Brutalist architecture

Exposed concrete and strong geometric lines are key features of Brutalism, as seen here in the High Court of Australia

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] It 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 1910s, 1920s and 1930s architecture. 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 obtaining listed status.


Villa Göth (1950) in Kåbo, Uppsala, Sweden. "New Brutalism" was used for the first time to describe this house.

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] 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 the 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 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 and 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' Robin Hood Gardens, completed in 1972, Brutalism was promoted as a positive option for forward-moving, modern urban housing.

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