The Brutal Dreams That Came True

Brutalist London Map

by Henrietta Billings, with photographs by Simon Phipps
London: Blue Crow Media, £8.00 (paper)
Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square, designed by Viljo Revell, 1958–1965; from Christopher Beanland’s Concrete Concept: Brutalist Buildings Around the World
Nikhilesh Haval/Age Fotostock
Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square, designed by Viljo Revell, 1958–1965; from Christopher Beanland’s Concrete Concept: Brutalist Buildings Around the World

1.

Literature that takes a wistful backward glance at the outmoded manners and mores of the previous forty or fifty years—most famously Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu—has a direct parallel in architecture. Time and again we have seen reawakened interest in the disdained buildings of two generations earlier, a span still within living memory but not quite yet history. For example, Oxford aesthetes of the 1920s (a coterie that included John Betjeman, Osbert Lancaster, and Evelyn Waugh) discovered new charm in ornate Victorian monuments that their parents’ contemporaries dismissed as eyesores. The bizarre, protopsychedelic fantasies of the Catalan outlier Antoni Gaudí emerged from a half-century of oblivion in the 1960s and enthralled an international counterculture. And the 1970s saw a new vogue for the jazzy modernistic riffs of Art Deco, which the mandarin tastemakers Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Philip Johnson in 1932 banned from their new Museum of Modern Art architecture and design department as populist kitsch.

Now, with almost clockwork inevitability, several new books indicate that the rehabilitation of yet another once-reviled phase in the building art is underway. The architecture in question is an industrial aesthetic that arose in postwar Britain and was dubbed New Brutalism, a semi-ironic, quasi-pejorative label on the order of Gothic (which implied the barbarism of the Goths) and Baroque (from the Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl). The Swedish architect Hans Asplund coined the term nybrutalism in 1949, and four years later it was used for the first time in the British journal Architectural Design. There the wife-and-husband architects Alison and Peter Smithson wrote that an unexecuted house of theirs would have had “no finishes at all internally, the building being a combination of shelter and environment. Bare brick, concrete, and wood…had this been built, it would have been the first exponent of the New Brutalism in England.”

In addition to its echoes of art brut—Jean Dubuffet’s name for outsider art—New Brutalism was also an oblique riposte to New Humanism, a set of beliefs inspired by Geoffrey Scott’s hugely influential book The Architecture of Humanism (1914).1 But Scott’s call for a return to Arts and Crafts design principles was scorned as escapist nostalgia by many young midcentury modernists. Among them was the period’s foremost British architecture critic, Reyner Banham, who with his scant empathy for the Arts and Crafts Movement’s focus on social reform issues belittlingly described New Humanism as “brickwork, segmental arches, pitched roofs, small windows (or small panes at any rate)—picturesque detailing without picturesque planning. It was, in fact, the so-called ‘William Morris Revival,’ now happily defunct….”

Yet it was not a utopian nineteenth-century dreamland that Brutalism countered as much as the thin, commercialized version of the International Style that after World War II gained ascendance through economic expediency. Brutalism’s striking departure from the steel-skeleton-and-glass-skin conformity of this routine, profit-oriented modernism was defined by its contrary emphasis on raw concrete (béton brut in French) in massive forms of imposing scale, idiosyncratic shape, rough finish, and uncompromising forcefulness, with a building’s inner workings and services—structure, plumbing, electricity, heating, and ventilation—unabashedly exposed. Brutalism soon became a worldwide craze, as this comparatively economical means of fabrication offered a cost-effective alternative to hand-riveted metal construction and allowed a broader array of sculptural effects than those obtainable with rectilinear frameworks.

Apart from Brutalism’s most influential exemplar—Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseilles (1947–1952), a marvel of multi-unit high-rise housing that attracted hordes of young architects even before it was completed—other conspicuous manifestations of the style include Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Research Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (1957–1960), Marcel Breuer and Hamilton Smith’s Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City (1963–1966), and Denys Lasdun’s Royal National Theatre in London (1967–1976). And although the boldly modeled concrete architecture of Japan’s postwar Metabolist group is often considered an independent episode, designs such as Kenzo Tange’s swoopingly dynamic Olympic Stadium in Tokyo (1961–1964) can be placed under the Brutalist rubric.

