Powerful, imposing structures with an unpretentious and unapologetic aesthetic, yet standing out for their bold individuality, brutalist buildings are difficult to fall in love with at first sight.
So what is brutalist architecture?
Brutalism is an architectural style that was in vogue between roughly 1950 and 1980. A form of modernism, it stressed the exposure of a building’s basic elements and materials. This meant that rather than covering up the frame, the mechanical systems, and the support structures, these components were designed to be seen and celebrated.
The Origins of Brutalism
Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier‘s love of concrete translated into a building that many consider the birth of Brutalism. The Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, France was his first project in 10 years, World War II having interrupted his practice. Completed in 1952 and created as housing for the working class, Le Corbusier’s design called for a giant reinforced concrete framework fit with modular apartments.
The mammoth complex, which could house up to 1,600 people, was largely devoid of decorative elements and laid the framework for future Brutalist projects.
The word Brutalism in relation to architecture was first coined by a Swedish architect, Hans Asplund, to describe a square brick home called the Villa Göth in 1949. This was picked up by English architects where the style was further honed by Alison and Peter Smithson. Together they are particularly known for East London’s Robin Hood Gardens council housing complex. Completed in 1972, it was built from precast concrete slabs and though built with the Smithsons’ ideals for ideal living, it never quite lived up to its goals.
In 2017 the eastern block was demolished as part of a refurbishment plan. But to show how far Brutalism has come, the Victoria & Albert Museum acquired three stories of the demolished building.
The Fall of Brutalism
Heading into the 1980s, Brutalism fell out of favor. Part of this was due to the cold and austere nature of the architecture, which was often associated with totalitarianism. Another mark against Brutalism was that the raw concrete used in construction didn’t age well, often showing signs of water damage and decay that brought down the overall aesthetic.
British author Anthony Daniels, who uses the pen name Theodore Dalrymple, called the reinforced concrete of Brutalism “monstrous,” pointing out that it “does not age gracefully but instead crumbles, stains, and decays.” He blamed 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.”
Brutalism came to symbolize urban decay and economic hardships that were out in the open for world to see. Raw concrete made the perfect canvas for graffiti artists, whose vandalism only contributed to the decline of these structures. Throughout the 1980s, the style gave way to the High-tech architecture and Deconstructivism that would make way for Post-Modern architecture.
Over the past 5 years, a new appreciation for Brutalism has emerged. Books like SOS Brutalism: A Global Survey, How to Love Brutalism, Soviet Bus Stops, and This Brutal World all celebrate the artistry of the architectural style. Virginia McLeod, the editor of Phaidon’s Atlas of Brutalist Architecture, first noticed a renewed interest in Brutalism on Instagram.
“I noticed more and more interest in brutalist architecture,” she says. “People were excited about it and loved the graphic quality of it.” The hashtag #brutalism has over 500,000 images and conservation groups are increasingly trying to save examples of Brutalism, which are all too often demolished without a second thought.
No one knows exactly why Brutalism has become fashionable once again, but Brad Dunning of GQ has an interesting theory. “Brutalism is the techno music of architecture, stark and menacing. Brutalist buildings are expensive to maintain and difficult to destroy. They can’t be easily remodeled or changed, so they tend to stay the way the architect intended. Maybe the movement has come roaring back into style because permanence is particularly attractive in our chaotic and crumbling world.”
Take a look at some of the world’s finest examples of Brutalist architecture.
THE BARBICAN CENTRE, LONDON
TRELLICK TOWER BY ERNŐ GOLDFINGER. 1972, LONDON.
HABITAT 67 BY MOSHE SAFDIE. 1967, MONTREAL.
GEISEL LIBRARY BY WILLIAM PEREIRA. 1970, SAN DIEGO, CA.
Bank of Georgia, Tbilisi
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