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Brutalist Architecture: Everything You Need to Know

The imposing, concrete-heavy aesthetic has long divided architecture fans and critics

One of the most polarizing architectural movements of the modern era, brutalist architecture frequently elicits strong emotions, including those of love and hatred. The aggressive geometric forms and raw, exposed concrete, according to Mark Bittoni, principal of Bittoni Architects, are what define the style. You have undoubtedly seen it before in several municipal and cultural structures constructed between the 1950s and 1970s. The style has historical value and is still in demand today, especially in domestic architecture, with innumerable examples found in different nations and continents. Learn about the origins and effects of brutalism, the contentious responses to the style, and iconic brutalist structures all throughout the world in this SCENERY CONSTRUCTION guide.

What Is Brutalist Architecture?

New York City Police Headquarters by Gruzen & Partners 1973

Following World War II in the UK, the 1950s saw the development of the brutalist architectural movement. The style changed as post-war reconstruction operations progressed, placing an emphasis on building and raw materials. Geddes Ulinskas, principal of Geddes Ulinskas Architects, continues, “If modernism is about architecture being honest, brutalist design is about architecture being brutally honest.” “Materials are stripped to the bare and rawest state and forms are as simple as they can be.”

Why is it called brutalism?

A brutalist-inspired residence designed by Geddes Ulinskas Architects

The French phrase “beton brut,” which means unfinished concrete, is sometimes used to explain how the name “brutalism” came to be. Many claim that the phrase was first used in 1949 to describe the brick residential structure Villa Göth by Swedish architect Hans Asplund. Reyner Banham, a British architectural critic, popularized the term with his essay “The New Brutalism,” published in Architectural Review in 1955. In it, he sought to categorize and characterize the newly emergent style. He would publish a book titled New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? later in 1969. “Over time, the term brutalism became associated with the movement as a whole,” claims Bittoni. The name’s extensive use can also be attributed to British architects Alison and Peter Smithson. They started using the phrase in the 1950s to express their modernist philosophy, which opposed adornment of structures and nostalgia for past architectural forms.

History of Brutalist Architecture

History of Brutalist Architecture

Following the conclusion of World War II, brutality first appeared in the United Kingdom and Europe before extending to other regions of the world. At the period, there were many overlapping events and ideologies that helped brutalist institutions arise. Following closely on the heels of the modernist movement of the day, post-war architects faced a new set of difficulties, primarily scarce resources. Young architects in particular believed that modernism was little more than an aesthetic language and wanted to build structures based on functionalism and massive expressiveness. According to Bittoni, “it emerged as a rejection of ornamental and ostentatious architecture, instead emphasizing simplicity and showcasing the honest expression of materials.”

The working class housing complex Cité Radieuse by Le Corbusier, which was a component of the architect’s social housing habitat Unité d’Habitation, is frequently cited as the style’s originator. The 18-story, self-contained concrete edifice is sometimes cited as the source of brutalist philosophy’s inspiration. Reyner Benham, an architectural writer, “reinforced the brutalist style after a group of British architects established it by linking the movement with the aesthetic of raw concrete,” according to Ulinskas. “Brutalist structures were viewed as primal, or raw, art.”

What is the philosophy of brutalism?

According to Bittoni, “the brutalist architectural philosophy is rooted in the conviction that architectural design should prioritize functionality, honesty, and social purpose.” The architects of the structures frequently supported socialist utopian concepts, which are frequently linked to the style. Early brutalist structures frequently served as low-cost housing initiatives that aimed to rethink design in order to meet contemporary requirements. “The style often seeks to showcase the raw beauty of materials, such as concrete, while emphasizing structural elements,” he continues. The honest representation of materials and a purposeful rejection of ornamental embellishments, which reflect the design’s concentration on practicality and the socio-political environment of its time, are frequently the causes of the perceived “darkness” or “coldness” of brutalist structures.

What was the problem with brutalist architecture?

For a few decades, brutalism was quite popular, but eventually, the public’s perception started to change. “Some people found the style to be too austere and imposing,” claims Bittoni. This contributed to its loss in popularity along with a shifting economic and political climate.

