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Brutalist Architecture Collage

Brutalist Architecture

Started: 1950
Ended: 1980
Brutalist Architecture Timeline
"What characterizes the New Brutalism is precisely its brutality, its je-m'en-foutisme ["couldn't-care-less attitude"] its bloody-mindedness."
1 of 8
Reyner Banham
"Architecture is the Thoughtful making of space."
2 of 8
Louis Kahn
"Architecture should be rooted in the past, and yet be part of our own time and forward looking."
3 of 8
Moshe Safdie
"I try firstly to make my buildings humane."
4 of 8
Moshe Safdie
"The spatial order is built up by an amalgamation of a multitude of phenomena, the perception of which, subconsciously integrated, helps in building up the sensation of space. Memories and experience, not only of visual sensation but also of sound and touch and smell, enter into it. The sound and vibration in a hall; the physical touch of the walls of a narrow passage; the atmosphere and temperature of a stuffy room; the smell of a damp cellar; all are, in various degrees, components of spatial sensation. Every element, plastic or pictorial, partially obstructing the view, and people in the crowd rubbing against you, are part of it."
5 of 8
Erno Goldfinger
"Architecture masters space, limits it, encloses it."
6 of 8
Erno Goldfinger
"The stuff we are doing is simple and plain and gets all its value of the balance of its proportions of the perfect satisfaction it gives in function, of the materials...in the right place."
7 of 8
Erno Goldfinger
"A house is a machine for living in."
8 of 8
Le Corbusier Signature

Summary of Brutalist Architecture

Brutalism was a movement in modern architecture responsible for some of the most striking building designs of the twentieth century. But its achievements also proved shocking and controversial, partly because of its emphasis on the use of unfinished concrete for exterior surfaces. Brutalism emerged after the Second World War but was rooted in the ideas of functionalism and monumental simplicity that had defined earlier architectural modernism, including the International Style. Brutalism sought to adapt earlier principles to a post-war world where urban reconstruction was a pressing necessity. In this sense, it was partly inspired by democratic-socialist visions of community, but it was also propelled by the avant-garde idiosyncrasies of maverick architects, and it is remembered as much for the 'devil-may-care' brashness of its designs as for their communitarian ethos. In the decades following its zenith, Brutalism became redolent of urban deprivation and decline, largely because of its use in largescale social housing projects, but in the twenty-first century Brutalism is decidedly back in critical and popular fashion.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Brutalism's most famous stylistic motif was the use of raw concrete (French "béton brut") for exterior surfaces, leaving evidence of the construction process, such as the holes and seamlines left by the setting of liquid concrete, visible on the outsides of buildings. For Brutalist architects this approach showed a truth to the textural qualities of materials, and to the labor of construction, that epitomized their socially engaged, ethics-driven approach to their work.
  • The way in which Brutalism emphasized the physical properties of building materials represented an update on Louis H. Sullivan's famous 'form follows function' maxim, which had inspired an earlier wave of modernist architecture culminating in the International Style. But whereas International Style often favored a sleek, streamlined efficiency of construction - doing the most with the least - Brutalism was more likely to emphasize the brash abundance of its materials, drawing attention to the weight, density, and mass of concrete, steel, and stone.
  • Brutalism emerged at a time of urgent need for large-scale, affordable residential architecture. Europe's major cities were heavily bomb-damaged, while the need to clear urban slums, and a widespread desire to improve the lot of the common citizen, inspired largescale rehousing projects across much of the continent. With the scale of its designs and emphasis on cheap building materials, Brutalism became the style of choice for many of these projects: with mixed results for its own critical and popular fortunes.
  • Brutalism was part of a broader wave of mid-century-modernist functional design. Whereas modernism in visual art and literature is generally associated with the early twentieth century, and often with notions of complexity and difficulty, this mid-century modernism was notable for the iconic simplicity of its designs, and for its egalitarian emphasis on mass production and utility, an aesthetic rooted in the advances of the Bauhaus and Constructivism.
  • Brutalism undoubtedly owed an allegiance to the emphasis on brute materiality that defined the Art Brut movement. In Britain, Brutalist architects such as Alison and Peter Smithson were acquainted with Jean Dubuffet, the primary exponent of Art Brut, and sought to emulate his primitive, visceral approach through the spirit of their designs.

