Brutalist architecture

James Rippon James Rippon
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Following on from our article that traced the history of architecture movements, we decided to continue this impromptu lesson in twentieth century architecture with this ideabook that looks at the brutalist movement. A controversial era, which had its moments of glory during the 50s, 60s and 70s, has indeed had a profound impact on the world stage of contemporary design. It is characterised by dark, raw materials, mainly concrete, as well as exposed steel and glass.

Brutalism came about in the post WWII era in Britain and Europe, as many buildings were destroyed during the war, and rebuilding cities needed to be done in a prompt and economical manner. The word brutalism is not derived from the English word brutal, but rather from the French term béton brut, or raw concrete. Brutalism is not without its critics, often described as cold and soulless, while many see it at as natural progression in architecture, and necessary for its time. Although the brutalist movement was all but dead during the 1980s, it has seen a resurgence in contemporary architecture. Whether you are a fan of its buildings or not, it is sure to be a prominent figure in many cities for years to come.

Material of choice: concrete

The material of choice for brutalist enthusiasts is concrete: an economic and simple solution, it is readily available and is an affordable building material. It is for this reason, that many buildings found in European cities today are built using the brutalist style. As mentioned earlier, this is due to the need for many cities needing to be rebuilt post WWII. It facilitated both commercial and housing stock to be constructed in a short space of time and in a cost effective way. 

Despite concrete's raw appearance and unassuming facade, architects today are able to layer and texture the material, giving it an appeal all of its own. 

Other brutalism materials

Concrete is indeed not the only material characteristic of brutalist buildings. Exposed brick was also often used, giving the same cold, raw feel of exposed concrete.  A great example of brutalism in its modern form can be seen here, at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, designed by acclaimed architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. This building is a perfect example of exposing the building materials of steel and glass in their raw form, to create their own beauty in a modern, brutalist scene. 

Brutalism forms

Brutalist buildings all have similar characteristics that make them easily recognisable, one of which is the sheer size of the structures. As brutalist buildings are formed using simple building materials, often the end result is a creation of repetitive geometric shapes, almost Cartesian. Despite this trend, some architects of the movement, such as Marcel Breuer, included curved shapes to soften the facade of their buildings. The repetition of shapes and constructive elements in these buildings creates a rhythm that gives these often huge structures, a simple beauty all of their own. Pictured here is striking example of the brutalist movement- a building in Beirut, Lebanon, designed by architect Bernard Khoury.

Brutalism today

The Brutalist movement was all but finished by the 1980s, leaving its legacy in modern architecture. During its later years of existence, following criticism at the time, several Brutalist architects adapted their projects by giving them a more welcoming softness, whilst still maintaining their size. On the other hand, many contemporary projects have reclaimed the previously abandoned brutalist buildings, and have given them a modern touch with colours and more visually appealing materials. Coupled with the teachings of modernism and minimalism, many lessons of brutalism are still today used by contemporary architects to create projects with strong lines and vivid materials.

Critical reception

Although brutalism will always have its supporters, the movement has also many critics. What a brutalist supporter may see as a monumental project that exacerbates social passions and redefines the aesthetics of architectural space, others see it as a series of concrete monsters too inhospitable and aging badly, often left abandoned. Some critics go as far as associating the cold face facade of raw, weathered concrete as a symbol of the totalitarian political movements of the time. While some architects will shy away from Brutalist buildings, forever relating them to the Eastern Bloc and communism, other architects will embrace their existence, and use their blank facades to restore the look of cities throughout the word, by adding colour and texture to the buildings that were once aged and lifeless. 

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