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Brutalist Architecture Collage

Brutalist Architecture - History and Concepts

Started: 1950
Ended: 1980
Brutalist Architecture Timeline

Beginnings of Brutalist Architecture

Le Corbusier

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, whose Unité d'habitation (1952) is seen as one of the first and most iconic works of Brutalist architecture.

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."

The houses that make up Maisons Joule (1951-55), a design that employed rough brickwork and unfinished concrete.

His Unité d'habitation (1952), an apartment complex in France, was seen as the first example of Brutalism in urban planning, while his Maisons Joule (1951-55) influenced the movement's approach to private residences. Nonetheless, Le Corbusier did not identify with the term "Brutalism" movement and was outraged when his work was described as part of the Brutalist movement. As he wrote, "'[b]éton brut' was born at the Unité d'habitation, Marseille, where there were eighty contractors and such a massacre of concrete that there was no way of imagining how to construct useful relationships through rendering. I had decided: leave everything 'brut' [raw/unfinished]. I called it 'béton brut.' The English immediately jumped on the bandwagon and dubbed me 'Brutal'."

Villa Göth

Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm's Villa Göth (1950) was an early example of Brutalism's emphasis on unfinished materials.

In 1949 the Swedish scientist and pharmaceutical boss Elis Göth commissioned Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm to build him a private residence in Uppsala, Sweden. The Villa Göth consisted of a two-story rectangular block constructed from dark brick, with exposed I-beams and a number of béton brut floors and ceilings displaying the casting forms of the concrete. Hans Asplund, a leading Swedish architect, used the term "Nybrutalism" ("New Brutalism") to characterize the building.

Brutalism in Britain: Alison and Peter Smithson

According to the architectural photographer Eric de Maré, a number of British architects who visited the Villa Göth, including Michael Ventris and Oliver Cox, picked up on the "New Brutalism" tag and introduced it at home, where, as de Maré wrote, it "spread like wildfire." Brutalism is still sometimes referred to as New Brutalism for this reason.

Part of the reason that Britain, and the Smithsons' work in particular, became closely associated with Brutalism is because of this self-conscious adoption of the term by British architects and critics. In a 1951 article, the writer Reyner Banham called Brutalism "Britain's first native art movement," writing that the term originated in Le Corbusier's advocacy of "béton brut" ('raw concrete') and Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut. Drawing a distinction between proponents of the emerging style, Bonham argued that Asplund's "Neo-Brutalism" emphasized style or aesthetic rather than the ethics emphasized by New Brutalism. Two years later, in 1953, the English architect Alison Smithson used the term "Brutalism" in Architectural Design to describe her design for a Soho residence which was to be "exposed entirely, without interior finishes wherever practicable". "Had this been built", she noted, "it would have been the first exponent of the New Brutalism in England." So closely did Brutalism become associated with the Smithsons' work that the architectural photographer Georges Candilis argued that Brutalism was in fact a neologism created by combining a contraction of Alison Smithson's first name, "Al", with Peter Smithson's nickname "Brutus."

This photograph shows Alison and Peter Smithson in 1990.

Alison and Peter Smithson had met as students at Durham University, where they began a lifelong personal and professional relationship. In 1949 they won an architectural competition for their design for the Hunstanton Secondary Modern School (1949-54) in Norfolk, later seen as an exemplar of Brutalist style. Indeed, the two quickly became leaders of the new movement, growing in prominence through their collaborations with artists at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts and as members of Team 10, a group of architects who favored a new vision of urban planning. The Smithsons wrote articles advocating for the use of unfinished concrete, exposed building structures, and inexpensive fabricated materials to create buildings adapted to particular locations. Placing the Brutalist movement within a historical context, they cited the early work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and traditional Japanese architecture - which they wrote showed "a reverence for the natural world, and from that, for the materials of the built world" - as influences. Their ideas were informed by the economic and social realities of post-World War Two Britain, which required large-scale rebuilding in many heavily-bombed cities - they described their approach as "make do and mend."

Parallel of Life and Art exhibition 1953

Alison and Peter Smithson, along with the photographer Nigel Henderson and the artist Eduardo Paolozzi, organized the 1953 Parallel of Life and Art exhibition at the London Institute for Contemporary Arts. According to the Hepworth-Wakefield, this "innovative exhibition juxtaposed a series of seemingly disparate images and emphasized the importance of photography, mass-produced imagery, architecture and design to avant-garde art." At the time, the four artists were members of the Independent Group, a loose association of designers, architects, and artists who held meetings at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts from 1952 to 1955.