The extent to which this new direction took hold internationally can be gathered from Christopher Beanland’s Concrete Concept, a well-illustrated compendium of fifty Brutalist landmarks on six continents. They range from very well-known examples such as Paul Rudolph’s intricately multilevel Yale Art and Architecture Building in New Haven (1958–1963) and the cubic heap of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 housing at the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, to less familiar oddities like the rotund Beehive—the New Zealand Parliament’s Executive Wing in Wellington (1964–1977) by Basil Spence—and Rinaldo Olivieri’s La Pyramide (1968–1973), a mixed-used ziggurat in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. That global reach is further confirmed in the anthology Brutalism Resurgent, which includes a chapter on Skopje, the Macedonian city so extensively (and firmly) rebuilt in dramatic concrete forms after a devastating 1963 earthquake that it has been suggested that this out-of-the-way destination be promoted to architectural tourists as the “Brutalist Capital of the World.”

However, not every big, tough-looking building, even if made of concrete, is necessarily Brutalist. The new popularity of the subject has prompted another English enthusiast, the graphic designer Peter Chadwick, to assemble an album of images, This Brutal World, which takes the broadest conceivable definition of the style. The author dutifully quotes Banham’s dictum that “in order to be Brutalist, a building has to meet three criteria, namely the clear exhibition of structure, the valuation of materials ‘as found’ and memorability as image.”

But a great many of Chadwick’s selections do not meet all those standards. For example, few architectural historians would agree that Frank Lloyd Wright’s streamlined brick-and-translucent-glass Johnson Wax Research Tower in Racine, Wisconsin (1944–1951), or Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Space Age Gothic aluminum-clad United States Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado Springs (1958–1962) is Brutalist; nor for that matter are Daniel Libeskind’s Deconstructivist zinc-encased Jewish Museum Berlin (1989–1999) and SANAA’s Minimalist, metal-mesh-surfaced New Museum in New York City (2003–2007). Neither would many experts concur with his protracted Brutalist timeline, which encompasses the concrete monolith of Erich Mendelsohn’s Expressionist hat factory in Luckenwalde, Germany (1921–1923), and three buildings completed in 2015.

Banham, fixated on materials and engineering, asserted that New Brutalism at last fulfilled a central philosophical aim of the Modern Movement. Praising the first celebrated British example of Brutalism, the Smithsons’ Hunstanton Secondary Modern School in Norfolk (1950–1954), he wrote in his seminal 1955 Architectural Review essay “The New Brutalism”:

Whatever has been said about honest use of materials, most modern buildings appear to be made of whitewash or patent glazing, even when they are made of concrete or steel. Hunstanton appears to be made of glass, brick, steel and concrete, and in fact is made of glass, brick, steel and concrete. Water and electricity do not come out of unexplained holes in the wall, but are delivered to the point of use by visible pipes and manifest conduits. 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.

Yet this restrictive attitude about “truth to materials”—a principal modernist shibboleth that began among moralizing Victorian theorists—was in essence little different from the judgmental admonitions of Arts and Crafts adherents about the inherent soullessness of the machine. Banham went on to expand his argument at book length in The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic (1966), which has been out of print for years and deserves republication as a revealing document of architectural historiography.

There are several reasons for today’s changing perceptions about Brutalism, which remained in fashion for only about twenty years. As the landmarks preservation movement has repeatedly demonstrated, what was once underappreciated or even despised in architecture often attains new value when its existence is threatened, whether one likes a currently démodé style or not. The most immediate concern about Brutalism now is its conservation, as many of these seemingly invulnerable, fortress-like edifices are beginning to fall apart. Like other experimental architects of the modern age, the Brutalists were more intent on getting their innovative designs built than worrying about how well they would last for the ages, and their command of new materials and construction techniques often lagged behind their innovative visions. But the debate over whether these purposefully unlovely creations should be restored to their original state or left to decay remains largely unresolved.2

Another major factor in the reexamination of Brutalism is the part postgraduate academicians play in methodically advancing topics that have yet to be fully investigated. While there will always be doctoral dissertations on unexamined facets of the great architectural masters, Ph.D. advisers often steer their students toward neglected or discounted subjects, with the hope that fresh analysis will yield worthwhile results. Thus we have seen the scholarly literature steadily progress far into the twentieth century, and it was only a matter of time until we reached Brutalism.

