Brutalist architecture

Brutalist architecture, or Brutalism, is an architectural style which emerged in the mid-20th century and gained popularity in the late 1950s and 1960s. It descended from the modernist architectural movement of the late 19th century and of the first half of 20th century,[1][2][3] and is characterized by simple, block-like structures that often feature bare building materials. Exposed concrete is favored in construction; however, some examples are primarily made of brick. Though beginning in Europe, Brutalist architecture can now be found around the world. The style has been most commonly used in the design of institutional buildings, such as libraries, courts, public housing and city halls.

Brutalism's stark, geometric designs contrast with the more ornate features of some architecture of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. Brutalist designs have historically been polarising; specific buildings, as well as the movement as a whole, have drawn a range of criticism and support from architects and the public. Many brutalist buildings have become architectural and cultural icons, with some UK buildings obtaining listed status.


The term Nybrutalism[4] was coined by the Swedish architect Hans Asplund to describe Villa Göth, a modern brick home in Uppsala, designed in January 1950 [5] by his contemporaries Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm. This was picked up in the summer of 1950 by a group of visiting English architects, including Michael Ventris, Oliver Cox, and Graeme Shankland, where it apparently "spread like wildfire, and subsequently adopted by a certain faction of young British architects".[4][6][7] The first published usage of the phrase "New Brutalism" occurred in 1953, when Alison Smithson used it to describe a plan for their unbuilt Soho house which appeared in the November issue of Architectural Design. She further stated “It is our intention in this building to have the structure exposed entirely, without interior finishes wherever practicable."[7][8] The Smithsons' Hunstanton School completed in 1954 in Norfolk, and the Sugden House completed in 1955 in Watford, represent the earliest examples of New Brutalism in the United Kingdom.[2] Hunstanton school, likely inspired by Mies Van Der Rohe's 1946 Alumni Memorial Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, USA, is notable as the first completed building in the world to carry the title of "New Brutalist" by its architects.[9][10] At the time, it was described as "the most truly modern building in England".[11]

The term gained increasingly wider recognition when British architectural historian Reyner Banham used it to identify both an ethic and aesthetic style, in his 1955 essay The New Brutalism. In the essay, Banham described Hunstanton and the Soho house as the "reference by which The New Brutalism in architecture may be defined."[8] Reyner Banham also associated the term New Brutalism with Art Brut and béton brut, meaning raw concrete in French, for the first time.[4][12][13] Banham further expanded his thoughts in the 1966 book, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?, to characterize a somewhat recently established cluster of architectural approaches, particularly in Europe.[14] In the book, he states that "..the words 'The New Brutalism' were already circulating, and had acquired some depth of meaning through things said and done, over and above the widely recognised connection with 'béton brut'.The phrase still 'belonged' to the Smithsons, however, and it was their activities above all others that were giving distinctive qualities to the concept of Brutalism."[15] Brutalism gained considerable momentum in the United Kingdom during the mid-twentieth century, as economically depressed (and World War II-ravaged) communities sought inexpensive construction and design methods for low-cost housing, shopping centres, and government buildings.

The best-known proto-Brutalist architecture is the work of the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, in particular his 1952 Unité d'habitation in France, the 1953 Secretariat Building (Palace of Assembly) in Chandigarh, India. and the 1955 church of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France. Banham opined that Le Corbusier's concrete work was a source of inspiration suggesting "...if there is one single verbal formula that has made the concept of Brutalism admissible in most of the world's Western languages, it is that Le Corbusier himself described that concrete work as 'beton brut'".[16]

Brutalism began to be favoured by governmental and institutional clients, with numerous examples in English-speaking countries (the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia), Western Europe (France, Germany, Italy), the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc (Slovakia, Bulgaria), and places as disparate as Japan, India, Brazil, the Philippines, and Israel. Examples are typically massive in character (even when not large), fortress-like, with a predominance of exposed concrete construction, or, in the case of the "brick Brutalists," they ruggedly combine detailed brickwork as well as concrete. There is often an emphasis on graphic expressions in the external elevations and in the whole-site architectural plan the main functions and people-flows of the buildings. Brutalism became popular for educational buildings (especially university buildings) but was relatively rare for corporate projects, which largely preferred International Style. Brutalism became favoured for many government projects, rectangle tower blocks (high-rise housing), and shopping centres.