The Smithsons' friend Eduardo Paolozzi was also in contact with the French artist Jean Dubuffet, and Peter Smithson noted that at the core of Brutalism was "the materiality thing" originating in Dubuffet's Art Brut. Dubuffet coined the term "Art Brut" to define art created outside of the established art-world, notably by self-taught artists, children, and the mentally ill. His own work was known for its often-shocking emphasis on the brute physicality of the body, and its use of raw textures and primitive formal likenesses. The Parallel of Life and Art exhibition included one of Dubuffet's works from his Corps de Dames series (1950-51) as well as prints, photographs, video, architectural designs, and artwork by Richard Hamilton, William Turnbull, Magda Cordell, and Jean Dubuffet. The exhibition was later regarded as an authoritative illustration not only of the Brutalist movement but of early trends in the emerging British Pop Art movement.

Team 10

The Smithsons, along with the architects Georges Candilis, Jaap Bakema, Giancarlo De Carlo, Aldo van Eyck, and Shadrach Woods, were core members of Team 10. This group formed in 1953 at the Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne, known as CIAM. The group described themselves as "a small family group of architects who have sought each other out because each has found the help of the others necessary to the development and understanding of their own individual work." They argued against the emphasis on transplantable functionalism that had defined the development of modernist architecture in the early twentieth century, in favor of urban planning that reflected the values and lifestyle of specific populations and created community. As Alison Smithson wrote, "[b]elonging is a basic emotional need. Its associations are of the simplest order. From 'belonging' (identity) comes the enriching sense of neighborliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails."

At a 1954 meeting of Team 10, the Smithsons wrote "The Doorn Manifesto", an expression of their collective architectural ethics: "it is useless to consider the house except as part of a community," the manifesto stated. It also included their coinage of the famous phrase "streets in the sky," meaning elevated walkways with access to high-rise flats, as a means of creating a sense of community life in high-density housing. Team 10 continued to be influential across the following decades, both in the emergence of New Brutalism internationally, and in the development of Structuralism, a movement found by the Dutch architects Aldo van Eyck and Jacob Bakema. Attending every meeting, Bakema became the leading force of Team 10, and the group disbanded in 1981 upon his death.

Reyner Banham

With the publication of his essay "The New Brutalism" (1955), the architectural critic and historian Reyner Banham became the leading theorist and advocate of the Brutalist movement. The essay defined the historical context for Brutalism, describing the movement as influenced by Le Corbusier's béton brut, Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut, and the French musician Pierre Schaeffer's "musique concrète" ('concrete music') of the 1940s. Taking Le Corbusier's statement "L'architecture, c'est avec des Matières Brutes, établir des rapports emouvants ('Architecture with Raw Materials establishes moving relationships') as its epigraph, the essay emphasized the use of unfinished concrete to create bold structures.

Reyner Banham's “The New Brutalism” appeared in a 1955 issue of <i>Architectural Review</i> alongside a collage of photographs of Le Corbusier's Chapelle of Notre-Dame-du-Haut (1950-55).

Banham defined the key tenets of Brutalist architecture as follows: "l, Memorability as an Image; 2, Clear exhibition of Structure; and 3, Valuation of Materials 'as found'." He explained "Memorability as an Image" as meaning that "the building should be an immediately apprehensible visual entity; and that the form grasped by the eye should be confirmed by experience of the building in use." At the same time, his essay defiantly challenged certain critics of the movement, stating, in contrast to the community ethics of some of its proponents, that "[w]hat characterises the New Brutalism is precisely its brutality, its je-m'en-foutisme ['couldn't-care-less attitude'], its bloody-mindedness."

Banham's essay defined the Smithson's Hunstanton School (1954) as the exemplar of Brutalism, and also included Louis Kahn's Yale Art Centre (1953) as an expression the movement, though it many ways the latter was closer to the sleek minimalism of the International Style. Nonetheless, as Banham put it, "both exhibit their basic structure, and both make a point of exhibiting their materials." Banham's subsequent book The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (1966) further codified Brutalism, drawing upon a number of recent architectural projects.

Concepts and Styles

Streets in the Sky

A photograph of the Smithsons' Robin Hood Gardens (1968-72), largely demolished during 2017-19, showing the green area, including manufactured hills, with one of the apartment buildings in the background.

