Vector line drawing of the Leeds University Lecture Theatre, also known as Roger Stevens Hall
Vector line drawing of the Leeds University Lecture Theatre, also known as Roger Stevens Hall
The Style
British architectural critic Reyner Banham defines the style and its name when he publishes “The New Brutalism” in Architectural Review.
December, 1955
Brutalism is defined by its honesty-- the name comes from "béton brut," French for "raw concrete," a term used by famed architect and Brutalist master Le Corbusier to describe his preferred material.
Reyner Banham described the basic tenets of Brutalism as follows:
  • 1. Formal legibility of plan
  • 2. clear exhibition of structure
  • 3. valuation of materials for their inherent qualities ‘as found.’

While raw concrete was the favored material of Brutalism-- often roughened with pickaxes, faces with mosaic chips, or showing the woodgrain of the casting mold-- any material shown in its natural state may qualify, and such diverse materials as steel, glass, brick, and stone have been used to great effect in Brutalist constructions.

Brutalism tends towards massive forms that clearly delineate purpose and structure. Blocks of stacked rectangles, repetitive angular protrusions, and thick, slablike curves abound.
“In the last resort what characterizes the New Brutalism in architecture […] is precisely its brutality, its je-m’en-foutisme, its bloody-mindedness.” [Banham, “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Review (December 1955)]
The Movement
ca. 1950-1990
Begun by French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier and quickly picked up, codified, and named by English architect duo Alison and Peter Smithson, Brutalism was not simply an aesthetic movement-- it was an ethical movement.

Le Corbusier, the grandfather of the Brutalist ethic, made clear the social motivations of his work in his extensive theoretical writings on architecture. The manifesto of Brutalism, cobbled together from his works, might well read something like this:
"It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest of today: architecture or revolution.
Modern life demands, and is waiting for, a new kind of plan, both for the house and the city.
[On his plan for the capital city of the Punjab province of India.]
The city of Chandigarh is planned to human scale. It puts us in touch with the infinite cosmos and nature. It provides us with places and buildings for all human activities by which the citizens can live a full and harmonious life. Here the radiance of nature and heart are within our reach.
The truthfulness of materials of constructions, concrete, bricks and stone, shall be maintained in all buildings constructed or to be constructed.
The seed of Chandigarh is well sown. It is for the citizens to see that the tree flourishes."
“Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work. Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.” [Alison and Peter Smithson, “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Design (April 1957)]
The Legacy
From love to hate and back again, Brutalism inspires fierce feelings on both ends of the spectrum.
It has been labeled monstrous, inhuman, and totalitarian-- a far cry from the sensitive, egalitarian, and deeply humanist principles which informed the design of the structures. For the generation that lived through the rebuilding of a war-torn London, the hulking concrete blocks are a hideous departure from the classic lines that made up the beloved city of old.

Perhaps the most damning denunciation of Brutalism came from Charles, Prince of Wales, at a December 1987 Corporation of London Planning and Communication Committee dinner: "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe-- when it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble."

Concrete does not age gracefully without care, and the crumbling monoliths of the postwar boom represented a failed dream for many; but a younger generation has taken up the banner to save the much-maligned behemoths.

Taken with the very principles that made Brutalism famous in its heyday, “the 21st-century reappraisal of brutalism is partly an attempt to re-invoke pre-1979 values of social democracy – even though the ‘democracy’ wasn’t necessarily all it was cracked up to be.”
"Any piece of architecture worth being called architecture is usually both hated and loved." Rodney Gordon
The Buildings
Thousands of buildings throughout the world may be classified as Brutalist, but some stand out more than others.
Unité d'Habitation
Le Corbusier
Marseille, France | Berlin, Germany
1952 | 1957
photograph of the left half of the front facade of Corbusierhaus, the unite d'habitation of Berlin
Technically referring to a residential housing principle developed by Corbusier in collaboration with Nadir Afonso, unité d'habitation is also the name of several works by Corbusier following this principle.

Two of the earliest and most famous examples of this principle are in Marseille and Berlin. These colossal communal housing projects are often seen as the buildings that truly kicked off the Brutalist style.

They have spawned countless imitations, many of which failed to recreate the roomy spaces and communal feel of the original, leaving them unpopular and quickly abandoned. By contrast, the Corbusier buildings remain popular with the upper-middle class.
Shops, sporting, medical, educational, and restaurant facilities are all available within the complex, realizing Corbusier's dream of a self-contained "city" in which everything a person needs is within easy reach.

Every apartment lies on two floors and spans the entire width of the building, facing both east and west to maximize natural light. Every apartment has a balcony in addition to the communal rooftop terrace.