Combined with the socially progressive intentions behind Brutalist streets in the sky housing such as the Smithsons's Robin Hood Gardens, completed in 1972, Brutalism was promoted as a positive option for forward-moving, modern urban housing.


Brutalist buildings are usually constructed with reoccurring modular elements forming masses representing specific functional zones, distinctly articulated and grouped together into a unified whole. Concrete is used for its raw and unpretentious honesty, thus contrasting dramatically with the highly refined and ornamented buildings constructed in the elite Beaux-Arts style. Surfaces of cast concrete are made to reveal the basic nature of its construction, showing the texture of the wooden planks used for the in-situ casting forms. Brutalist buildings may use other materials such as brick, glass, steel, rough-hewn stone, and gabions. Conversely, not all buildings exhibiting an exposed concrete exterior can be considered Brutalist, or may belong to one of a range of architectural styles including Constructivism, International Style, Expressionism, Postmodernism, or Deconstructivism.

Peter Smithson believed that the core of Brutalism was a reverence for materials, stating "Brutalism is not concerned with the material as such but rather the quality of material,"[17] and "the seeing of materials for what they were: the woodness of the wood; the sandiness of sand."[18]

Another common theme in Brutalist designs is the exposure of the building's functions—ranging from their structure and services to their human use—in the exterior of the building. In the Boston City Hall, designed in 1962, the strikingly different and projected portions of the building indicate the special nature of the rooms behind those walls, such as the mayor's office or the city council chambers. From another perspective, the design of the Hunstanton School included placing the facility's water tank, normally a hidden service feature, in a prominent, visible tower. Rather than being hidden in the walls, Hunstanton's water and electric utilities were delivered via readily visible pipes and conduits.[8]

Brutalism as an architectural philosophy was often associated with a socialist utopian ideology, which tended to be supported by its designers, especially by Alison and Peter Smithson, near the height of the style. This style had a strong position in the architecture of European communist countries from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, USSR, Yugoslavia).[19] In Czechoslovakia, Brutalism was presented as an attempt to create a "national" but also "modern socialist" architectural style.


In Australia, examples of the Brutalist style are Robin Gibson's Queensland Art Gallery, Ken Woolley's Fisher Library at the University of Sydney (his State Office Block is another), the High Court of Australia by Colin Madigan in Canberra, and WTC Wharf (World Trade Centre in Melbourne).[21] John Andrews's government and institutional structures in Australia also exhibit the style.

Canada possesses numerous examples of Brutalist architecture. In the years leading to the 100th anniversary of the Confederation in 1967, the Federal Government financed the construction of many of public buildings. Major Brutalist examples, not all built as part of the Canadian Centennial, include the Grand Théâtre de Québec, the Édifice Marie-Guyart (formerly Complex-G), Hôtel Le Concorde, and much of the Laval University campus in Quebec City; Habitat 67, Place Bonaventure, the Maison de Radio-Canada, and several metro stations on the Montreal Metro's Green Line; the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown; the National Arts Center in Ottawa; the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston; Robarts Library, Rochdale College in Toronto; the church of the Westminster Abbey in British Columbia.

In the United Kingdom, architects associated with the Brutalist style include Ernő Goldfinger, wife-and-husband pairing Alison and Peter Smithson, some of the work of Sir Basil Spence, the London County Council/Greater London Council Architects Department, Owen Luder, John Bancroft, and, arguably perhaps, Sir Denys Lasdun, Sir Leslie Martin, Sir James Stirling and James Gowan with their early works. Some well-known examples of Brutalist-influenced architecture in the British capital include the Barbican Centre (Chamberlin, Powell and Bon) and the National Theatre (Denys Lasdun).

In the United States, Paul Rudolph and Ralph Rapson were both noted Brutalists.[22] Evans Woollen III, a pacesetter among architects in the Midwest, is credited for introducing the Brutalist and Modernist architecture styles to Indianapolis, Indiana.[23] Walter Netsch is known for his Brutalist academic buildings. Marcel Breuer was known for his "soft" approach to the style, often using curves rather than corners. In Atlanta, Georgia, the architectural style was introduced to Buckhead's affluent Peachtree Road with the Ted Levy-designed Plaza Towers and Park Place on Peachtree condominiums.