The concept of "streets in the sky" was an architectural feature of Brutalism that became popular in the 1960s, involving the use of elevated walkways connecting raised apartment buildings to create a sense of neighborhood. An early example of their use was in the Smithsons' design for Golden Lane Estate (1952), an unbuilt project, which became the model for their Robin Hood Gardens in London (1968-72). The Golden Lane estate was intended to include two apartment buildings placed at angles around an enclosed green area described by the architects as "a 'stress-free central zone [...] a quiet green heart which all dwellings share and can look into." Each apartment block ended in elevator silos connecting to open-air walkways or "streets." The Smithsons described the project as "an exemplar - a demonstration of a more enjoyable way of living in an old industrial part of a city."

This Brutalist model for communal interaction was widely employed in British public housing in the following decades, notably in Ernö Goldfinger's Balfron Tower (1965-67) and Trellick Tower (1966-72) in East London. Hulme Crescents (1972) in Manchester was the largest of the streets-in-the-sky British projects, but suffered various design problems leading to its 1994 demolition. Many of these complexes became marked by neglect, failing maintenance, and crime, and faced public and critical antagonism in the 1970s and across subsequent decades, until a recent revival of critical and cultural good will.

University Architecture

New York Times art critic Ada Louise Huxtable described Paul Rudolph's Yale Art and Architecture Building (1958), later renamed as Rudolph Hall, as “a spectacular tour de force.”

In the late 1950s many universities, especially in the United Kingdom, turned to Brutalist architecture, partly due to its inexpensive and quick construction possibilities, and partly due to its strong association with the expanded public and cultural realm of the post-war period. In the United States, one of the most noted early examples was Paul Rudolph's Yale Art and Architecture Building (1958). Rudolph went on to design the entire campus of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, much of it in the same style. In other cases, showpiece campus buildings, notably part of the library at the University of Chicago, and the Brigham Young University performing arts building, were commissioned in the Brutalist style. In the United Kingdom, as the university sector expanded and new institutions opened - the so-called "plate-glass universities" of the 1960s - striking Brutalist buildings were commissioned across the UK, notably at the Universities of Essex, East Anglia, and Glasgow. Brutalist style was also employed at various Canadian universities, notably for the Andrew Building (1964) at the University of Toronto.

Brutalism in the United States

In the United States from 1962 to 1976 Brutalism was a popular style, employed not only for academic buildings but also for libraries, government buildings, churches, and corporate headquarters: particularly those of scientific and technology companies. Several well-known international architects were commissioned to design buildings in East Coast cities, as evidenced by Le Corbusier's role, alongside Oscar Niemeyer, Wallace Harrison, and Max Abramovitz, in designing the Headquarters of the United Nations (1948-1952) in New York City.

Paul Rudolph was considered the leading Brutalist architect in the USA, and as a professor of architecture at Yale both his theory and practice influenced subsequent architects. Evans Woollen III, Ralph Ranson, and Walter Netsch were amongst other well-known North-American Brutalist architects, all of them based in the Midwest. Ranson designed churches, theatrical venues, and the housing complex Cedar Square West in his native Minnesota during the 1960s-70s. Practicing in Indianapolis, Woollen designed so many buildings that he was dubbed 'the city's designer.' The Serbian-born Araldo Cossutta, and the Hungarian Marcel Breuer, also spent much of their careers in the United States, designing notable Brutalist buildings such as Cossutta's Christian Science Center (1973) in Boston.

The Paulista School of Brazil

João Vilanova Artigas and Carlos Cascaldi's Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism, University of São Paulo (1961-68)

Brazil was another center of Brutalist activity, just as it was of developments in Constructivist and Concrete Art following the Second World War. In the 1950s, the São Paulo-based architect João Batista Vilanova Artigas founded the so-called Paulista School, a loose association of Brazilian architects all based in the city who favored the use of exposed concrete, rough surfaces, and monumental dimensions. The school built upon the influence of the Brazilian Carioca school that began in 1935, but in the post-war era began employing concrete, one notable early expression of its aesthetics being Affonso Eduardo Reidy's Brasil-Paraguai Elementary School (1952). Vilanova Artigas, along with the architect Carlos Cascaldi, began working with concrete, as seen in Vilanova Artigas's design for the Morumbi Stadium (1952). Artigas and Cascaldi were also influential teachers, later co-founding the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo.

