Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Beauty of Brutalist Architecture: An Introduction in Six Videos

Some peo­ple hate the mas­sive con­crete build­ings known as Bru­tal­ist, but they at least approve of the style’s name, res­o­nant as it seem­ing­ly is with asso­ci­a­tions of insen­si­tive, anti-human­ist bul­ly­ing. Those who love Bru­tal­ism also approve of the style’s name, but for a dif­fer­ent rea­son: they know it comes from the French béton brut, refer­ring to raw con­crete, that mate­r­i­al most gen­er­ous­ly used in Bru­tal­ist build­ings’ con­struc­tion. We’ve all seen Bru­tal­ist archi­tec­ture, mas­sive­ly embod­ied by Boston City Hall, Lon­don’s Bar­bi­can Cen­tre, UC Berke­ley’s Wurster Hall, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to’s Robarts Library, FBI Head­quar­ters in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., or any oth­er of the exam­ples that have stood since the style’s 1960s and 70s hey­day. But now, as more get slat­ed for demo­li­tion each year, it has fall­en to Bru­tal­is­m’s enthu­si­asts to defend an archi­tec­ture eas­i­ly seen as inde­fen­si­ble.

The aes­thet­ic of Bru­tal­ism, says host Roman Mars in an episode of the pod­cast 99% Invis­i­ble on the style, “can con­jure up asso­ci­a­tions with bomb shel­ters, Sovi­et-era or ‘third-world’ con­struc­tion, but as harsh as it looks, con­crete is an utter­ly opti­mistic build­ing mate­r­i­al.” In the 1920s “con­crete was seen as being the mate­r­i­al that would change the world. The mate­r­i­al seemed bound­less — read­i­ly avail­able in vast quan­ti­ties, and con­crete sprang up every­where — on bridges, tun­nels, high­ways, side­walks, and of course, mas­sive build­ings.”

It “pre­sent­ed the most effi­cient way to house huge num­bers of peo­ple, and gov­ern­ment pro­grams all over the world loved it — par­tic­u­lar­ly Sovi­et Rus­sia, but also lat­er in Europe and North Amer­i­ca.” Philo­soph­i­cal­ly, “con­crete was seen as hum­ble, capa­ble, and honest—exposed in all its rough glo­ry, not hid­ing behind any paint or lay­ers.”

How­ev­er noble the inten­tions behind these works of archi­tec­ture, though, it did­n’t take human­i­ty long to turn on Bru­tal­ism. Part of the prob­lem had to do with the dis­re­pair into which many of the high­est-pro­file Bru­tal­ist build­ings — social hous­ing com­plex­es, tran­sit cen­ters, gov­ern­ment offices — were allowed to fall imme­di­ate­ly after the ide­olo­gies that drove their con­struc­tion passed out of favor. But Bru­tal­ism also fell vic­tim to a pre­dictable cycle of fash­ion: as archi­tec­ture crit­ics often point out, the pub­lic of any era con­sis­tent­ly admires hun­dred-year-old build­ings, but con­demns (often lit­er­al­ly) fifty-year-old build­ings. New York­ers still lament the loss of their grand old Penn Sta­tion, but its ornate Beaux-Arts style no doubt looked as heavy-hand­ed and out-of-touch to as many peo­ple in the ear­ly 1960s, the time of its demo­li­tion, as Bru­tal­ism does today.

What, then, is the case for Bru­tal­ist archi­tec­ture? “It’s a sense of place. It’s a sense of the dra­ma of the space that they sur­round,” says This Bru­tal World author Peter Chad­wick the BBC clip at the top of the post. “It is sculp­ture. It’s gone beyond being just func­tion­al. It’s just beau­ti­ful sculp­ture that mir­rors its envi­ron­ment.” In the DW Euro­maxx video below, Deutsches Architek­tur­mu­se­um cura­tor Oliv­er Elser sees in Bru­tal­ism a valu­able les­son for build­ing today: “Make more from less. I think this way of think­ing, spa­tial gen­eros­i­ty with sim­pler mate­ri­als, is a time­ly stance for archi­tec­ture.” Archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an Elain Har­wood calls Bru­tal­ism “a par­tic­u­lar archi­tec­ture for ambi­tious times gripped by a fer­vor for change. What­ev­er style you call it, the results are unique and have a hero­ic beau­ty than sets them apart from the archi­tec­ture of any oth­er era.” (In fact, some Bru­tal­ism enthu­si­asts who dis­like the label have put up the term “Hero­ic” instead.)

What­ev­er the artic­u­la­cy of Bru­tal­is­m’s defend­ers, the most effec­tive argu­ments for its preser­va­tion have been made with not words but images. Chad­wick first made his mark with his This Bru­tal House accounts on Twit­ter and Insta­gram, and a search on the lat­ter for the hash­tag #bru­tal­ism reveals the aston­ish­ing range and inten­si­ty of the style’s 21st-cen­tu­ry fan­dom. A fair few videos have also tak­en indi­vid­ual works of Bru­tal­ism as their sub­jects, from a reflex­ive­ly loathed sur­vivor like Boston City Hall to the unlike­ly upper-mid­dle-class oasis of the Bar­bi­can Cen­tre to a high-mind­ed projects now under the wreck­ing ball like Robin Hood Gar­dens. Despite how many peo­ple seem hap­py to see Bru­tal­ist build­ings go, some, like Aus­tralian archi­tect Shaun Carter in his TEDx Syd­ney Salon talk below, remind us of the val­ue of keep­ing our his­to­ry con­cretized, as it were, in the built envi­ron­ment around us.