In Argentina, Clorindo Testa created the Bank of London and South America headquarters, one of the best examples of the 1950s.

In Italy, Vittoriano Viganò designed the Istituto Marchiondi in Milan in 1957,[24] and the BBPR studio built the Torre Velasca in 1958. More recent Modernists such as I. M. Pei, Gottfried Böhm and Tadao Ando also have designed notable Brutalist works. In Trieste, the main building of the Galileo Galilei high school (1969–71), as well as the residential housing complex known as "il Quadrilatero" (1969–82), in the district of Rozzol Melara are iconic representations of the brutalist style. Other examples include the Enrico Nordio art institute and the Temple of Monte Grisa.

In Brazil, the style is associated with the Paulista School and is evident in the works of Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha (2006).

In the Philippines, Leandro Locsin designed massive Brutalist structures, including the Tanghalang Pambansa and the Philippine International Convention Center.

In New Zealand, Sir Miles Warren and his practice Warren & Mahoney led the development of the so-called "Christchurch School" of architecture, which fused Brutalist architectural style with Scandinavian and Japanese values of straightforwardness. Warren's style has influenced New Zealand's public architecture.

In Serbia (then Yugoslavia), Božidar Janković was a representative of the so-called "Belgrade School of residence", identifiable by its functionalist relations on the basis of the flat[25][26] and elaborated in detail the architecture. His architectural structures, built more than four decades ago, are in better physical condition today than many buildings which were constructed years later.

Architects whose work reflects certain aspects of the Brutalist style include Louis Kahn. Architectural historian William Jordy says that although Kahn was "[o]pposed to what he regarded as the muscular posturing of most Brutalism", some of his work "was surely informed by some of the same ideas that came to momentary focus in the Brutalist position."[27]

On university campuses

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, many North American universities constructed campus buildings in the Brutalist style due to their low cost and ease of construction, beginning with Paul Rudolph's 1958 Yale Art and Architecture Building. Rudolph's design for the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth is an example of an entire campus designed in the Brutalist style. Walter Netsch designed the entire University of Illinois-Chicago Circle Campus (now the East Campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago) under a single, unified Brutalist design.[28] John M. Johansen and Evans Woollen III's Brutalist-style Clowes Memorial Hall, a performing arts facility that opened in 1963 on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis, was praised for its bold and dramatic design.[29]

In 1964, Brigham Young University inaugurated the Franklin S. Harris Fine Arts Center, which features a largely Brutalist style of architecture. The University of Chicago's Joseph Regenstein Library, one of the largest libraries in the world, is designed in the Brutalist style. The Northwestern University Library is also designed in a Brutalist style and is a good example of this type of architecture. The University of Minnesota's West Bank campus features several Brutalist buildings, including the performing arts venue, Rarig Center, one of Ralph Rapson's most important works and the best example of Brutalism in the Twin Cities.[30]

The University of Louisville Belknap Campus has several Brutalist buildings, including the Bingham Humanities Building and the Interfaith Center. The Andrews Building at the University of Toronto Scarborough was built in a Brutalist architectural style and completed in 1964. In 1965, Desert Modern architect E. Stewart Williams was commissioned to design a new campus for the San Bernardino Community College District. Construction of Crafton Hills College began a year later, and the last building that was part of his original campus plan was completed in 1976. Williams' Brutalist design contrasts with the steep terrain of the area and was chosen in part because it provided a firebreak from the surrounding environment.[31] The Iowa State Center at Iowa State University originally consisted of five buildings in the Brutalist style, including a theater, auditorium, coliseum, stadium, and events center, as well as connecting elevated promenades.

At the same period in the U.K., similar expansion of higher education led to the construction of many Brutalist university buildings, notable examples being the Boyd Orr Building at the University of Glasgow, the University of Essex,[32] and Denys Lasdun's halls of residence at the University of East Anglia and Christ's College, Cambridge.[4] The exterior of the University of St Andrews's Andrew Melville Hall was used as the set for Dover Recovery Centre in the film Never Let Me Go.

