The unseen beauty of brutalism

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We see it everywhere: boring, concrete eyesores that dominate our cities. From residential tower blocks to government offices, museums, concert halls and much more, the architectural movement of brutalism has commanded city planning from the 1950s up to as late as the mid-1970s. Although the movement has since died out, as brutalist buildings are slowly being demolished or redeveloped, the influence of brutalism can still be strongly felt in our culture and society. But if we look beyond the ugly facades of harsh concrete, there is an unappreciated beauty in the history and symbolism of brutalism.

Boston City Hall, voted as one of the world’s ugliest buildings

The concept of brutalism

The term “brutalism” is thought to have been rooted in the French words “Béton Brut”, meaning raw or exposed concrete, highlighting the prime material used in brutalist buildings. This term, Béton Brut was then appropriated into the English language by journalist and critic Reyner Banham, introducing the term brutalism into the English lexicon. However, it is argued that brutalism is less to do with the aesthetics of materials, but instead a celebration and appreciation of bold sculptural form. The Barbican and the Royal National Theatre in London are great examples of this shape-oriented form of architectural ideology. In some cases, brutalism also extends the focus on form and shape to blending the structure to adapt to the surrounding environment. This can be seen in the Kyoto Conference Centre in Japan having a triangular base to mimic the surrounding mountains, or Habitat 67 in Montreal with its boulder-like fragmented structure compliments the neighbouring greenery. By understanding the concepts and intentions behind brutalist buildings, it may help one to appreciate more an architectural style that is dismissed as ugly and basic. However, it is also being argued that brutalism has since transcended architecture and become its own philosophy.

Torre Velasca in Milan, Italy is a great example of brutalist architecture, with protrusions to the building’s façade forming a unique structural shape and exposed, unfinished concrete on the building’s surface

A brutalist history

The man praised with pioneering brutalism was Swiss-Franc architect and painter Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known more commonly as Le Corbusier. Before becoming the brutalist innovator that he is known to be today, he was also (ironically) a founding modernist architect. Modernism, unlike the unfinished, roughness of brutalism, focused on creating a clean yet simple and glass-box-esque form to buildings. This style of architecture was immensely popular in Europe and the Americas during the 1930s and early 40s. However, since the advent of World War II, the mindset of Le Corbusier changed; seeing the atrocities and unfiltered harshness of war, he started to reflect this in his architectural style, setting the foundations of the bleak harshness of what brutalism is known for today.

Concrete was used for many of Le Corbusier’s brutalist buildings because, after the end of WWII, returning soldiers needed cheap housing, and concrete was used due to its wide availability and inexpensive nature. Furthermore, Le Corbusier liked the rough texture of concrete, as he saw how it represented the brutality of humanity. Although concrete may have offered a cheap and plentiful source of building material, it may have been to the style’s detriment as concrete can be easily stained by rain and water, requiring constant maintenance or else the overall attractiveness and safety of the building will quickly deteriorate. This may have been one of the many causes of brutalism’s eventual decline in the 1970s.

Villa Savoye, by Le Corbusier, is a defining work of pre-brutalist modernism where the structure and materials used are concealed by the use of generic white paint

The philosophy of brutalism

As previously mentioned, one of the inspirations of brutalism was reflecting on the innate brutality of humanity, however, its inspirations and symbolism can be rooted in even deeper philosophical ideas. Firstly, brutalism was a rejection of past architectural styles, where the forms and structure of buildings are hidden away instead of being openly displayed. For example, the Beaux-Arts architecture that preceded brutalism: style conceals the materials used and structural form by embellishing it in ornaments and decorations such as statues or pillars. Or even the modernist style, where the structural form is de-emphasised through its sanitised cleanliness and simple designs. However, with brutalism, building materials such as raw concrete remained openly exposed, symbolising the new, honest approach to expressionist architecture.

The Kyoto Conference Centre in Kyoto, Japan is defined by its rigid triangular base shape

Furthermore, its rejection of past styles was also considered a rejection of the bourgeoisie and past styles of governance. After WWII, there was a new sense of optimism in Europe as governments became committed to greater interconnectivity and welfare of its citizens. The landslide victory of Labour and the creation of the NHS were examples of this. This new tide of social democracy, or to some extent socialism, through the late 1940s to 50s could have been a major influencer in the development of brutalism. Unlike the bourgeois Beaux-Arts style, brutalist buildings are stripped of decorations, creating a sense of modesty and unpretentiousness, focusing more on the functionality of the building rather than the elaborate exterior.  Brutalism also creates a sense of equality, of egalitarianism, as there are fewer options to differentiate brutalist buildings other than to change its structural form. And as time progressed, brutalism became increasingly associated with this philosophy of socialist modesty. This is why many council estates across Europe were built in the brutalist style as it was a symbolic image towards egalitarianism.

Legacy and conclusion

Habitat 67 in Montreal, Canada

Arguably, the momentum of the optimistic socialism of the post-war decades have since died out, and with it has brutalism. However, it still lives on in our culture, as its harsh bleak façades are usually used in creating dystopias in movies – rather ironic as its purpose in the 1950s to 60s was to symbolise the new egalitarian utopia that city-planners were set on building. And as what used to be brutalist marvels in the 1970s have since become symbols of urban decline and the failure of governments to cope with the de-industrialisation of city centres, the crime-ridden, partially abandoned Heygate Estate in London was an excellent example of this before its demolition. And, if not demolished, many brutalist council flats are being commercialised or sold off to become private firms to redevelop and market it towards the affluent. The Barbican, ironically what used to be social housing, has now become some of the most expensive flats in London. The cruel twist of irony is that it was socialism that created brutalism, but it is capitalism that is what’s keeping it alive.

The Royal National Theatre in London, considered to be one of the many brutalist masterpieces

However, the legacy of brutalism is not totally bleak; it was indeed the symbol of radical left-wing thinking and the aspirations of what was an artist and architect that wanted to convey his philosophy of humanity through the art of architecture. Brutalism’s overt emphasis on shape, material and form is what inspired many deconstructivist architectural masterpieces, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful and unique buildings in the world. Love it or loath it, you can not deny the influence that brutalism has had on society and the way we perceive architecture, as more of an ideology rather than just a means to make a building look appealing. And, even if you do not agree with what brutalism represents, it is hard not to admire the passion and optimism of architects of the post-war decades who mirrored their beliefs in the way we design and see cities.

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