Bunkers, Bru­tal­ism and Blood­y­mind­ed­ness: Con­crete Poet­ry writer Jonathan Meades puts it more force­ful­ly: “The destruc­tion of Bru­tal­ist build­ings is more than the destruc­tion of a par­tic­u­lar mode of archi­tec­ture. It is like burn­ing books. It’s a form of cen­sor­ship of the past, a dis­com­fit­ing past, by the present. It’s the revenge of a mediocre age on an age of epic grandeur.” To his mind, it’s the destruc­tion of evi­dence of “a deter­mined opti­mism that made us more potent than we have become,” of the fact that “we don’t mea­sure up against those who took risks, who flew and plunged to find new ways of doing things, who were not scared to exper­i­ment, who lived lives of per­pet­u­al inquiry.” If Bru­tal­ism has to go, it has to go because it reminds us that “once upon a time, we were not scared to address the Earth in the knowl­edge that the Earth would not respond, could not respond.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A is for Archi­tec­ture: 1960 Doc­u­men­tary on Why We Build, from the Ancient Greeks to Mod­ern Times 

Watch 50+ Doc­u­men­taries on Famous Archi­tects & Build­ings: Bauhaus, Le Cor­busier, Hadid & Many More

Bauhaus, Mod­ernism & Oth­er Design Move­ments Explained by New Ani­mat­ed Video Series

1,300 Pho­tos of Famous Mod­ern Amer­i­can Homes Now Online, Cour­tesy of USC

How Did the Romans Make Con­crete That Lasts Longer Than Mod­ern Con­crete? The Mys­tery Final­ly Solved

An Espres­so Mak­er Made in Le Corbusier’s Bru­tal­ist Archi­tec­tur­al Style: Raw Con­crete on the Out­side, High-End Parts on the Inside

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (9)
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  • JV says:

    It’s the very rare Bru­tal­ist build­ing that is worth sav­ing. Eff this.

  • Danny Smitherman says:

    “What­ev­er the artic­u­la­cy of Bru­tal­is­m’s defend­ers, the most effec­tive argu­ments for its preser­va­tion have been made…”


  • Dean Weiss M.D. says:

    Con­crete is a trou­bling mate­r­i­al as far as cli­mate change, takes an enor­mous amount of ener­gy to make the stuff.
    But the alter­na­tives aren’t much bet­ter. Con­crete does­n’t burn like wood. But it’s a seri­ous prob­lem in parts of the 3rd world where they’re build­ing like crazy, immune to con­cerns about over­pop­u­la­tion and the green­house gas­es in the atmos­phere.
    With almost 8 bil­lion peo­ple, pro­ject­ed to be 11 bil­lion at the end of the cen­tu­ry, we need to stop over­pop­u­lat­ing imme­di­ate­ly so we can stop build­ing more stuff.
    The build­ings are par­tic­u­lar­ly ugly and, well, bru­tal. Nobody will be admir­ing them in anoth­er half cen­tu­ry.

  • Michael says:

    Many bru­tal­ist build­ings are works of art, often with clever and dar­ing design. But stud­ies show that peo­ple liv­ing in close prox­im­i­ty to bru­tal­ist build­ings are more like­ly to suf­fer from depres­sion and men­tal ill­ness­es.
    Archi­tec­ture that makes peo­ple sick is just bad archite­cure, no mat­ter how styl­ish and art­sy it is. Peri­od. The build­ings should be pre­served in film, pho­tog­ra­phy and draw­ing — then torn down to make space for build­ings that make peo­ple hap­py, not depressed.

  • Gérard mermoz says:

    One of the attrac­tions of Bru­tal­ist archi­tec­tureS, per­haps, rests on the fact that it’s min­i­mal­ism sat­is­fies our desire for pair­ing down. This pre­sup­pos­es that we have enough to con­sid­er liv­ing with less. It may also sat­is­fy our desire for hon­esty. This is just a hypoth­e­sis…

  • Mindy Jollie says:

    I love the quote from Peter Chad­wick about bru­tal­ist archi­tec­ture being sculp­ture mir­ror­ing its envi­ron­ment. I would imag­ine that bru­tal­ist archi­tec­ture has a spe­cif­ic aes­thet­ic that does­n’t appeal to every­one! My best friend is think­ing about hir­ing an archi­tect for a project, but I imag­ine she won’t take it quite in this direc­tion! That’s the won­der­ful about archi­tec­ture though: the ver­sa­til­i­ty and diver­si­ty.

  • Tom says:

    Every­thing you’ve said is accu­rate. No one will lis­ten. Sor­ry. Wish they were bet­ter.

  • Tom says:

    That is for Dean Weiss. Apol­o­giz­ing again, it seems. I did not know the site worked like this in terms of respons­es.

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