That there is a definite element of fandom in the Brutalist revival there can be no doubt. In the introduction to his paean Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism, the University of Liverpool architectural historian Barnabas Calder declares his infatuation:

I am a lover of concrete. The great outburst of large concrete buildings in the 1960s and ’70s, the style known as Brutalism, thrills me. I love the unapologetic strength of these buildings, and the dazzling confidence of their designers in making their substantial mark. I love the optimism they seem to embody, their architecture promising bullishly that new technologies can improve almost every corner of human life. Most of all, I love the way the buildings look: rough, raw concrete, streaked by rain and dirt, forming punchy, abstract shapes; soaring cliffs of tower block or entire cities within cities.

But it might also be argued that this aggressively neoprimitive ethos represented an outright rejection of High Modernism’s belief in the perfectibility of mankind through advanced technology, a rejection expressed in intentionally crude finishes that hardly improve with age. Brutalism, which reflected the bleak worldview of existentialism so pervasive in the 1950s, reveled in its uncouthness and flagrant lack of finesse in much the same way that the Angry Young Men of postwar British literature, drama, and filmmaking flaunted their contempt for anything that hinted at poshness, polish, or privilege. Where Calder sees Brutalism’s confidence and optimism, others perceive a palpable angst and inward-turning defensiveness that make many of these designs seem more like penal institutions or military emplacements than housing estates, arts centers, or schools sponsored by an egalitarian and beneficent welfare state.

Trellick Tower, a thirty-one-story apartment block in North Kensington, London, designed by Ernő Goldfinger, 1966–1972; from Elain Harwood’s Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945–1975
James O. Davies/Historic England
Trellick Tower, a thirty-one-story apartment block in North Kensington, London, designed by Ernő Goldfinger, 1966–1972; from Elain Harwood’s Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945–1975

Yet subsequent building modes often foster dissatisfactions that make earlier approaches of a diametrically different sort look appealing by comparison, which helps account for this reversal. After the flimsy cartoon-Classical pastiches of Postmodernism in the 1980s, the nervously fragmented angularity of Deconstructivism in the 1990s, and the postmillennial proliferation of computer-generated “blobitecture,” the undeniable material heft and protective aura of Brutalism can seem reassuring to those threatened by an increasingly multivalent and menacing world.

2.

The most substantial of the new publications is Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945–1975 by Elain Harwood, an architectural historian with the preservation group English Heritage. This nine-pound volume lays out a thorough survey of the subject both in its authoritative text and excellent illustrations. Although Brutalism became a worldwide trend, its greatest concentration was in Britain, where public building authorities gave overwhelming support to this new direction. (A detailed account of that remarkable architectural program is given by John Grindrod in his Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (2013), which lucidly evokes the political and social climate that enabled this style to flourish in a country that before World War II had not embraced modernism—except for its industrial manifestations—as fully as Germany, France, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Scandinavia.)

Like so many other aspects of twentieth-century architecture, the origins of Brutalism can be traced directly back to Le Corbusier, whose pronouncement that “l’architecture, c’est avec des matières brutes établir des rapports émouvants” (architecture is the establishing of moving relationships with raw materials) became the veritable gospel of the Brutalists. After he and Pierre Jeanneret completed their stunning series of machine-like Purist villas of the 1920s and early 1930s, the Swiss-French architect became deeply disillusioned with the creative limitations of rationalism and began a decisive turn toward rougher materials and biomorphic forms. These were first seen in his expressive use of concrete at the Pavillon Suisse student housing at the Cité Internationale Universitaire in Paris (1930–1931), and then even more evident in his Villa Le Sextant (1935) in Les Mathes, France, with its rough stone rubble walls that point to the self-consciously primitive aesthetic of Brutalism.

