie Architects
- 16.9M viewsLeonard Cohen - In My Secret Life (2001) Music Video
- Jonathan Meades: Bunkers Brutalism and Bloodymindednessinfo
- Soviet modernism. Brutalism. Post-modernism.info
- 50k viewsThe Smithsons on HousingAPS
- 4k viewsAlison and Peter Smithson - The Space Between
- 27k viewsIs London's Robin Hood Gardens an architectural masterpiece?Jonathan Glancey The Guardian
- 34k viewsRobin Hood Gardens: Requiem For A Dream Tom WilkinsonThe Architectural Review
- 26k viewsWhy We Should Value our Brutalist Architectural History | Shaun CarterTEDxSydneySalon
- 166k viewsMoshe Safdie: How to reinvent the apartment buildingTED
- 36k viewsMoshe Safdie on his iconic Habitat 67
- This Brutal WorldBy Peter Chadwick
- SOS Brutalism: A Global SurveyBy Oliver Elser, Peter Kurz, and Peter Cachola Schmal
- Brutalism ResurgentBy Julia Gatley and Stuart King
- Of Course Trump Hates BrutalismBy Henry Grabar / Slate / July 31, 2018
- Brutalism Is BackBy Nikil Saval / New York Times / October 6, 2016
- In Defense Of Brutalism: One Architect On The Meaning Behind All That ConcreteBy Jack Mitchell / WBUR / August 6, 2018
- Concrete jungle: why brutalist architecture is back in styleBy Felix Salmon / The Guardian / September 28, 2016
- The concrete truth? Brutalism can be beautifulBy Elain Harwood / BBC / April 26, 2016
- The incredible hulks: Jonathan Meades' A-Z of brutalismBy Jonathan Meades / The Guardian / February 13, 2014
- The New BrutalismBy Reyner Banham / Architectural Review / July 27, 2010 reprint of December 1955 essay
- Le Corbusier's Unité: Is it a modern classic?By Jonathan Glancey / BBC / May 2, 2013
- National Assembly Building of Bangladesh / Louis KahnBy Eduardo Souza / Architecture Daily / October 20, 2010
- Habitat 67, Montreal's 'failed dream'By Genevieve Palement / The Guardian / May 13, 2015
- Take a Trip Back Through the History of New York's Iconic Breuer BuildingBy Stephen Wallis / Architectural Digest / March 4, 2016