Artworks and Artists of Brutalist Architecture

Progression of Art
Le Corbusier: Unité d'habitation (1952)

Unité d'habitation

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).

Concrete, steel, glass - Marseille, France

Kallmann McKinnel & Knowles with Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty, and Lemessurier Associates: Boston City Hall (1963-68)

Boston City Hall

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.

Brick, concrete, glass - Boston, Massachusetts

Ernő Goldfinger: Trellick Tower (1966-72)

Trellick Tower

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."

Poured concrete, pre-cast concrete, wood, metal

Alison and Peter Smithson: Hunstanton Secondary Modern School (1954)

Hunstanton Secondary Modern School

Artist: Alison and Peter Smithson

Known locally as the "glasshouse," the design of the Smithsons' Hunstanton Secondary Modern School emphasizes its long, rectangular, glass-glazed central structure, whose steel framework is visible even from a distance. The architects combined their interest in modernism, particularly the work of Mies van der Rohe, with a pronounced emphasis on exposed materials and structures, expressed through features such as the prominent steel tanks of the water tower, and the outer galvanized steel framework, filled in with brick, its exposed surfaces left rough and unfinished. Such features led architectural critics to use the term "New Brutalism" for the first time in describing the building. Reyner describes Hunstanton school as "almost unique among modern buildings in being made of what it appears to be made of...One can see what Hunstanton is made of, and how it works, and there is not another thing to see except the play of spaces."

The building's design is, in this and other senses, notable for its simplicity. It uses steel H-frames which, as Rayner Banham wrote, achieve "something like true bi-axial symmetry." Banham praised the design for the "abstemious under-designing of its details," noting that "much of the impact of the building comes from the ineloquence, but absolute consistency, of such components as the stairs and handrails." Nonetheless, on closer inspection the design unfolds a number of innovative features. The rectangular structure includes two stories, with classrooms located on the first floor, and the interior design makes innovative use of staircase columns to access no more than three classrooms, minimizing the noise and disruption of student movement.

The Smithsons saw Brutalism as "an ethic, not an aesthetic." They wanted to focus on an idea of functionality connected to the realities of ordinary life in the post-war era. As Alison Smithson wrote, "[m]y act of form-giving has to invite the occupiers to add their intangible quality of use." Nonetheless, the Smithson's underlying, "form-giving" design has been praised for what architecture critic Nikolaus Pevsner called its "symmetrical, clean, precise" quality, and the building has been widely influential in British architecture.

Steel, brick, glass - Norfolk, United Kingdom

Moshe Safdie: Habitat 67 (1967)

Habitat 67

Artist: Moshe Safdie

This housing complex, perched alongside the Saint Lawrence River, consists of 354 precast concrete cubes, arranged in irregular configurations, and connected by steel cables. Reaching 12 stories high, the building's profile creates a sense of organic growth, as if the structure had evolved through spontaneous communal activity over time. A sense of unity is created by the replication of the elemental, geometric form while at the same time a sense of dynamic energy is conveyed by the unpredictable arrangement. While evoking ancient architecture, the complex also evokes more modern imagery, resembling Cubist sculpture or even an assemblage of the Lego bricks which the architect used to create preliminary models.

Moshe Safdie was born and raised in Israel, moving to Canada with his family as a teenager. He was influenced as an architect by his experience living in a kibbutz (a communal settlement in Israel), as well as by the architecture of Le Corbusier and Metabolism, a Japanese post-World War Two movement that advocated for the use of organic forms in buildings, manifested in complex webs of prefabricated modules, as in Kisho Kurokawa's Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972).

Safdie built his design - extrapolated from ideas included in his master's thesis at McGill University, where he studied with Sandy van Ginkel - for Expo 67, a World's Fair held during the centenary year of the formation of Canada in 1867. He intended to create, as he put it, "a building which gives the qualities of a house to each unit - Habitat would be all about gardens, contact with nature, streets instead of corridors." Each of the 158 apartments was composed of two or three cubes with a private garden terrace that the architect called "gardens in the sky," The project, meant as a pilot model for affordable middle-class housing, married what architectural critic Genevieve Paiement calls "two seemingly irreconcilable typologies: the detached house (a symbol of middle-class autonomy) and the apartment complex (a fact of life in high-density cities)."

