Brutalism is one of the most controversial of architectural styles: some call it the ugliest buildings in the world while others go weak in the knees from admiration. But regardless of personal taste, we are sure that everyone will enjoy this roundup taking you through the must-know facts about the 20th century style that changed Architecture forever.
The Early-days of Brutalism, Rebuilding after War
Many of the first Brutalist structures were built as a solution to social housing problems caused by generation decline. After WW2, the world needed something that was cheap and could be built fairly quickly, and concrete structures were the perfect solution. Known for its use of functional reinforced concrete and steel, modular elements, and utilitarian feel, brutalism was widely used to rebuild government buildings which had been destroyed during the war. With an emphasis on materials, textures, functionality and equality, Brutalism resonated well with the social-solidarity movement of the time.
Despite what many assume, the term brutalism has nothing to do with cold, “brutal” design, rather, it is based on the French phrase, béton brut, meaning “raw concrete”. There is a little confusion as to who first coined the term Brutalism - Swedish architect Hans Asplund claims to have used it in a conversation in 1949 to describe a square brick home called the Villa Göth in 1949. However, its first written usage was by English architect Alison Smithson in 1952.
One of the first Brutalist buildings was Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation in Marseille. Following the war, Corbusier was commissioned to design a social housing project for the working class in Marseilles, France. Built in 1952 to house up to 1600 people in 337 apartments, the Unité d’Habitation represents the birth of brutalism.
Brutalism’s fall from grace
While Brutalism was very much loved in the post-war age, appreciation for the style vanished after that period. Part of this was due to the detached and dehumanised nature of the buildings, impressions that were often linked to totalitarianism and individual restrictions. Another factor involved the raw concrete used in the construction process. Albeit a defining Brutalist characteristic, concrete doesn’t age well, often showing signs of water damage and deterioration that inevitably bring down the overall aesthetic and value of the building. Maintenance costs were also a defining factor. Brutalist buildings are expensive to maintain and difficult to destroy, and because they are hard to remodel or update, they tend to stay the way the original architect planned - a feature that didn’t sit well with some contemporary dispositions. The combination of all of these factors eventually lead to the extinction of Brutalism at the end of the 1980s, which paved the path for more modern innovative styles including the well-known high-tech architecture famous for incorporating technology into building design.
Features of Brutalist Architecture
“Function over form” acquires a new meaning with Brutalism, in a style that prioritises austere stripped-back minimalism over flashy ornamental design. Post-Modernism in spirit and basic in form, Brutalism highlights the raw materials and the visible components of the structure, usually emphasising a solid, unadorned flat concrete exterior that is purposefully left coarse and exposed. Characteristic features include, but are not limited to:
Raw, rough unfinished surfaces
Orange County Government Center, Goshen, New York (Paul Rudolph, 1967)
Massive monolithic forms
Telecoms Center, Skopje, Macedonia (Janko Kont., 1968)
Commercial Bank, Tbilisi, Georgia. (George Chakhava & Zurab Jalaghania, 1975)
Expression of Structure
Geisel Library, California, US (William L. Pereira, 1970)
Wotruba Church, Vienna (Fritz Wotruba, 1976)
Maximalism and minimalism
Yalta, Crimea, Ukraine (Igor Vasilevsky, 1985)
Brutalist architects - the key players
A pioneering spouse and architectural partnership pair, the Smithsons came to define 50s and 60s English architecture with their impressive theoretical work and avant-garde interpretations to design, housing and urban planning. Considered the pioneers of ‘New Brutalism’, they were the brain behind the controversial Hunstanton Secondary Modern School in Norfolk, completed in 1954 and known for its decorative austerity, respect to the raw materials, and arranged straight structures. The social living Robin Hood Gardens in East London and the Economist Plaza in downtown Mayfair are alErno Goldfinger so among their creations - the latter which has been environmentally upgraded, refurbished to accommodate office and public spaces and renamed ‘Smithson Plaza’ in honour of the original architects.
Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell & Christof Bon
A team of three young architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon became one of the most influential modernist architectural firms in post-war Britain. Having met each other as teaching colleagues at London’s Kingston School of Art, they established their partnership in 1952 after Powell won a competition to design the nearby Golden Lane Estate - a large scale residential project that eventually lead them to the biggest milestone in their career: the Barbican. Guided by a vision to divide between private, community, and public domains, the Barbican’s urban sphere is comprised of residential blocks that are artfully arranged around communal open garden spaces in a concept that is heavily inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation project in Marseilles. To finish off, the middle level joins all of the blocks together, providing a route for pedestrians to enjoy above the street level.