The celebrated design was an instant success in the architectural community, and remains so today. At the opening, Walter Gropius said "any architect who does not find this building beautiful, had better lay down his pencil."
photograph of a portion of the roof of the Unite d'Habitation of Marseille
Habitat 67
Moshe Safdie
Montreal, Québec, Canada
Originally architect Moshe Safdie's master's thesis at McGill University, this spectacular feat of imagination and engineering was realized as a pavilion for Expo 67, the 1967 World Fair.

A recognizable landmark for the city of Montreal that has been commemorated on stamps and other memorabilia (including a limited-edition Lego set), the model community remains an incredibly popular housing complex with 146 separate residences of varying sizes.

Each residence is made up of between one and eight pre-fabricated concrete block forms, and has access to a private terrace, some as large as 1,000 square feet.
photograph of a portion of Habitat 67
detail photograph of the outside of a unit, Habitat 67
Habitat 67 was designed to integrate the benefits of suburban living-- such as fresh air, gardens, access to natural light, privacy, and a multi-level plan-- with the convenience, density, and economics of an urban apartment building.

Interlocking forms, modularity, and the integration of walkways and landscaping into the overall design of the building were all integral parts of Safdie's vision for a cohesive and livable urban space.

An instant success that attracted millions of visitors, the pavilion launched Safdie's career, which remains focused on revolutionizing high-density housing and improving the social integration of urban life.
Boston City Hall
Kallmann McKinnell and Knowles with Campbell, Aldrich and Nulty
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
historic black and white photo of Boston City Hall soon after construction
One of the most controversial Brutalist buildings, the Boston City Hall has been under fire since it was under construction-- but this behemoth is here to stay.

The winning design in a competition of almost 300 entries, it's uniqueness was both its selling point and its sticking point.

Rugged poured or precast concrete, cantilevered forms, and articulated structures that clearly delineate functions and divisions within were significant departures from the sleek, obscure modernist forms popular at the time. The building also integrates local red brick into the plaza and lower levels.
Architecturally divided by function, the building was designed to maximize public spaces and separate or display private spaces, improving functionality and experience.

The four lower levels, easily accessible from the street, house the major public functions and accessible areas. The protruding, cantilevered forms of the second floor place the offices of important officials (like the Mayor and Council members) out of reach but within sight of passerby, a visual reminder of their position as public servants.

The upper levels, recessed and neither accessible nor visible to the public, contain the offices of civil servants and bureaucrats who do not interact directly with the public.
detail image of the underside of the overhang of the roof on Boston City Hall
The Barbican Estate
Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon
London, UK
photograph showing two sides of the housing enclosure, a large water feature, and a park within the Barbican
"There is nothing like [it] in scale, intelligence, ingenuity, quality, urban landscaping and sheer abstract artistry anywhere else in Britain, perhaps even the world.” Jonathan Glancey

Commissioned in 1957 by the London Court of Common Council, this multi-use residental complex was designed as a coherent residential housing center during the redevelopment of Cripplegate, a neighborhood of London all but demolished by the Blitz.

An exceedingly ambitious project, it was painstakingly planned to maximize the available space and bring as many amenities and luxuries into the complex as possible without making residents feel cramped. Around 4,000 people currently live in the estate, which sits on 14 acres of land.

It is made up of 13 terraced blocks, 3 tower blocks, 2 mews, and 1 row of townhouses.
Taking from Corbusier's unité principle, residential blocks were arranged around communal spaces to create a 'vertical garden city.'

Designed to be pedestrian-friendly, a raised podium under which public parking, road, and rail traffic move becomes the new ground level inside the estate, above which the majority of the buildings float on piers, while a raised highwalk allows pedestrians to move between buildings without making the trip to the ground.

This ingenious freeing of ground space allowed the architects to incorporate three public squares, a lake, and numerous gardens into the design of the estate.
photograph of the Barbican showing a water feature, public seating and shopping, some housing, and the towers in the background
A Few More
Here's a quick look at some honorable mentions-- architecturally and aesthetically important, but not quite as groundbreaking.
photograph showing the southwest elevation of the Geisel Library at the University of San Diego
The Geisel Library
San Diego, California, USA
William Pereira
Roger Stevens Building
Leeds University, Leeds, UK
Chomaberlin, Powell, and Bon
vintage photograph from the 1970s showing the Robert Stevens Hall, also known as the Lecture Theatre, at the Uniersity of Leeds
photograph showing the water feature, front facade and part of the left side of the Palace of Assembly in Chandrigarh
Palace of Assembly
Chandigarh, India
Le Corbusier
SESC Pompeia
São Paulo, Brazil
Lina Bo Bardi
detail photograph showing the weathered concrete block construction, unusually shaped, red-gridded windows, and part of the split, angular skyways in the renovated SESC Pompeia factory

That's all.

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