A descendant of the modernist movement, Brutalist architecture emerged in the UK amongst reconstruction projects during the immediate post-war years. For decades these imposing raw concrete structures have polarised architects, critics, historians, and the public alike, with some praising it for its functionality, and some criticising it for its bare, rugged forms. Here we’ve rounded up some of the most iconic brutalist buildings around the world.
TEXT: Kate Lok
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
At a time when most of the world was desperately looking for ways to recover from the devastations of World War II, Brutalism—with its emphasis on the bare minimum materials, textures, and structural elements to produce highly expressive forms—emerged, exploding into unexpected popularity. The term Brutalism was first coined by British architecture critic Reyner Banham to describe the approach to building particularly associated with British architects Peter and Alison Smithson during the 1950s and 1960s, which generally consists of exposed, unpainted concrete or brick, angular geometric shapes and a monochromatic colour scheme, although other materials, such as steel, timber, and glass, were also featured.
Beneath their uber-cool, monolithic forms (and a rather unflattering moniker), the rise of Brutalism stems from its impactful underlying morale. Broadly conceived, it signified a new approach to architecture that reflected social ideals, industrial and vernacular means, and human-centric goals. As Banham puts it in his 1966 book, The New Brutalism, Brutalism was an attempt to create an architectural ethic, rather than an aesthetic.
In recent years, we are witnessing a return of interest in Brutalist architecture, not only among architects and conservationists, but also among the wider public. Not least thanks to its immensely popular hashtag #brutalism and the huge following on Instagram accounts like @cats_of_brutalism. Social media friendliness aside, this rebirth seems to signify a desire to return to the social role of architecture by looking back on an era of when avant-garde architects and designers, instead of competing for the next developer showpiece, were invited to build with the public in mind.
Whether you love it or hate it, there is no denying the lasting impact of these bulky, concrete structures on modern architecture, and here a few that you should know about.
La Cité Radieuse
La Cité Radieuse, known colloquially as “La maison du fada” (the house of the mad), is Le Corbusier’s famous mammoth building in Marseilles built from 1947 to 1952, and was the first and most famous of his Unité d’Habitation series of housing projects that focused on communal living for the working class. The building is constructed with a reinforced concrete framework (as the steel frame the design originally called for was too expensive due to the post-war steel shortage), fitted with modular apartments. Strictly speaking, it is not what is widely considered as brutalist architecture, but shared a similar philosophy which laid the framework for future Brutalist projects, and was enormously influential on housing estates implemented in the latter half of the century.
Husband-wife architect duo Alison and Peter Smithson, often regarded as influential practitioners of Brutalism, designed the former Hunstanton School, currently Smithdon High School, in 1954. The design was simple and straightforward, characterised by its rough brick, steel frame and glass façade, and its interior fit-out relies on prefabricated, customary industrial products. Banham cited the school as the first structure to bring to life the concept of Brutalism, and wrote that, “The school of Hunstanton is sincere about its construction. The building seems to be made of glass, brick and concrete and is, in fact, made of those materials.”
The Barbican Estate
No Brutalist architecture roundup will be complete without a mention of The Barbican Estate, or Barbican, a 40-acre residential complex of around 2,000 flats, maisonettes, and houses located in the City of London. Currently a Grade II-listed building, it is one of the largest examples of British brutalist architecture and a symbol of the post-war utopian ideal for city living. Designed in the 1950s by British firm Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, its coarse concrete surfaces, elevated gardens and multipurpose configuration set a new standard for how high-density residential complexes can be integrated with commercial, education, hospitality and cultural purposes. Although designs were finalised by 1959, constructions lasted through the following two decades, and was only officially opened by the Queen in 1982, who dubbed it as “one of the modern wonders of the world”.
Habitat 67 is a model community and housing complex located in Montreal, Canada. The idiosyncratic stacks of concrete boxes originated from Israeli-Canadian-American architect Moshe Safdie’s masters thesis, where he drew up an experimental solution for high-quality and durable housing solutions in dense urban environments. Safdie’s idea was later realised as the Canadian Pavilion for the 1967 World Expo, and quickly became one of the country’s most recognisable buildings. Arranged in a pixelated mass connected by steel cables are 354 prefabricated concrete boxes, each equip with private outdoor spaces. The unique modular structure was a far cry from the traditional form of orthogonal high-rises, and allowed qualities which were unprecedented for a 12-storey apartment building—such as private roof gardens, fresh air, and maximum natural light. After Habitat 67 was realised, Safdie went on to design different versions of Habitat for cities such as New York, Baltimore, Jerusalem, and Puerto Rico, but they were never realised.
Boston City Hall
Boston, Massachusetts, US
The brainchild of three Columbia University professors, Gerhard Kallmann, Michael McKinnell, and Edward Knowles, as part of an international competition to design Boston City Hall. The building was completed in 1968 as an expression of open and progressive municipal government, and is recognised as one of the most important examples of brutalist architecture in North America. Structurally, the city hall is divided into three main entities for both aesthetical and functional reasons to separate public and private spaces. While public response towards the building is highly controversial, it was undoubtedly a benevolent addition to the people of Boston, guaranteeing free access through its porous perimeters that reflected the basis of American democracy.