Born in Budapest, he studied Architecture in Paris and then immigrated to Britain in the 1930s together with other European architects who has also been inspired by the modernist movement and the work of Le Corbusier. Once in London, Goldfinger went on to create some of the city’s most iconic and revolutionary Brutalist buildings, including 2 Willow Road, Metro Central Heights, Balfron Tower and Trellick Tower; residential housing was a running theme in his work. But his connection with Architecture didn’t stop there. Not content on simply being the architect of his creations, Goldfinger also experienced what it was like to live there, as was the case with Balfron Tower in Poplar East London. He and his wife, Ursula Blackwell, lived there for two months in 1968 and even invited residents over for champagne to receive feedback on their living adventures and quality of life. The architect and furniture designer, then took their comments into consideration when designing Trellick Tower in the mid 1970s.
Iconic Examples of Brutalist Architecture
Despite the mixed feelings, Brutalism prevailed in some parts of the world. In the Soviet Block, the style persisted in the form of schools, churches, libraries, theatres, and social housing projects due to the cheap materials (steel, glass, brick) used in the construction process. Similarly, the UK is also known worldwide for being a Brutalist hub, with London as the home to some of the movement’s most impressive landmarks.
"Even if they are not very well known, these buildings have an impressive design and a very strong visual impact. They tell a lot about an era and its artistic value, an era of creativity and experimentation." Stefano Prego, brutalist architecture photographer.
National Theatre, Southbank, London (Sir Denys Lasdun, 1976)
Brutalist architecture was used for social housing as much as for institutional buildings. One of the most famous Brutalist buildings in London, it has been compared to a nuclear reactor and an overgrown car park, and it is often as confusing to navigate as an Escher painting. However, its complex and imposing concrete volumes have garnered many fans worldwide and there is an enormous amount to see and do (in and around it). In the concrete texture alone, you will be able to see its different finishes, which include the imprints left behind by the wood ‘shuttering’ when the concrete was applied on site. The Skylon restaurant, located on the first floor of the Royal Festival Hall, also has impressive views over the Thames and is definitely worth visiting.
Trellick Tower, Kensal Town, London (Ernö Goldfinger, 1972)
Trellick Tower is a 31-storey block commissioned by the Greater London Council, and while it is equally loved and loathed, it is certainly hard not to notice its fine long profile. The distinctive 35-storey lift and service tower, linking every third floor flat to the main block, has been featured extensively in television, music promos and film, as well as on mugs, books and t-shirts. The building also follows Goldfinger’s inclination for timber-clad balconies for every flat and large windows that maximise daylight. Some of the flats now belong to private companies, but the majority are still occupied by council tenants.
“The whole object of building high is to free the ground for children and grown-ups to enjoy Mother Earth and not to cover every inch with bricks and mortar” Ernö Goldfinger
The Barbican, London (Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, 1969)
Described by Queen Elizabeth as "one of the modern wonders of the world", the Barbican Estate is one of the largest examples of Brutalist style, representing a utopian ideal for inner-city living. Consisting of a series of elevated gardens, three 45-storey high-rise towers and 14 seven-storey blocks, this sprawling development also includes several cultural, leisure and green amenities that help to create a sense of community among the residents of the complex. In addition to its housing purposes, the Barbican is also the largest performing arts centre in Europe and home to the London Symphony Orchestra. If you wish to explore the site yourself, the Barbican Tours are currently available for viewing.
Casa Sperimentale, Rome (Giuseppe Perugini, Uga de Plaisant, Raynaldo Perugini, 1975)
The architect and his family designed and built this infrastructure as an experimental concrete treehouse over a period of nearly 10 years. Designed as a holiday home among the pine trees, its unique building design is formed by eye-catching geometric shapes that can be built and expanded upon will and needs of the owners. The structure is made of a mixture of armed concrete, glass and steel that houses three independents spaces: the main house, the Sphere (a guest house) and a concrete perimeter wall that surrounds all of the complex. Everything was designed to in separate modules that would only be joined by a drawbridge red staircase. The building is currently abandoned and in a fragile state, but it still remains an outstanding example of experimental Brutalist architecture.