Joaquim Guedes and Oswaldo Bratke were also associated with the Paulista group, and Paulo Mendes da Rocha became a leading figure, revitalizing São Paulo's cityscape with buildings that were dubbed as examples of "Brazilian Brutalism." One of his early and celebrated designs was the São Paulo Athletic Club (1957). A distinctive characteristic of Brazilian Brutalism became its long-lasting cultural viability, as the buildings were seen as deeply connected to Brazilian culture and reflective of its modernity. Da Rocha remains a leading South American architect, and in 2006 received the international Pritzker Architecture Prize, with the panel citing his "deep understanding of the poetics of space" and "architecture of profound social engagement." In 2016 he was awarded the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Brutalism in the Soviet Bloc

Dubbed the “buried robot” by the residents of Kalingrad, Yulian L. Shvartsbreim's House of Soviets (1970-92) was never finished.

In the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc (those countries in Eastern Europe emerged as soviet vassal states after the Second World War, with communist rulers heavily influenced by the USSR), prefabricated concrete was widely employed to create apartment complexes, government buildings, and monuments. In the late 1950s, the government launched plans to increase industrialization and urbanization, and extensive use of concrete was seen as a practical means of creating urban housing reflecting Soviet ideals of communal living. In Russia, these standardized complexes were referred to as "Panelki" ('panel buildings') as they were composed of prefabricated concrete panels - unfortunately, they became known for their shoddy and sometimes never completed amenities. Nonetheless, government and monumental architecture in the USSR was often innovative, employing unusual structural forms that were sometimes compared to UFOs or described with reference to other science-fiction tropes, as with the moniker "The Buried Robot" applied to Yulian L. Shvartsbreim's House of Soviets (1970-92).

George Chakhaba and Zurab Jalaghania's Georgia Ministry of Highways (1971) shows the 18-story building prior to its renovation in 2007 as the Bank of Georgia.

More noted examples of Brutalist architecture, like George Chakhaba and Zurab Jalaghania's Georgia Ministry of Highways (1971), combined the use of raw concrete and unfinished surfaces with the influence of Constructivism. In Yugoslavia, Božidar Janković lwas the leader of an architectural school emphasizing functionalism and the use of raw concrete, while in other countries, including Czechoslovakia, Brutalism was seen as a way to create a national style that reflected modern socialism.

Later Developments - After Brutalist Architecture

The Barbican Estate in London, built between 1965 and 1976 on a 35-acre site that had been bomb-damaged during World War Two.

In the 1970s, Brutalism came under redoubled criticism both from architects and the public, while its association with urban blight and crime was reflected by the use of Brutalist locations for films such as Get Carter (1971), a graphic look at British criminal culture, and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), a dystopian vision of violent, disaffected youth. Nonetheless, iconic works of Brutalism such as the Barbican Estate in London were finished during this period.

In the 1980s, the emergence of Deconstructivism brought an end to the movement, though it continued to live on in popular culture, as noted buildings became locations for BBC spy dramas, movies with a Cold War theme, and contemporary British dramas including the film Beautiful Thing (1996) and the TV series Misfits (2009-2013).

In the 21st century, Brutalism is experiencing a revival, as shown by the publication of books such as the Brutalist London Map (2015), This Brutal World (2016) and SOS Brutalism: A Global Survey (2017). Conservation campaigns have been launched to save and restore Brutalist architecture, though some noted buildings have been demolished amidst public outcry. As the art historian Alexandra Lange wrote in a review of the exhibition Toward a Concrete Utopia at the Museum of Modern Art, "[m]y theory about why we love concrete architecture now is simple: It has body. Even as we consume design in pixels, we long for spaces where we can feel the weight of the world."

A number of contemporary architects, including Peter Zumthor, Tadao Ando, Daniel Libeskind, Tadao Ando and the late Zaha Hadid have created Brutalist-influenced works, while others, including Jurgen Mayer Hermann, known as J Mayer H, have been described as "quasi-Brutalist." In 2015 the Swedish artist Olafur Eliasson cast massive chunks of glacial ice in concrete to create sculptures and, subsequently, developed a building design for Illulissat Icefjord Park in Greenland. The installation A Clockwork Jerusalem (2014), at the 2014 Venice Biennale, included a central circular mound of earth taken from the manmade hill at Robin Hood Gardens, in homage to the Smithsons' vast, now largely demolished Brutalist housing estate in East London.

Noted architects of the Brutalist movement, particularly Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, have extensively influenced subsequent architecture, while Moshe Safdie, one of the world's leading architects, has continued to create innovative designs influenced by Brutalism, such as his Altair Towers in Sri Lanka.

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.

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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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