What is: Brutalism?

Richard J. Williams

One might consider Brutalism as the ‘marmite’ of architectural history: it is a style that is systematically loathed and revered. HRH Prince Charles once compared one of the icons of Brutalism, Britain’s National Theatre, to a nuclear power station. A strong reaction to the hulking concrete edifice… But is that the point?

Learn about some of the key facets and figures of Brutalist history with Professor Richard J. Williams.

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To think about brutalism, is to think about concrete. The term originated from béton brut, French for ‘raw concrete’.

So what is Brutalism?

Brutalism wasn’t a movement exactly. It was a term applied to the architectural style of exposed rough concrete and large modernist block forms, which started in the 1950s and flourished in the ensuing twenty years.

It’s a set of ideas that emerged after the Second World War. It’s the exact opposite of the machine aesthetic championed by the early modernists. You can’t straight forwardly do modernity anymore. You need something more human.

The first building Brutalist building – or the one first generally agreed as Brutalist – is Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. It’s a huge concrete-framed, concrete facade, concrete structure, concrete facade. It has pilotis, which are columns, which lift the whole structure off the ground. And it has an amazing sculptural roof. It’s mainly flats, but with cafes and a school for residents too.

It’s not a pretty building, but it’s an incredibly simple, powerful image – anyone can draw it having seen it for a few moments.

Le Corbusier said that architecture was ‘about establishing moving relationships with raw materials’.In other words, Brutalism is supposed to make you feel something.

One of the most important people to write about Brutalism is Reyner Banham.He got that Brutalism was all about feeling. Hewrote a long, polemical essay in 1955 on the topic called ‘The New Brutalism’ in the influential magazine, Architectural Review. Banham cited Le Corbusier on feeling at the start of his article.His essaysays three things: first of all, that it’s about ‘memorability as an image’, second there’s a ‘clear exhibition of structure’, and third, he writes, that there is ‘a valuation of materials ‘as found’’.

You instantly get what a Brutalist building looks like, you can see how it’s made, and you can see what it’s made of.

All of these things added up to a kind of architecture which is really about feeling. It’s about creating a felt impression primarily. So, this is a very different way of looking at architecture from say the way Le Corbusier was thinking in the 1920s – of machine like architecture. This is architecture to create feeling in the observer.

This is Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre, completed in 1976, after quite a protracted building process, and Prince Charles thought it looked like a nuclear power station.

Of course, it isn’t a nuclear power station. What Charles meant was that it was an industrial looking building, something that was rather bleak and uncompromising, something that didn’t look like a theatre. But that was the point! And the point of that National Theatre and many of the other structures on London’s Southbank is to create a kind of arts complex which is not like the rest of the world, an arts complex which is tough and uncompromising, and maybe makes you feel a bit unsettled – taken slightly outside of the everyday world.

I tend to think of Brutalism more as an art tendency than anything else. The main monuments of Brutalism are so much more than functional architecture. How they work or what they want you to look at is surface, sculptural qualities. They want you to feel something. They want you have and experience in relation to them which is much more like an art experience. They want you to have an aesthetic experience.

Brutalism is all about making you feel something.

With thanks to

David Batchelor

Hayward Gallery

 

Archive

Flickr

Getty Images

 

Music

Audio Network

 

Credits

SLO MO Fresh concrete being poured
simonkr / Getty Images

 

builder distributes the concrete along the wooden formwork
SVPhilon / Getty Images

 

Hayward Gallery Refurbishments
Richard Battye
Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery

 

National Theatre
Tom Parnell, 2015
(CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Angles Southbank
Paul Hudson, 2014
(CC BY-SA 2.0)


Detail of the concrete in the Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London

Laurence Mackman, 2013
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

cncretude 2 (SESC Pompeia (São Paulo – SP)
Rute Pina, 2013
(CC BY 2.0)

 

Barbican
Stuart Trevor, 2015
(CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Low angle wide shot freerunners jumping over stairwell
Tivoli Entertainment LLC / Getty Images

 

low motion low angle long shot three freerunners running across bridge
Tivoli Entertainment LLC / Getty Images

 

Historical footage of WWII
Sherman Grinberg Library / Getty Images


Villa Savoye

Julien Chatelain, 2014
(CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Wrecking Ball
Kelsey Kind – Footage / Getty Images

 

WWII, after 28 days of bombing the people of London assess the damage to their property and their cultural landmarks
Silverwell Films / Getty Images