Overview of Brutalist Architecture

Brutalist Architecture Photo

A pioneer of modern architecture, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, was not only the main predecessor of and influence upon Brutalism, but also created some of its most iconic structures. He first considered the use of concrete as a student with Auguste Perret in Paris, then in 1914 he studied the technology of reinforced concrete with the engineer Max Dubois. As Le Corbusier recalled, "reinforced concrete provided me with incredible resources, and variety, and a passionate plasticity..." His early design for the Dom-Ino House (1914-15), an un-built prototype for temporary residences required after World War War, used a concrete modular structure for which residents could build their own exterior walls using materials stored on site. The idea was, as he described it, "a juxtaposable system of construction according to an infinite number of combinations of plans."

Key Artists

  • Le Corbusier was a twentieth-century Swiss-French architect, urban planner, designer, writer and painter. Le Corbusier was a pioneer in modern architecture and his priciples were integral to the hugely popular International Style of architecture.
  • Marcel Breuer's career touched nearly every aspect of three-dimensional design, from tiny utensils to the biggest buildings. Famously part of the Bauhaus school in Germany, Breuer was an influential Hungarian-born modernist that went on to teach many architects of the next generation.

Do Not Miss

  • Bauhaus is a style associated with the Bauhaus school, an extremely influential art and design school in Weimar Germany that emphasized functionality and efficiency of design. Its famous faculty - including Joseph Albers and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - generally rejected distinctions between the fine and applied arts, and encouraged major advances in industrial design.
  • The International Style was a style of modern architecture that emerged in the 1920s and '30s. It emphasized balance, the importance of function, and clean lines devoid of ornamentation. Glass and steel buildings, with less emphasis on conrete, is the most common and pure realization of structures in this style.
  • Founded in the Netherlands in 1917, De Stijl was an avant-garde dedicated to isolating a single visual style that would be appropriate to all aspects of modern life, from art to design to architecture. Taking its name from a periodical, its most famous practitioners were Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, whose mature art employed geometric blocks of primary colors and vertical and horizontal lines.
  • Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.

Important Art and Artists of Brutalist Architecture

Unité d'habitation (1952)

Artist: Le Corbusier

This 12-story housing complex of modular apartments, elevated on massive concrete pylons, is considered by many critics to represent the birth of Brutalism. It is finished in raw concrete, with the lines left by the moldings emphasizing the construction process, and the rough textures of its surface creating a sense of vitality and energy. Le Corbusier also pioneered the 'vertical garden city' concept with this building, including all the services a resident might need within the structure itself. Every third-floor functions as a city street, lined with shops, restaurants, recreational facilities and a nursery school, while the roof holds a gym, running track, theater stage, and shallow pool. As architectural critic Jonathan Glancey wrote, "[n]othing like this concrete megastructure had been seen before; the way it stood on those robust legs with its rough textured skin and its curious kinship to both a geological outcrop and an ocean liner. It is both a living creature and a purposeful machine." Le Corbusier called it "La Cité Radieuse", "the radiant city."

Until he was commissioned for this project, Le Corbusier had not completed a single project during the 1940s - all his proposals for largescale architectural works had been rejected. As a result, when Raoul Dautry, the French Minister of Reconstruction and Urbanism, agreed to go ahead with Corbusier's design for a "unité d'habitation de grandeur conforme" ('housing units of standard size') to be constructed in war-damaged Marseille, it was the architect's first public commission. He later wrote that his design had been inspired by his 1907 visit to the Florence Charterhouse monastery in Galluzzo, Italy, where he learned that "standardization led to perfection," and that "all of his life a man labors under this impulse: to make the home the temple of the family." Georges Candilis, who had joined Le Corbusier's studio in 1945, was appointed as project architect for the building. Containing 337 duplexes and housing 1600 people, the design involved modular apartment units that would fit into the larger structure, as Corbusier said, "like wine bottles in a rack." As each module extended the width of the building, both ends of each apartment had a view and a terrace. Residents could choose between twenty-three different apartment configurations, though Le Corbusier also designed the interior furnishings, leaving only the choice of interior color to the resident. The building is devoid of decoration with the exception of the roof's ventilator shafts, which were made to resemble an ocean liner's smokestacks, a form that Le Corbusier admired.

The building made Le Corbusier the leading French architect of the 1950s, and in 1952 he was named a Commander of the Légion d'Honneur. He went on to create similar 'habitations', and his vision of urban living influenced Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, and many other leading architects. Known affectionately by locals and residents as "La Maison du Fada," or the "House of the Crazy Guy," the building was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016. Today the home of many artists and architects, the structure has also been the site of art projects such as Christian Chironi's third installment of My house is a Le Courbusier (2015).