Pirelli Tire Building, Connecticut, USA (Marcel Breuer, 1970)
Originally built for the American company Armstrong Rubber Co., the building was bought in 2003 by IKEA along with the construction site beside it, only for it to be used as a billboard. With plans for its reoccupation and preservation, the Swedish furniture company and the city officers of New Haven sold the building to local architect-developer Bruce Becker who will transform it into a zero net boutique hotel and conference centre with 165 rooms. The building’s iconic one-story void exterior will be preserved without any alterations.
The Palace of Ceremonies, Tbilisi, Georgia (Victor Djorbenadze, 1985)
As Stalin’s birthplace, Georgia has a complicated place in Soviet’s long history, which is partly reflected in its exceptional Brutalist monuments - now transformed into museums, libraries, or banks. The Palace of Ceremonies or The Palace of Rituals is one of them; a popular site for many well-known individuals, it was built as a secular church slash wedding venue before it was bought by Badri Patarkatsishvili to be used as his personal home. In 2013, the building was leased to a private events company, and now hosts weddings, corporate events and fundraisers.
The Death of Brutalist Buildings?
For many years, the controversy surrounding Brutalism has lead to many divisions in the architectural world. Negative perceptions linked to Brutalism see the buildings as closed off, eerie, intimidating and uninhabitable and this has lead to the destruction and replacement of many Brutalist buildings. However, the style also has plenty of fans in the architectural community and they have been very vocal about their opinions, not afraid to protest against the demolition and bring attention to their cause.
“Considering our long experience in taking photos of abandoned places, we’ve become used to considering architecture as something that will not be standing forever” Roberto Conte, brutalist architecture photographer
Shoreline Apartments, Buffalo, New York (Paul Rudolph, 1970)
Once praised, the demolition of these Brutalist style apartments took more than two years to complete due to a resident lawsuit that tried to prevent its destruction. These shoreline apartments will now be replaced by a new 18 building complex with 166 housing units.
Brutalist Welbeck Street car park, London (Michael Blampied & Partners, 1971)
In London, some Brutalist buildings have already been knocked down despite the various campaigns to save their unique structures. Welbeck Street car park, with its characteristic diamond-patterned facade formed by pre-cast concrete had plenty of fans in the architecture community, but it all concluded in 2019 with the approval of the Westminster Council to demolish it completely - 3 years after government heritage body, Historic England, decided not to grant it listed status. It will now be replaced by a 10-storey hotel owned by the company Shiva Hotels.
Robin Hood Gardens, London (Peter & Alison Smithson, 1972)
Despite years of campaigning from heritage protectors and the architects’ own son, Simon Smithson (who called the destruction an “act of vandalism), the housing apartment complex was demolished in 2017 to be replaced by a £300 million redevelopment project that will provide 1,575 homes instead of 213. However, the estate was not entirely lost. London’s Victoria&Albert Museum acquired a three-storey section of the housing development - the interiors and exteriors of a masionette flat, to be more specific - that was shipped to Venice for a display in an exhibition biennale.
“Concrete architecture now finds itself at an inflection point: too outdated to be modern, too young to be classic”
The resurgence of Brutalist Style
Almost three decades later and after being called a symbol of bad taste, Brutalism is making a comeback. More and more architects have been adopting the traditional concepts of Brutalist architecture to create modern, cool-looking spaces, which prove that concrete can also be beautiful. On the other hand, social media has also played an important role in the revival of Brutalist architecture, with Instagram searches for #Brutalism summing up more than 800,000 images. Several books have also been published on the subject, which have helped to maintain popular interest and mobilise the public to speak out in support of some of the most iconic buildings in the world.
Studio, Coyoacán, Mexico (Pedro Reyes, 2017)
Brutalist inspired furniture, Paris (Virgil Abloh, 2020)
Yeezy “Think Tank” studio, Calabasas, LA (Willo Perron, 2018)
Eyty’s store, London (Max Schiller, 2018)
Bore Service Building, Beach House, Norway (Lie Øyen Arkitekter, 2019)
Today, Brutalism remains as controversial as ever. The world is often divided into those who think that Brutalist buildings are a thing from the past and should be demolished, and those who cherish and treat these buildings like architectural masterpieces. At YUGEN, we have always had a strong appreciation for Brutalism and its art forms and are happy to see its recent resurgence in popularity (perhaps though, more a digital than physical resurgence). Arguably one of the most iconic and easily recognisable architectural styles, Brutalism has played a major role in shaping some of the worlds most famous citiscapes and for that we should all be thankful. Whether Brutalist Architecture will remain part of these citiscapes in the future is unclear, however, we will continue to enjoy this style and its structures while they last.