Le Corbusier’s long-standing fascination with vernacular culture, amply displayed in his 1911 diary of travels through Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe (posthumously published as Le Voyage d’Orient), was further strengthened by his friendship with Fernand Léger, who likewise idealized folk traditions and sought a similar vitality in his own art as he, too, moved away from an earlier technological aesthetic and toward a vigorous, less refined late style. Although Le Corbusier’s theories had a profound influence on the thinking of several generations of British architects, their built works seldom rose to the master’s level, unlike their contemporary counterparts in Brazil and other South American countries—including Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, and Lina Bo Bardi—who used raw concrete with a joyous bravado and sensual abandon rarely seen in British Brutalism.

At times, Brutalism could bring out the best in lesser architects whose work before and after that phase does not seem as interesting, perhaps most notably I.M. Pei. His firm’s early jobs for the real-estate developer William Zeckendorf Sr. were rather dull sub-Miesian efforts, while his late-career dependence on cautiously segmented and genteely manipulated geometries exhibited considerable technical suavity but little conceptual inventiveness. However, during the 1960s the Pei office produced three of his strongest designs, all in a Brutalist mode: the multitowered National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado (1961–1967), which owes a clear debt to Kahn’s Richards labs; the monolithic Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York (1965–1968), influenced by Minimalist sculpture; and the shadowbox-like Sculpture Wing of the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa (1966–1968), Corbusian in its framing. With this trio of relatively small but monumentally scaled structures, Pei achieved a rare and surprising balance between powerful expression and humane feeling unseen elsewhere in his extensive oeuvre.

Contrary to the grungy, pockmarked, damp-stained concrete surfaces typical of most Brutalist buildings, the exteriors of these three Pei structures are smoothly rendered, the difference owing to the careful craftsmanship of wooden casting molds much more finely finished than usual and often approaching the quality of furniture. (This exacting construction would remain a hallmark of the Pei office and is epitomized by its Grand Louvre expansion of 1983–1993 in Paris, where the perfectionist concrete is indistinguishable from tightly grained limestone.) Furthermore, the concrete for the Boulder laboratory was mixed with finely ground local red sandstone to harmonize with the surrounding mountainous terrain, whereas that for the Syracuse gallery was similarly augmented with particles of the region’s native gray granite. These grace notes strengthen compositional clarity without seeming overly precious, not unlike the work of Tadao Ando, today’s foremost adept of elegant concrete construction, who is often though incorrectly regarded as a neo-Brutalist.

The reasons why particular building styles are so prevalent in certain cities—such as Byzantine in Ravenna, Gothic in Bruges, or Modernisme (the Catalan variant of Art Nouveau) in Barcelona—are always rooted in economics and politics. When stability and prosperity attract growing populations and necessitate much new construction within short periods, uncommon architectural coherence emerges. In post–World War II America, the dynamic was rather the opposite, as rapid suburbanization pushed several big cities, financially hard hit since the Great Depression, further into decline.

To stem the erosion of their tax base, municipalities including Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Boston embarked on comprehensive plans to transform their run-down central districts. The New Boston initiative of the 1960s—led by the city’s mayor for most of that decade, John F. Collins, and implemented by Edward J. Logue, prime mover of the Boston Redevelopment Authority—coincided with the apogee of Brutalism and explains why that city became this country’s foremost repository of this short-lived style.

As Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley document in their excellent history Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, the roster of designers enlisted to recast the creaking Hub of the Universe as an up-to-date metropolis included several of the biggest names in twentieth-century architecture: Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius (then chief partner in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, firm The Architects Collaborative), Josep Lluís Sert, Breuer, Pei, and Rudolph. By and large, though, the results were less than wonderful. The nexus of this undertaking was Government Center, a fifty-six-acre site just to the west of the Colonial-era Faneuil Hall and the nineteenth-century Quincy Market. This tripartite modern forum comprised the John F. Kennedy Federal Building by The Architects Collaborative (1961–1966); Boston City Hall by Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles (1962–1969); and the concrete superblock of Rudolph’s Government Service Center (1962–1971).

