A Few Thoughts on Brutalism

Whether I'm teaching architectural history here in Wyoming, or in the summer when I travel to Europe with students, it's becoming more and more important to help them understand Brutalism.  Why is Brutalism of interest right now?  A few reasons.  Many buildings of that type are reaching 50 years old and therefore they are potentially historic.  Many are threatened due to the need for major maintenance.  And, these buildings are aesthetically challenging.  Is it fair to say that people generally hate Brutalist buildings?

As a historian, here are a few points on Brutalism that I think are important.

1) For starters, the term Brutalism is derived from the French beton brut, meaning "raw concrete."  The name of the style celebrates its materiality.

2) Brutalism is an extension of modernism.  Although the classic International-Style modernism of the 1920s was concerned with lightness and transparency, and Brutalism was not, these are the consistencies: regular, expressed structure; an 'honesty' in the use of materials; the free plan; and of course the absence of applied ornament.  

3) Brutalism, it seems to me, is principally about the expression of permanence.  If Le Corbusier's use of breton brut at the Unite D'Habitation is accepted as the genesis of the style, then it was born immediately after World War II.  Its appeal in London then corresponds to the fact that London was bombed.  In the US its appeal was probably more strongly aligned with the Cold War and the fear of nuclear attack.  In short, Brutalism expresses the record of 20th century history.  

4) Brutalism was accompanied by its twin, the high-tech architecture of the space age.  In art history, this is the famous Flintstones-Jetsons dichotomy; a time when art looked to the prehistoric past and the simulated future.  The Brutalists are the Flintstones and Richard Rogers (at the Pompidou and Lloyd's) is the Jetsons.  In times of great anxiety, people tend to want to escape to another time.

5) In the US, Brutalism was also used as tool of institutional authority.  For example, some college campuses built after 1968 were designed to deter student protests.  Storke Plaza at UC-Santa Barbara (1969) is an excellent example in my opinion.  In cases like Boston City Hall, the placement and scale of the building in an open monotlithic hardscape puts its citizen-subjects in a vulnerable position of surveillance and control.


London is surely the best city to study Brutalism,  Here is the classic Brutalist itinerary for London:

  •     Royal National Theatre, Denys Lasdun (1967–76), shown above
  •     Barbican Estate, Chamberlin, Powell & Bon (1965-76)
  •     St. Giles Hotel, Ellworth Sykes (1977)
  •     University of London buildings, Denys Lasdun (1970s)
  •     The Economist Building, Alison and Peter Smithson (1959–65)
  •     Robin Hood Gardens, Alison and Peter Smithson (1966-72) --- demolition pending
  •     United States Embassy, Eero Saarinen (1955-60)

See also: A Perfect Map For Exploring London's Brutalist Buildings

In America, these are the canonical Brutalist buildings in my opinion:

  •     Boston City Hall, Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles (1962-68), shown above
        note: fans of this building must watch Scorsese's The Departed, shown below
  •     Buildings at Saint John’s University, Marcel Breuer (1955-75)
  •     Yale Art and Architecture Building, Paul Rudolph (1958-63)
  •     Salk Institute, Louis Kahn (1960-63)
  •     Wurster Hall at UC-Berkeley, Vernon DeMars, Donald Olsen, and Joseph Esherick (1958-64)
  •     Robarts Library, Mathers & Haldenby Architects (1968-73)