The term “Brutalist architecture” is often credited to the architecture critic Reyner Banham, who said: “what characterizes the New Brutalism… is precisely its brutality, its je-m’en-foutisme, its bloody-mindedness.” The concrete monsters produced by the British New Brutalism movement are beloved by many and also hated in equal numbers – and the chasm between both groups is wide and filled with controversy.
However, the origins of the movement never found their footing in a penchant for the brutal. The name, in fact, derives from the French words béton brut, meaning raw concrete. In the wake of World War II, and with the birth of the welfare state, many architects sought to rebuild their respective countries with a “humanist” Modernism aimed at enacting social change. Le Corbusier lead the charge for Brutalism in Europe, crafting buildings out of raw concrete.
Fashioned by the hands of Le Corbusier, these concrete buildings were beautiful: strong, yet gracefully elegant. The “truth to materials” that emerged during the Modernist movement, however, progressed into an almost anti-aesthetic stance in New Brutalism. The British examples were more unrelenting, cold and – as many have gone as far to say – ugly; often struggling to remedy the social ills they sought to fight.
For a more visceral understanding of what Brutalism is about, let’s take a look at some of the most beautiful examples – if raw concrete is your thing, that is!
Unité d’Habitation, Marseille, France, 1952
Le Corbusier fits within the Modernist movement, but many of his buildings demonstrate another face of Modernism – one which came to be known as Brutalism. Le Corbusier was the irrefutable master of the movement, and this apartment building is one of his golden girls. In fact, it is one of his 17 buildings inaugurated into the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The destruction left in the wake of World War II, in France and elsewhere, called for an urgent accommodation response and Le Corbusier turned his hand over to the cause, believing that he could conceptualize “vertical garden cities” at a low-cost. The idea was to bring the principles of his villas into the individual units, melding them with shared areas. As per his usual MO, raw concrete (or béton brut) casts an unrelenting structure.
Pilotis raise the structure above the ground and a roof terrace creates another shared space above. In true Corbusian fashion, bold colors are “harmoniously” combined to accompany the rough-cast concrete. Le Corbusier even created his own architectural polychromy collection from which he and others would draw their hues.
The Barbican, London, 1960s-1970s
The Barbican is located on a site in London that, during a 1940 air raid, saw an enormous 35-acre site come to ground. With the pressing need for more housing following the war, this gaping void in the financial district of the capital became an obvious solution for a housing scheme. In 1955, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon put one forward.
Inspired by Unite d’Habitation, the architects also sought to erect vertical cities that would meet all the residents personal and cultural needs – in concrete, of course. “Street in the sky” became synonymous with the social housing projects of the ’60s and ’70s.
Complete with gardens and a lake, the project also includes horizontal rows of townhouses, opting for a less phallic gesture by breaking up the verticality. The various volumes are strung together with foot bridges that separate the pedestrian and the car.
Preston Bus Station, Preston, England, 1968-69
Many brandish this iconic British landmark by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson an uncouth monstrosity, while others praise the largest bus station in the world as a heroic feat of functionality. We’ll let you be your own judge!
While the building has, for some time, been under threat of demolition, it is also on Unesco’s radar – that’s how far out the jury was on this one. But now with a Grade II listed building status, it’s safe for the time being.
Mill Owners’ Association Building, Ahmedabad, India, 1954
Back to Le Corbusier: no Brutalist architecture compilation would be complete without a strong feature from the man who made concrete sexy.
The Mill Owner’s Association was constructed as the organization’s headquarters in a textile centre of India. The key feature in the building – béton brut aside – is the brises-soleil: an element Le Corbusier developed as he started working in warmer climates. Here, it comprises an outer concrete lattice made of angled planes and is planted to protect the interior from the heat of the sun.
The Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh, India, 1963
Le Corbusier was commissioned to lead the design of India’s first Modernist planned city, Chandigarh, and to this day it serves as an unrivalled example of Modernist planning and Brutalist architecture. The Palace of Assembly is one of the most prominent works of the collection.
The building features the angular, concrete brises-soleil that became a key tool in his repertoire during his work in India. Le Corbusier sneaks some swooping curves into the brutality of the utilitarian structure. Looming overhead, they dwarf any human-scaled element in their shadow.
Saint-Pierre Church, Firminy, France, 1963
You’re probably starting to wonder if Brutalism was really a movement or just the personal taste of one lone architect, but don’t worry, we promise this is the last Corbusian structure we’ll show you today! It happens to be his last building, too; left unfinished upon his death.
The solid concrete armor has a series of perforations on one of the sloped faces. Arranged according to the constellation of Orion, they flood light into the interior.
SESC Pompéia, São Paulo, Brazil, 1982
A little later in the piece, we have our first example from a female architect, Lina Bo Bardi. The three concrete towers – no surprises here – are erected alongside low-lying brick factory buildings and are connected by irregular and unconventional link bridges. The imprint from the timber framework is tattooed to the building’s thick skin.
The cultural and sporting centre is marked by a sense of otherness or strangeness; it is an alien in the urban environment, with its unexpected form, irregular openings and red splatterings.
Tower House, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan, 1966
Most of the Brutalist examples until now have been of a large scale: multi-unit social housing, cultural centers, commercial buildings and churches. But this one is a little different – it’s a house… well, a tower house. The concrete is not just exposed on the exterior, but the interior, too.
The unusual triangular plot is a tiny 20 square meters, setting the ground for a micro-skyscraper, something that has become a vernacular house form in Japan. While it soared above its neighbors when it was first constructed, it is now dwarfed by newer, taller constructions.
Centro de Exposições, Salvador, Bahía, Brazil, 1974
This exhibition hall, designed by João Filgueiras Lima, takes Brutalism to new (lateral) heights. Two concrete towers with tensioned rods support the concrete volume that hovers above the ground. It looks some sort of sci-fi spaceship, ready to open the hatches and suck earthlings into its belly.
While you could easily mistake it for a small-scale sculpture at first glance, the tree canopies tell otherwise. And, once that car is spotted in the shadow, we get a sense of its enormity. Spanning fifty-two meters long, it’s an engineering feat.
Hemeroscopium House, Madrid, Spain, 2008
Brutalism is still alive and well. Raw, exposed concrete abounds in our urban environments, office spaces and homes. The Brutalism of today is usually a little more refined and a lot less brutish, but rife with concrete nonetheless.
This home is comprised of exaggerated concrete structural members. A bare skeleton of function with no adornment, it’s so masterfully composed that it appears more art-piece than utilitarian structure.
For more on the topic of architecture, check out why Japanese architecture is so damn good.
- Lead image: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, photograph by G. E. Kidder Smith