 

Unité d’Habitation designed by Le Corbusier, Marseille
Wojtek Gurak, 2018
(CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Marseille – Cité Radieuse
Fred Romero, 2014
(CC BY 2.0)

 

Unité d’Habitation
André P. Meyer-Vitali, 2018
(CC BY 2.0)

 

Marseille – Cité Radieuse
Fred Romero, 2014
(CC BY 2.0)

 

Marseille – Cité Radieuse (Concrete Façade)
Fred Romero, 2014
(CC BY 2.0)

 

Unité d’Habitation
Nicolas Nova, 2013
(CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Cité Radieuse
Wojtek Gurak, 2018
(CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Unité d’Habitation
Yisris, 2005
(CC BY 2.0)

 

Unité d’Habitation (Pilotis)
Yisris, 2005
(CC BY 2.0)

 

Unité d’Habitation (Pilotis)
André P. Meyer-Vitali, 2018
(CC BY 2.0)

 

Unité d’Habitation (Roof)
jpmm, 1999
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Marseille – Cité Radieuse (Roof)
Fred Romero, 2014
(CC BY 2.0)

 

Unité d’Habitation (Le Corbusier, Roof)
Desert Agama, 2010
(CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Unité d’Habitation (Le Corbusier, Full View)
Desert Agama, 2010
(CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Marseille – Cité Radieuse (Façade)
Fred Romero, 2014
(CC BY 2.0)

 

Cité Radieuse (Wide)
Wojtek Gurak, 2018
(CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Construction worker plaster cement
sayoesso / Getty Images

 

Girl walking and touching wall
Milan_Jovic / Getty Images

 

One Pair of Eyes: Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles
First broadcast: 11 March 1972
BBC Broadcast Archive / Getty Images

 

Reyner Banham, ‘The New Brutalism’
Architectural Review, 1955

 

Sesc Pompéia
Andreia Reis, 2010
(CC BY 2.0)

 

Detail of the Royal National Theatre showing the grain of the formwork
Tom Parnell, 2015
(CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

Exterior of The Balfron Tower, Poplar, London
Ben Pipe Photography / Getty Images

 

Architecture: Balfron Tower to open to the public
ITN / Getty Images

 

Balfron Tower
Sarah Thacker, 2017

 

National Theatre
FUTURE LIGHT / Getty Images
Atomic Power: opening of first nuclear power station at Calder Hall
ITN / Getty Images

 

1956 WS Explosion of nuclear bomb
BFI HD Collection / Getty Images

 

National Theatre from Waterloo Bridge
Anett Salyik, 2018
(CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

National Theatre Spaceship
Anett Salyik, 2018
(CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

National Theatre Star Destroyer
Anett Salyik, 2018
(CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Hayward Gallery Architecture
India Roper-Evans
Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery

 

Queen Elizabeth Hall at Southbank Centre
Pete Woodhead
Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery

 

Image of the Hayward from 1968
Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery

 

The Hayward Gallery Building
Morley von Sternberg
Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery


Sixty Minute Spectrum

David Batchelor, 2017
With thanks to David Batchelor

 

Unité d’Habitation (Roof Vent)
André P. Meyer-Vitali, 2018
(CC BY 2.0)

 

NT Abstract
Tubb, 2011
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


lina bo bardi: centro social SESC pompéia, são paulo 1977

seier+seier, 2006
(CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Museum of Art of Sao Paulo, designed by Italian-born Brazilian architect Lina Bo-Bardi
Rob Crandall / Getty Images

 

La Tourette (Concrete)
Archigeek, 2012
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

La Tourette (Façade)
Archigeek, 2012
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Couvent de la Tourette, Le Corbusier
Jean-Baptiste Maurice, 2011
(CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Chapel, Sainte Marie de La Tourette
Duncan Standridge, 2009
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

La Tourette Chapel
Archigeek, 2012
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Reyner Banham, ‘The New Brutalism’, Architectural Review, December 1955

Otto Saumarez Smith, ‘Concrete Dreams – celebrating the brutalist buildings of Southbank Centre’, 6 April 2018

Barbican Estate History’, The City of London

Rachel Lebowitz, ‘10 Icons of Brutalist Architecture, from the Breuer to the Barbican’, Artsy, 5 August 2016

The Brutalist divide: Concrete monsters or architectural icons?’, BBC Arts, 12 October 2018

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