An introduction to Brutalism

Buildings designed in the architectural style known as Brutalism are often dismissed as ‘ugly’, but is that fair. The truth is that some Brutalist buildings are now looked on with affection.

What is Brutalism?

Brutalism is a post-World War II architecture style that uses simple blocky forms and heavily textured concrete.

The Royal Institute of British Architects says that Brutalism is defined by five features:

1. Unusual shapes
2. Rough surfaces
3. Comparatively small windows
4. Massive form
5. Heavy-looking materials

Brutalism’s roots are in modernism. The architects that used Brutalist styles saw themselves as rebelling against the mainstream architecture and what people conventionally thought that a building should look like.

Many Brutalist buildings do not hide the building’s infrastructure, making plumbing, service towers and ventilation ducts visual features of the buildings.

Dr. Jonathan Foyle, chief executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain, summed up his view of Brutalist buildings:

“They are very muscular and everything is perhaps bigger than it needs to be, and for that reason, I feel that Brutalism is a modern take on gothic architecture… Both were designed from the inside out – the purpose of the building and what happens inside is the important part – the outside is merely the envelope that wraps it up.”

The history of Brutalism

Swiss architect Le Corbusier designed buildings in the 1940s rooted in Modernism, but which are similar to the Brutalist style. Hans Asplund of Sweden was the first to refer to Brutalism in 1950, though he called his style ‘nybrutalism’.

The architectural critic Reyner Banham referred to the work of Alison and Peter Smithson as designing in a Brutalist style. An example of their designs are the Hunstanton School in Norfolk and Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, London. Their Brutalist style was seen as a rebellion against the formal 1930s and 1940s architecture.

After the war, several buildings constructed from raw concrete were designed. Concrete is a low-price material that can be used to construct buildings quickly. Brutalism-style buildings were used to rebuild government buildings after the war, and to construct social housing.

The post-War period was one of social unity and cultural cohesion. There was much political talk of the “egalitarian ideal”. Brutalist buildings reflected egalitarianism (equal rights and opportunities) rather than expressing individualism.

By the mid-1970s, the Brutalist style went out of favour, but there are many examples of the Brutalist buildings still standing.

Who are the notable Brutalist architects?

Le Corbusier’s modernist architect is probably the starting point. His Unite d’Habitation at Marseilles, France used raw concrete and is regarded by many as an early example of Brutalism. Whether this is true or not, Le Corbusier was certainly an influence for the Brutalist movement.

Sir Basil Spence, a Scottish architect, designed social housing in the late 1950s that was classified by many architecture critics as Brutalist. His most famous project was Coventry Cathedral, which although deemed Brutalist, is now regarded by many as being aesthetically pleasing.

Ernö Goldfinger was born in Budapest and studied in Paris, before designing many of London’s Brutalist buildings. He famously lived for a while in one of his designs – the Balfron Tower in East London. He would invite other residents for champagne and a discussion about how they felt about the building.

Sir Denys Lasdun was an English architect who designed many London Brutalist buildings, including the Royal National Theatre on the Southbank, and 20 Bedford Way in Bloomsbury.

Peter and Alison Smithson were a husband and wife team of architects regarded as the pioneers of New Brutalism. In their 20s, they designed the Hunstanton Secondary Modern School in Norfolk, which was controversial as it was not universally liked.

The reevaluation of Brutalism

When Brutalist buildings were constructed, many people hated these “concrete monstrosities” and regarded them as failures and unfit for purposes. Times have changed and now many Brutalist buildings are looked on positively.

There are Brutalists blogs and websites that are devoted to the movement and a reevaluation of this architectural style.

Showing that it remains a popular style, the National Theatre has undergone a £80m refurbishment but kept its Brutalist look.

Christopher Beanland in his book ‘Concrete Concept’ charts the history of Brutalism. He writes:

“These buildings are (slowly) being rediscovered: written about, printed on plates, converted into hotels, featured on film.”

Concrete Concept shows the wide variety of Brutalist buildings constructed all over the world. While pure new Brutalist buildings are rare, many projects include raw concrete on stairs, floors and walls that are reminiscent of the style.

Professor Dale Russel from the Royal College of Art summed up the appeal of concrete:

“Concrete is a truly innovative material, both socially responsive and aesthetically beautiful.”

Examples of Brutalist architecture

Though many Brutalist buildings have been demolished, there are still plenty still standing:

• Coventry Cathedral and the National Theatre are two striking examples of Brutalist architecture.
• Preston Bus Station was granted Grade-II listed status in 2013. Though many residents brand it an “eyesore”, 75% of Telegraph readers polled viewed it as a modern masterpiece.
• The Barbican housing complex in London was influenced by Le Corbusier, but gained the distinction of being called London’s ugliest building in 2014.
• The Trellick Tower in London was designed by Ernö Goldfinger. Author Ian Fleming hated the design of the Tower so much that he named his famous villain, Goldfinger after the architect.
• The architect of Wotruba Church in Vienna, Fritz Wortruba, said his design was inspired by Chartres Cathedral. Few people recognise this influence in the concrete blocks that form the church.
• In the late 1960s, many new university buildings were designed in the Brutalist style. A notable example are the halls of residence at the University of East Anglia, designed by Denys Lasdun.
• The Torre Velasca in Milan is a Brutalist concrete tower block, rated by the Daily Telegraph as one of the world’s ugliest buildings.

Brutalist architecture certainly divides opinion. Whatever your view, there is no doubt that the movement has had a dramatic effect on the urban landscape.

Posted by Mark
February 15, 2018

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