Brutalist architecture, or Brutalism, is an architectural style which emerged in the mid-20th century. It is characterized by simple, block-like structures and bare building materials such as exposed concrete and brick.
The term “Brutalism” was coined in association with béton brut, meaning raw concrete in French. The style descended from the modernist architecture of the turn of the century and embodied an architectural philosophy which was often associated with a socialist utopian ideology: by a desire to improve the condition of every member of society, by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments.
Close to home for me, examples of the Brutalist style are Queensland Art Gallery and more famous global icons include the Barbican Centre and National Theatre in London, UK and Boston City Hall, USA.
It gained momentum in the United Kingdom during the 1950s as economically depressed, World War II-ravaged, communities sought inexpensive construction and design for housing, shopping centres, and government buildings. However, the movement as a whole, has drawn a range of criticism including from Charles, Prince of Wales, who denounced Brutalist structures as,
“piles of concrete”.
Indeed the style is unappealing due to its “cold” appearance, and association of the buildings with urban decay. The forms can project an atmosphere of totalitarianism while the concrete easily becomes streaked with water stains, moss and lichens, and rust stains from the steel reinforcing bars. Cladding can be applied to improve the appearance of the exterior however has increased fire risks; as exemplified in the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire disaster.
How can architecture modeled on a philosophy of utopian desire to improve society, become so dystopian?
In his essay ‘The Feeling of Things: Towards an Architecture of Emotions‘, Peter St. John writes,
The choice of a building’s construction, its material and its structure, has a direct effect on the emotional character of its spaces. Although discussions of construction often centre on issues of performance and technique, ultimately construction is about appearance.
Brutalist architecture is an interesting study of the intersection between philosophy, politics, history, economics and art. We humans are affected by the building we inhabit, and which make up our towns and out cities, the stories and ideologies they embody and the emotion and character of their space.