Want to know your structuralism from your deconstructivism, and your neo-gothicism from your classical rococo? Need a small refresher, or perhaps interested in learning a little more about architecture? Try our crash courses in architectural styles! This week: brutalism. Born out of the destruction of the Second World War, brutalism had a short-lived burst of popularity between the 1950s and the mid-1970s and is associated most with European mass housing projects and public buildings.
World War II left Europe in a sombre recession, with little money and memories of the horrors that had occurred still fresh in people’s minds. The dominant architectural style following the war was Modernism, but some found it too light and whimsical and looked to develop a style that would reflect a more serious and formal mood within society. The development of the welfare system within British society and the rebuilding of many public and housing structures that had been destroyed meant that mass construction projects were underway, but the self-consciously modern style of humanist Modernism was criticised for being frivolous and parodying pre-war architecture. Brutalism was thus born, pioneered in Britain by Peter and Alison Smithson, and by Le Corbusier in France. The term ‘brutalism’ comes from ‘béton brut’ (‘raw concrete’), the technique that Le Corbusier used in many of his post-war projects. There is, however, ideology within the use of rough and unadorned building material, particularly concrete; it is symbolic of ‘the strength and solidarity of the working classes’, and thus brutalism has been accused of middle class patronisation and socialist leanings. This is particularly evident in the co-opting of brutalism for post-war inner city housing, public structures and welfare state buildings. Unfortunately, brutalism’s association with large-scale inner city housing led to public associations with urban issues such as crime and poverty, and the fact that concrete facades tend not to weather well in the British climate led to the style quickly falling out of fashion. Commentators termed it as ugly and unfriendly, and its shunning of aesthetics in favour of function meant that brutalist structures tended to disregard their surroundings, sitting alien and heavy within urban landscapes. Many structures from the 1960s and 1970s have been demolished to make way for more sympathetic structures. Lately, however, brutalism has been undergoing somewhat of a revival, with several large brutalist structures, such as the Rotunda in Birmingham and Sheffield’s Park Hill estate, being renovated for the modern market.
Brutalism relies on a heavy and formal style, often incorporating heavy linear shapes and geometric structures. Whilst brutalism is most often associated with concrete, there have been brick, glass, steel, stone and gabion used in brutalist structures, and not all heavy concrete structures can be considered brutalist. The key is in the form – brutalism is not so much anti-aesthetics, but pro-function, with simplicity and honesty vital to the design. Reynar Banham described the movement as making ‘the whole conception of the building plain and comprehensible. No mystery, no romanticism, no obscurities about function and circulation’. Like modernism, brutalism aims for honesty in its materials and its design, plainly showcasing raw concrete, steel and glazing without ornamentation.
Unite d’Habitation by Le Corbusier; Photo: Dom Dada
In terms of its look, a standard brutalist structure will feature repeating geometric patterns and grid shapes with long, heavy horizontal or vertical lines. An overall bulky or blocky appearance is usual, and structures are often oversized – for example, housing estates or public buildings. Commonly, the building’s functions are separated and featured in the building’s exterior, including services, which are often separated from the main part of the building and are either displayed externally or as part of a separate services area. Examples of this would be Peter and Alison Smithson’s Hunstanton School, where a water tank has been placed prominently in a tower rather than hidden away, or Trellick Tower in London, which has its services housed in a separate but adjacent block, connected by a series of suspended walkways. Commonly amongst early brutalist structures, the building itself is raised off the ground on heavy concrete stilts in order to elevate it from the decay of the city below. Ironically, many brutalist structures have not weathered well, and are themselves now decaying.
BRUTALISM IN PRACTICE
Royal National Theatre; Photo: Man Vyi
One of the most famous examples of brutalism in the UK would be the Royal National Theatre in London, the brainchild of Sir Denis Lasdun who had also designed for a number of university buildings, including the Institute of Education at the University of London. Opened in 1976, the theatre was controversial from the start, with Prince Charles proclaiming the design ‘a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting’. Its use of raw concrete both inside and out, the heavy, angular style with suspended walkways and long parallel horizontal lines typifies the brutalist approach to style and aesthetics, although some have suggested that it bears more resemblance to Le Corbusier’s earlier modernist works. It is now a Grade II listed building, and has earned the achievement of being in both Britain’s top ten ‘Most Loved’ and ‘Most Hated’ buildings in numerous opinion surveys.
Balfron Tower; Photo: John Levett
Balfron Tower, designed in 1963, is also a Grade II listed building located in the East End of London. It was designed by Ernõ Goldfinger, who made his name pioneering high-rise inner city tower blocks. Balfron Tower was one of his earlier towers, and features a separate services tower that houses lifts, laundry rooms, rubbish chutes and a boiler room, connected to the residential block via a series of suspended walkways) at every third floor. The identikit, geometric and symmetrical nature of the housing in the tower is modelled on the idea of working class terraced housing – the suspended walkways were referred to as ‘streets in the sky’ to reinforce this idea. Goldfinger was so pleased with the design that he moved into one of the flats on the 25th floor, inviting residents to come and tell him their like and dislikes about the tower. Later on, he took this information and applied it to the similar and more famous Trellick Tower in west London. Balfron Tower, along with its sister development Carradale House, is now the subject of massive renovation through English Heritage and architectural firm PRP, with the final phase of refurbishment due to start in the late summer of 2011.
Geisel Library; Photo: Ben Lunsford
Not all brutalist buildings are confined to Europe; the Geisel Library is one of the most famous examples of brutalism in the world, and has appeared in films such as Inception and Mission Impossible, most often as a futuristic fortress-style structure. It was designed in the late 1960s and has an eerie beauty, showcasing cold and sleek glazing amongst the rough concrete ‘lantern’ design. Located at the University of California San Diego, it now features within the UCSD logo, and is the most prominent building on site. Its construction on concrete ‘stilts’ harks back to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, which was supported on stilts to supposedly raise it above the decay of the city around it.
Habitat 67; Photo: Gene Arboit
Finally, brutalist mass housing doesn’t have to look like a typical inner city tower block. Designed by Moshe Safdie for Expo 67, Habitat 67 was a thematic pavilion and temporary residence for Canada’s Expo 67, and displayed a revolutionary view of future affordable city housing in an increasingly crowded world. Made up of modular, interlocking concrete forms, each house exists separately but in close quarters to each other, creating a community of homes that, unlike traditional flats, each had their own private garden. Once the Expo finished, private owners took up residency in the housing complex. Originally, the complex was set to become larger but was never expanded; due to high demand, each unit is now much more expensive than originally envisioned.