What was the problem with brutalist architecture

However, this does not imply that brutalism has completely vanished. The look is still used today, especially in domestic architecture, and it continues to be a major source of inspiration for product design, as shown in Kim Kardashian’s range of bathroom accessories. Although brutalism’s appeal has waned in mainstream architecture, Bittoni asserts that the movement still enjoys a sizable following and admirers. “Many architects continue to reference the brutalism’s strong geometric language, honest expression of materials, and purity of form in their contemporary works.”

Defining Elements and Characteristics of Brutalist Architecture

Defining Elements and Characteristics of Brutalist Architecture

It’s critical to grasp the design components that make up brutalism in order to comprehend the movement more fully. Consider the following, however it’s not an entire list.

How do you identify Brutalism?

A brutalist-inspired project by Bittoni Architects

The defining characteristics of brutalist architecture, according to Ulinskas, are “raw concrete or masonry, a constrained palette of materials, and the use of durable construction elements such as stone or concrete.” “Lighting is frequently indirect and hidden, coming from hidden sources.” In order to spot a brutalist structure, search for the following characteristics:

  • Large geometric forms, often in unusual shapes
  • Simple, clean lines
  • Rough and raw surfaces
  • Exposed concrete and other construction materials
  • Monochromatic palettes
  • Modular elements

Famous Examples of Brutalist Architecture and Architects

Cité Radieuse by Le Corbusier

Famous Examples of Brutalist Architecture and Architects

One of the most important structures to the brutalist movement is without a doubt the first proposal from Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. The high-rise building, which located in Marseille, was created to shelter the large number of people who had been displaced by the war. The structure has a hotel, two internal commercial lanes, and 337 apartments within.

Boston City Hall by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles

Boston City Hall by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles

The Boston City Hall, which was created by the architectural company Kallmann Mckinnell & Knowles, was finished in 1968. The building, which has sometimes been referred to as the ugliest building in the world while also serving as a significant illustration of the brutalist movement, has drawn a wide range of reactions since it was built. Rugged concrete volumes were used in the design to convey the building’s interior purpose to the outside world.

Geisel Library by William Pereira

Brutalist Architecture - Geisel Library by William Pereira

Geisel Library, a part of UC San Diego, is one of the most famous brutalist structures and the most well-known edifice on the university. The structure, which is sometimes described as having a “lantern” design, is frequently praised for fusing futurism with brutalism.

Armstrong Rubber Company by Marcel Breuer

Brutalist Architecture - Armstrong Rubber Company by Marcel Breuer

One of the most well-known brutalist architects, outside Le Corbusier, is Marcel Breuer, and the Armstrong Rubber Company is a prime example of some of his finest work. The building was converted into a boutique hotel and inaugurated in 2022 in New Haven, Connecticut.

Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie

Brutalist Architecture - Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie

Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, an apartment building in Montreal, was the inspiration for his master’s thesis while he was a student at McGill University. Safdie is an Israeli-Canadian architect. Each unit has at least one private patio and is made up of 354 similar concrete cubes arranged in different ways. The housing development aimed to blend the density of a conventional apartment building with the advantages of independent homes, such as gardens and multilevel plots.

The Royal National Theatre by Denys Lasdun

Brutalist Architecture - The Royal National Theatre by Denys Lasdun

One of London’s most iconic publicly sponsored performing arts institutions is the brutalist landmark, often known as the National Theatre. There are differing opinions on how intimidating reinforced concrete is on the inside and outside. King Charles III, who has never been a lover of contemporary design, was one of the structure’s most prominent detractors. In 1988, he famously referred to it as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.”

Robin Hood Gardens by Alison and Peter Smithson

Brutalist Architecture - Robin Hood Gardens by Alison and Peter Smithson

Alison and Peter Smithson were notable pioneers of British brutalism and early adherents of the brutalist design movement. Robin Hood Gardens, another social housing development, is still one of the pair’s most prominent structures. The building was erected in 1972 using precast concrete panels. The most crucial component of a building, according to the architects, is a network of walkways rather than the structure itself. The duo’s initial substantial application of this theory was the Robin Hood Gardens, which included “pathways in the sky.” The structure is currently being destroyed as of 2017.

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