A Brief History of Brutalism, the Architectural Movement Loved by Critics and Hated by (Almost) Everyone Else
From the BBC and CNN and now the New York Times, the word has come: Brutalism, perhaps the most reviled of all architectural styles, is back. Here’s what you need to know about the movement associated with hulking concrete masses and Soviet apartment buildings, beloved of critics and the architectural elite but despised by pretty much everyone else.
I first became aware of Brutalism in the way that many architecture students do: through the structures on their own college campus. Surrounded by the concrete cantilevers of Texas A&M’s Langford Architecture building, I felt at once comforted and intimidated, a potent mix of the feelings this kind of architecture has produced in observers for decades. It was equal parts rough-hewn realism and architectural power move, a building that drew me in, but also made me feel small.
The movement got its name from British architecture critic Reyner Banham, described by the BBC as “determinedly hip and massively bearded”—a Brooklyn hipster without a country. Although everyone since who hears the word “Brutalism” naturally thinks of an architecture designed to bully the observer into submission, Banham was actually inspired by the beauty of beton brut—French for raw concrete. (Le Corbusier, for example, was already doing very nice things with concrete, like his chapel at Ronchamps, thought of as a modernist building but very in keeping with the successive Brutalist aesthetic.)
Brutalism was intended to be a bold, innovative departure from the bourgeois elements of Modernism (itself conceived as a bold, innovative departure from the bourgeois styles of architecture that had gone before). Like Modernism, it was driven a bit by idealism and a bit by technology: the movement, championed by British architects like Alison and Peter Smithson, aimed to express postwar optimism but also to celebrate the raw beauty and especially the structural possibilities of concrete, which were just becoming apparent.
Unlike Modernism, Brutalism also had a raw, unrestrained quality. Gone was the hyper-functionalism of forbears like Mies and Corbu, replaced by an expressionism that seemed designed only to express, not to please. It was fuck-you modernism.
Reviews were decidedly mixed.
In 1963, Paul Rudolph, then the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, was asked to create a new art and architecture building for the campus. The result, one of the few structures he designed that was ever built, was a baffling concrete-and-glass castle, with 37 different terraced levels spread out across seven different stories. Ada Louise Huxtable, the famous New York Times architectural critic, called it “a spectacular tour de force.” The students hated it. So much, in fact, that (according to rumor), in 1969 one of them attempted to burn it down.
Even later, when attitudes towards Brutalism had softened a bit, Dezeen columnist Alexandra Lange described the building in a way that recalled Hogwarts and also Stockholm syndrome. Lange, who studied there while a student at Yale, described the building as “strange and quirky and difficult.” “I came to know its charms,” she said. “The secret door at the bottom of the front stairway, that saved you a trip up the slow staircase; the architectural treasures embedded in the walls of the stair hall; the turrets at the top; the courtyard view from the long study tables in the library.” Slow staircase? Okay, so perhaps more like Candyland than Hogwarts.
The Tricorn shopping center, in Portsmouth, England, was designed by Rodney Gordon in the ’60s as part of an attempt to revitalize a city center destroyed by the Blitz. At the time of its construction, architecture critic Jonathan Meades praised the architect’s imagination as “fecund, rich, untrammelled.” “There are as many ideas in a single Gordon building as there are in the entire careers of most architects,” he said. To behold the building was to feel oneself “in the presence of genius.”
The users, however, felt differently. In 2001, BBC listeners voted the struggling center as Britain’s worst building, and the Prince of Wales described it as “a mildewed lump of elephant droppings.” The center was torn down in 2004.
And those were just the greats of Brutalism. It started with these big projects, and then trickled down all the way to small-town libraries and post offices. Chances are good that your college campus (like mine) had one of these concrete behemoths. One explanation for Brutalism’s popularity is that concrete wasn’t just in vogue: it was cheap. People also thought that concrete buildings needed little or no maintenance. They were wrong about that, but that wasn’t apparent until much later.
A lot of Brutalist architecture was hated by the public almost as soon as it debuted. The buildings that looked so austere and dramatic in sketches and photographs were drab and dehumanizing in person. The new concrete architecture, intended to represent postwar possibilities and the triumph of the everyman, instead became a symbol of suburban mediocrity. When the bold new buildings began to fall apart, they were so unpopular that no one bothered to maintain them. Sad watermarks discolored their grand facades. Often, they were left to just slowly crumble, because the only thing more expensive than properly maintaining them was tearing them down.
But lately, as I mentioned above, Brutalism has seen a bit of a renaissance, at least if trend pieces on the internet are to be believed. Thus far, Brutalism’s comeback is more of an intellectual than a physical one, evidenced by things like a handful of coffee table books, a few retrospectives, and a Tumblr page. But it’s now cool, at least among the architectural cognoscenti, to think of Brutalist buildings as forgotten masterpieces. (Of course, if my own experience—and the comments on pieces like this one and this one—are any indication, many people still kind of hate them.)
This could be owing simply to the life cycle of design, which naturally circles around from new and shiny to dated to retro cool. But I think it’s more than just that: the internet has made disseminating images remarkably easy, and there’s no denying that these concrete buildings photograph amazingly well, appearing as bold and dramatic in black and white photos as they are forbidding in real life.
So Brutalism continues, as it has for a long time, to delight the few and exasperate the many. Which side do you fall on?