Safdie's design attracted over seven million visitors during Expo 67, including notable foreign dignitaries, and was celebrated in The New York Times and Time magazine. According to Paiement, "[h]is approach was also a precursor to what we now call "design thinking": the notion that, by envisioning radical new built forms, architects and planners can make human life happier, healthier, and more harmonious." The architect's intention, that the type of design employed for the structure would become widely used in urban planning, failed largely because his costs overran his budget, even though the concrete forms were prefabricated and put together on site. With a decline in public funding by the early 1970s, official sponsorship of such projects dried up. Nonetheless, in the twenty-first century interest in Habitat 67 as a viable model has revived, as shown by the commissioning of Bjarke Ingels's Habitat 2.0, an apartment complex in Toronto, in 2016. Habitat 67 was given heritage status in 2009, and the building has become emblematic of Montreal, its image widely replicated in advertisements, brochures, and posters, as well as being the location for an iconic 2001 Leonard Cohen music video, In My Secret Life.

Concrete, steel - Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Marcel Breuer and Hamilton Smith: Breuer Building (1966)

Breuer Building

Artist: Marcel Breuer and Hamilton Smith

This building has a distinctive, immediately recognizable profile, as a massive concrete cube rises over a kind of inverted ziggurat. Rectangular blocks of granite cladding in various colors emphasize the monolithic quality of the structure, while the striking trapezoidal window, shaped like an angled eye, and the small, asymmetrically placed windows on the adjacent sides of the building, make the five-story structure seem almost like a giant, living creature, casting its multiple eyes across the cityscape.

Born in Hungary, Marcel Breuer began his career as a craftsman and designer in the Bauhaus. Renowned for his innovative tubular steel furniture inspired by the shape of bicycle handlebars, he went on to adapt his sense of sculptural form to architecture. His architectural style went through several phrases before he developed his final, Brutalist-inspired approach. Built as the Whitney Museum of Art, the Breuer Building was described in 1966 by New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable as "the most disliked building" in the city, though she also noted, Breuer's "thoughtful planning and sensitive artistry in the use of materials" to create a "museum raised to the level of architectural art."

Ultimately, the design that had at first seemed to clash with the neighborhood's brownstone tenement feel became celebrated for "its distinctive profile and idiosyncratic features," as art critic Stephen Wallis noted.

Concrete, granite, steel, glass - The Met Breuer, New York

Louis Kahn: Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, National Parliament House (1962-82)

Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, National Parliament House

Artist: Louis Kahn

This monumental site incorporates legislative buildings and residences for the members of the Bangladeshi Parliament, set within a 200-acre site including artificial lakes. The main building, made of light-colored concrete and comprising the Main Plaza, South Plaza, and Presidential Plaza, is situated at the center of the complex, surrounded on three sides by a lake which flows toward the red brick and concrete residences for Members of the Parliament. The contrasting shapes and textures distinguish between the structures' functions, while the simple exteriors with massive walls, marked by recessed porticos and large geometrically shaped openings, create a sense of dynamic unity. Located within the Bengali desert, the complex's massive buildings, large bodies of water, and green areas insulate it from the heat, while also creating an all-enveloping sensory environment.

Construction of the complex began in 1962, when the site was still based in East Pakistan, but building was interrupted in 1971 by the Bangladesh Liberation War. With the establishment of Bangladesh's independence that same year the building took on renewed importance as a symbol of national pride and freedom. Kahn envisioned the large hollow columns that make up much of the design as chambers for refracting and framing sunlight: "maker[s] of light [that] can take on complex shapes and be the supporter of spaces and give light to spaces." "I am working," he noted, "to develop the element to such an extent that it becomes a poetic entity which has its own beauty outside of its place in the composition." At the same time, the geometric shapes used to create the openings in the columns reflect Bengali cultural motifs, typifying a melding of folkloric and modern references in the design of the site.

The architectural critic Eduardo Souza describes Kahn's national parliament site as "an extraordinary example of modern architecture being transcribed as a part of Bengali vernacular architecture." Following Kahn's death in 1974, his colleague David Wisdom completed the project, which was subsequently awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

Reinforced concrete, brickwork, white marble - Dhaka, Bangladesh

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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]. .
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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