Criticism and reception

Brutalism has some severe critics, including Charles, Prince of Wales, whose speeches and writings on architecture have excoriated Brutalism, calling many of the structures "piles of concrete". A 2014 article in The Economist noted its unpopularity with the public, observing that a campaign to demolish a building will usually be directed against a Brutalist one.[33] In 2005, the British TV program Demolition ran a public vote to select twelve buildings that ought to be demolished, and eight of those selected were Brutalist buildings.

One argument is that this criticism exists in part because concrete façades do not age well in damp, cloudy maritime climates such as those of northwestern Europe and New England. In these climates, the concrete becomes streaked with water stains and sometimes with moss and lichens, and rust stains from the steel reinforcing bars.[34]

The Queen Elizabeth Square flats in Glasgow were demolished in 1993
Park Hill in 2013, after substantial refurbishment

Critics of the style find it unappealing due to its "cold" appearance, projecting an atmosphere of totalitarianism, as well as the association of the buildings with urban decay due to materials weathering poorly in certain climates and the surfaces being prone to vandalism by graffiti. Despite this, the style is appreciated by others, and preservation efforts are taking place in the United Kingdom.[13][35]

At the University of Oregon campus, outrage and vocal distaste for Brutalism led, in part, to the hiring of Christopher Alexander and the initiation of The Oregon Experiment in the late 1970s. This led to the development of Alexander's A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building.[36]

Anthony Daniels, a British author, physician, and political commentator, has written for City Journal that Brutalist structures represent an artefact of European philosophical totalitarianism, a "spiritual, intellectual, and moral deformity." He called the buildings "cold-hearted", "inhuman", "hideous", and "monstrous". He stated that the reinforced concrete "does not age gracefully but instead crumbles, stains, and decays", which makes alternative building styles superior.[37]

Brutalism today

Although the Brutalist movement was largely over by the late 1970s and early 1980s, having largely given way to Structural Expressionism and Deconstructivism, it has experienced a resurgence of interest since 2015 with the publication of a variety of guides and books, including the Brutalist London Map (2015), This Brutal World (2016), SOS Brutalism: A Global Survey (2017) as well as the lavish Atlas of Brutalist Architecture (Phaidon, 2018).

Many of the defining aspects of the style have been softened in newer buildings, with concrete façades often being sandblasted to create a stone-like surface, covered in stucco, or composed of patterned, pre-cast elements. These elements are also found in renovations of older Brutalist buildings, such as the redevelopment of Sheffield's Park Hill. Cladding of the exterior may be undertaken in part to improve the neighbours' view, and cladding itself may bring fire risks; this is widely seen to be one of the causes of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.[38]

Several Brutalist buildings in the United Kingdom have been granted listed status as historic and others, such as the Pirelli Building in New Haven's Long Wharf,[39] and Gillespie, Kidd & Coia's St. Peter's Seminary, named by Prospect magazine's survey of architects as Scotland's greatest post-war building, have been the subject of conservation campaigns. The Twentieth Century Society has unsuccessfully campaigned against the demolition of British buildings such as the Tricorn Centre and Trinity Square multi-storey car park, but successfully in the case of Preston bus station garage, London's Hayward Gallery and others.

Notable buildings that have been demolished include the Smithson's Robin Hood Gardens (2017) in East London, John Madin's Birmingham Central Library (2016), Marcel Breuer's American Press Institute Building in Reston, Virginia, and Araldo Cossutta's Third Church of Christ, Scientist in Washington, D.C. (2014).

Notable buildings which are threatened include the Sirius building in Sydney and Atlanta Central Library in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. The Welbeck Street car park in London was demolished in October 2019.

See also

  • List of Brutalist structures


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  • Golan, Romy: Historian of the Immediate Future: Reyner Banham – Book Review. The Art Bulletin, June 2003. (Retrieved 29 December 2014.)
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  • Anna Rita Emili, Pure and simple, the architecture of New Brutalism, Ed.Kappa Rome 2008
  • Anna Rita Emili, Architettura estrema, il Neobrutalismo alla prova della contemporaneità, Quodlibet, Macerata 2011

Further reading

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