They make up your libraries, your city halls, your apartments, and buildings around university campuses all across North America. In Hollywood, they love to use these buildings to depict dystopian futures. Despite all the hate, there seems to be a small group of very enthusiastic fans who seem to love Brutalism. Even more, it is beginning to gain popularity with the general public. On Instagram, #brutalism has almost 800K photos and it’s also one of the few architectural styles that has its own reddit subthread (/brutalism)
Most important of all, it’s been embraced by Kanye West.
Brutalism came into popularity in the 60s to the end of the 70s. It was named for its use of unfinished raw concrete, which in french, translates into ‘béton brut’ in French.
Here, I will describe three main reasons that led to its mass popularity.
In the 1920s, concrete construction was popping up everywhere, in buildings, bridges, roads… It was seen as a material that could change the world. It was cheap, it was readily available in massive quantities, it could span huge distances and because it starts in a liquid state, could be formed into any shape that the architect desired.
Did you know that concrete is the second most consumed product in the world, after water?
After the Second World War, the British government wanted to rebuild a broken country by creating a wellfare system and the perception of social change. They hired architects and funneled a lot of money into creating this new democratic vision to represent ideas about what the future could look like.
At the same time, a new architectural style was emerging.
The 1950’s was marked by an architectural movement called the International Style (we can discuss this in a different post), where the German architect Mies van der Rohe, famously said, “less is more”. You’ve probably heard that phrase before.
The whole movement was a breaking away from symbols or traditions, letting the design come from the functional or structural components of a building. Without the cost of manual labor required for these delicate details, the idea was that this would lower the construction costs, and therefore, creating a democratic building type for everyone. These buildings tended to be made of simple geometries, monolithic and were often made of industrial materials like steel and glass.
They became the popular style for corporate offices, towers, and it set the stage for many of the glass towers we see going up today.
This movement became very popular very fast BUT, it saw a turning point in the 70s.
The original principle of the International Style was ‘finding beauty in honesty’, and they prided themselves in using industrial building methods, emphasizing these construction details for everyone to see. (unlike the styles that came before them, which covered them all up.) However, it turned out that when these buildings were put together, they were actually concealing and hand-crafting a lot of the finishing details, to achieve these perfect, smooth surfaces, which was the International Style’s aesthetic of choice. Of course, this wasn’t the realistic representation of industrial construction.
Some architects of the movement believed that they were failing the original philosophy of “form follows function”.
This led to a new movement, which eventually became Brutalism.
They wanted their buildings to show exactly how they were built, what they were built out of, and what their functions were. The buildings were left unclad and the concrete structure was left exposed in its raw state.
Interestingly enough, to achieve this raw, unfinished look, these architects were going into the concrete and either bush-hammering or sand-blasting it, which added to the manual labor.
So the combination of these factors led to the birth of Brutalism.
These early Brutalists architects believed they were creating enhanced human experience, spaces for democracy. They prioritized the public spaces, and put in massive atriums and balconies that would spill out onto walkways; they had open stairwells and corridors that people could roam around; they had lots of windows and skylights for natural light; and at last, lots and lots of water features and planters.
By the 1970s, Brutalist buildings were popping up not only in the UK, but in other parts of the world as well. They made up a big chunk of institutional buildings - city halls, libraries, housing developments, university campuses, emphasizing this beautiful idea of democracy in a wellfare state.
These were all good ideas in theory, but the problems came a few years into their operation.
These huge atriums and water features take up valuable floor area but don’t generate any income and they are actually extremely expensive to maintain. Also, they generally weren't used that much by people. Instead, these open spaces with multiple access points brought in unwanted activities.
Habitat 67 is a good example. Habitat 67 was a very successful housing development built in Montreal for the 1967 world’s fair. Beautiful interiors spaces and private gardens but the public space was just awful. When I was there, I saw an ominous object that looked like a horses leg.. Just floating around in the public area! wth!
Concrete itself, although at that time, was believed to be an indestructible material, deteriorates and weathers over time. The lack of maintenance on these buildings really took a toll, making them look dirty and terrible. On top of all that, it was the marriage of Brutalism with one particular building type that gave it its bad name.
Brutalism became popular during the era of Urban Renewal, which was a phase in planning where municipalities were tearing out existing neighborhoods and replacing them with planned developments, in an attempt to clear out slums and replace them with new housing or businesses.
Because it was cheap and efficient to build in concrete, many of these developments were built in the ‘Brutalist style’. I won’t go into the number of planning, design and economic reasons, why so many Urban Renewal projects failed so terribly, but when they did, Brutalism got linked to the movement, gaining an even worse reputation for itself.
By the end of the 70s, Brutalism became linked to urban decay and deterioration.
Today, many Brutalist buildings are facing demolition.
They’re run down, they consume a lot of energy, and it’s difficult to retrofit them with new functions because they have very rigid layouts.
In a lot of areas, zoning has changed since they’ve been built and for developers, it’s easier to tear them down and get an extra storey in, rather than deal with the cost and technical challenges of renovating them. They’re not quite old enough to be protected by a heritage status and if you haven’t guessed already, there isn’t a lot of public support for keeping them around.
However, as studies have shown, it’s wasteful to demolish and rebuild.
A study looking into demolishing the Boston City Hall (because it was so hated by its citizens) found that it would require a nuclear-grade weapon to destroy the building due to the sheer mass of it. Plus, I think it’s an important part of our history. I think we will regret tearing them down.
This brings me to my last point. In the past decade, there has been a slow but steady increase in the interest in Brutalist buildings. There’s always been that subculture of architects and architectural enthusiasts who have been interested in Brutalism but now, there seems to be a growing interest in the general public, and I think that’s thanks to photo sharing apps like Instagram and Tumblr.
Brutalist buildings photograph extremely well, especially as a minimalist backdrop. The rugged texture, the sharp geometry and the intense light conditions, make them perfect subjects or backdrops. More than ever before, we consume architecture through the screen rather than in person. So when we see the single shot of a building that we never have to visit or live in, we are suddenly drawn to their radical quality.
Maybe the appreciation for Brutalist buildings is more at the surface level but it does seem like it’s having on effect on the actual buildings. Developers, who are seeing their value, are retrofitting them and marketing them as luxury condos.
These Brutalist architects may have failed in creating the democratic vision that they wanted, but now it looks like they’re making a comeback.
So what do you think?
Do you love them?
Do you hate them?!
Do you think you could learn to love these brutes?