The semi-enclosed street-level spaces beneath Rudolph’s ponderous and overbearing ensemble—its public concourse recalls Piranesi’s imaginary prisons without his sense of fantasy—provides an object lesson in how seemingly infinite volumes can nonetheless feel alarmingly claustrophobic. As much as a new generation of Rudolph zealots may hope for a wider reappreciation of his designs, his posthumous upgrading seems unlikely to be helped by the Government Service Center’s depressing hulk, with its jumbled undercarriage of sequoia-like columns, bulging balconies, and undulating stairways, all rendered in vertically corrugated textures of the hammered concrete that became his trademark.3 (The center’s proposed twenty-three-story office tower and a series of surrounding terraces were never executed because of funding cutbacks as the Great Society gave way to the Vietnam War.)

The high-rise Kennedy Federal Building was a wan performance by the Gropius firm, which had just inflicted the dreadful Pan Am Building (1960–1963) on New York City. None of the New Boston projects won as much critical praise as Boston City Hall, which was widely hailed upon its completion as the finest American public building of the postwar period. But this top-heavy citadel, on the former site of the raffish Scollay Square nightlife quarter, came to be seen by the public as forbidding and indeed hostile, and in recent years there have been repeated calls for its demolition and replacement with a more welcoming symbol of civic engagement.

The finest of the New Boston designs was a little gem commissioned by a private institution: Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts on the Harvard campus in Cambridge (1958–1963). One of only two works he executed in the Western Hemisphere (the other was a postwar house in Argentina), the Carpenter Center shows just how rich and attractive the Brutalist vocabulary could be in the right hands. This five-story structure, squeezed into a narrow site, juxtaposes grid-like masses (which contain art studios) against sinuous ondulatures (walkways that slice through the exterior) and a dramatically cranked ramp that rises from the sidewalk to the entrance on the building’s second level. Both in its piquant ground plan and in its lively elevations, this marvelously collaged composition’s play of linear and curving elements brings to mind Picasso’s guitar sculptures of 1912–1914, while the invigorating marche Le Corbusier leads through these powerful concrete volumes is akin to the kinetic internal circulation patterns of Alvar Aalto, unsurpassed in his intuitive understanding of how to convey delight by movement through space.

The postmillennial comeback of Brutalism is not surprising, given today’s worldwide vogue for strenuously exhibitionistic architecture enabled by computer design, which has resulted in grotesque behemoths far stranger than anything achievable through the relatively low-tech means of concrete construction. Some older observers will see this fascination with grandiosity and ugliness as the return of the repressed, a reminder of why Brutalism fell into disfavor and disrepute in the first place.

This was never a style that attempted to convey warmth, comfort, intimacy, or other qualities we tend to associate with an enjoyable way of life, and thus it never won much love except from architectural specialists. Brutalism posited an unsentimental, not to say harsh, view of the modern world, and however heroic its unflinching embodiment of hard realities may have been, most people do not enjoy a daily diet of architectural anxiety and alienation, especially in northern climates under cloudy skies.

One of the first signs of rejection came in J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise (1975), which is set in a thinly fictionalized version of Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in London’s North Kensington (1966–1972). (It is one of fifty-four sites highlighted in the Brutalist London Map, a useful guide to landmarks of the style in the British capital.) This thirty-one-story apartment block, commissioned by the Greater London Council, was based on Le Corbusier’s original Unité in Marseilles, although Goldfinger’s scheme is nearly twice as high as its prototype. Trellick Tower was well received by its first inhabitants, but as was also true of contemporaneous public housing projects in the United States, it quickly went to pot as funds for its upkeep and security were slashed, which resulted in a rapid descent into crime and squalor.

Neoconservative critics blamed the architecture, but as sociological studies have since proven, the claim that tall residential complexes breed social malaise is groundless. After Trellick Tower was privatized in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher got the British government out of the public housing business, the building’s owner-residents increased protection from intruders, paid for long-delayed repairs, and it is now a highly desirable property rightly appreciated for its design quality. Ironically enough, it stands as Thatcher’s unwitting contribution to preserving the built legacy of the munificent welfare state she worked so hard to destroy through her own distinctive brand of brutalism.

Letters

Buffalo Brutalism December 29, 2016

  1. 1

    See Witold Rybczynski, “The Triumph of a Distinguished Failure,” The New York Review, October 21, 2004. 

  2. 2

    See my “Smash It: Who Cares?,” The New York Review, November 8, 2012. 

  3. 3

    See my “The Hard Case of Paul Rudolph,” The New York Review, February 5, 2015.