Boston City Hall (1963-68)

Artist: Kallmann McKinnel & Knowles with Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty, and Lemessurier Associates

The different exterior sections of this building are created with either brick or concrete cast in a number of patterns. They fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece reflecting its interior function. Areas of public access are located on the ground floor, partially built into a rising fold of land, and employing red brick that blends with the surrounding brick plaza. The second floor, supported by massive concrete pylons and featuring exposed crossbeams, indicates the presence of the city council and mayor's offices, while the precast upper level, its small windows framed by concrete cast molding, contain the administrative offices. Like much Brutalist architecture, this bold design represents an update on the famous axiom of architectural modernism that form should follow function.

Half of the structure's concrete was precast in steel molds and used darker cement, while the rest was cast in wooden frames onsite. Both were left unfinished so that contrasts in color and texture are created, as the second-floor pylons are darker and rougher in appearance, rising to the third floor's lighter and smoothly repetitive forms. The sense of tonal shift created as the building ascends contrasts with the inverted pyramid shape that draws attention downward through the vertical lines of the pylons and window frames to the ground floor, as if emphasizing the building's public function.

The building's architects were influenced by Le Corbusier, as well as by Italian Renaissance town halls, and the nearby granite structure of Alexander Parris's Quincy Market (1825). Kallman was a professor at Columbia University, while McKinnell was a graduate student at the university, when their design won the 1962 competition for the project to build an accessible city government building, featuring the most heavily-used departments on the ground floor. From the beginning, the building was controversial, with calls for its demolition beginning while it was still under construction. In the decades since its construction it has often been named in public surveys as one of 'the world's ugliest buildings.' By contrast, polls conducted with architects have consistently found it to be considered one of the top ten architectural designs in the United States. This split of opinion is typical of the passionate and divergent views that Brutalist architecture can arouse.

Trellick Tower (1966-72)

Artist: Ernő Goldfinger

The design of Ernő Goldfinger's Trellick Tower creates a distinctive and iconic silhouette, with its left-hand service tower, including its lift shaft, linked by sky bridges to the central block on the right. Made of exposed concrete, the 31-storey tower forms a geometric grid of horizontal and vertical lines, complemented by the horizontal lines of the sky bridges and the towering verticals of the service structure. The bold profile dominates the local skyline, as architectural critic Tim Winstanley wrote, "evoking the purified silhouette of a mediaeval castle. With its uncompromising materiality ...the tower is a daring presence in London's post-war landscape, an expressionistic monument for the masses." The sky bridges, outlined against the empty space between the two major components, seem to capture the sky itself within the building's horizontal and vertical grid. As Winstanley noted, "[t]here is no doubt that the void resulting from the separation between the two elements will stand as Goldfinger's real masterwork, and it is a powerful architectural legacy."

The Greater London Council commissioned the building as social housing in 1969. Goldfinger's design was substantially derived from his smaller, twin construction Balfron Tower (1965-67) where he lived for a period of time, and questioned residents for details about how to improve the building, reflecting his belief that architecture was "work that is only appreciable from within." As a result, Trellick Tower exemplifies Goldfinger's attention to detail, including features such as dual-pane glass to dampen sound, gaskets on the sky bridge to reduce vibration, windows with pivoting mechanisms for ease of cleaning, various space-saving features, and installation of the heating boiler and water storage tanks at the top of the service tower to reduce the need for piping and pumps.

Upon opening, the Trellick Tower was struck by several acts of vandalism that flooded entire floors and destroyed electrical circuitry. Subsequently, it became known as a high crime area. Dubbed the "tower of terror," it exemplified the social issues that became associated with Brutalist tower blocks, as the public saw their rough exteriors as reflective of distressed social populations. The building was thought by many to be the inspiration for J.G. Ballard's High Rise (1975), a dystopian novel where the 2000 residents of an apartment building violently turn upon one another, and the details meant to make the building a machine for living become, in Ballard's words, "a machine for war."

However, the tower's reputation began to turn around in the mid 1980s, as the government decided to sell some of the flats to people who wanted to live there, leading to the formation of new tenants' associations that lobbied for improvements. In 1998 it was given a Grade II listing, reserved for buildings of special historical interest. Today the building is considered to be trendy, coming to stand for what Winstanley calls "a fashionable image of an anaesthetized ghetto that is no longer dangerous."

Useful Resources on Brutalist Architecture

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"Brutalist Architecture Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 08 May 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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