Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism

 

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Geisel Library, University of California, San Diego; California, United States. Designed by William Pereira and Associates, photo courtesy William Pereira and Associates.

Architecture, far more than simply structures and buildings, often serves as a representation of how a city views itself. Like fashion, the design of a building is a projection of what’s inside — in a sense, architecture is what a group of people values and what they want to project to others. Arguably the most divisive architecture movement is brutalism, a mid-century movement noted for its use of exposed concrete. The term was popularized by critic Reyner Banham, and the style was inspired by the master of modern architecture, Le Corbusier. The name comes from béton brut, French for “raw concrete.” “Brutalism,” a rather unflattering term, was Banham’s conception. Architects took up the mantle from Le Corbusier in the 1950’s, but the popularity of the style waned in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

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Unite D’Habitation; Marseilles, France, was designed as a residential complex by Le Corbusier. It served as a key inspiration for the Brutalist movement. Photo by Addison Godel

It is not hard to see why brutalist architecture would be controversial; the style is distinctive for its use of stark concrete structures and jarring geometric lines. Adherents to the style note that one appeal of brutalism is honesty. Rather than literally whitewashing walls or covering up the harsh interiors of buildings, brutalist architects embraced and proudly displayed the things that made a building a building;  concrete, glass, and other raw materials. Concrete, especially, is the definitive aspect of brutalism. As a relatively cheap material, concrete complements the democratizing aspect of the accessible and affordable housing the style was often used for. For its good intentions, its cultural portrayals ultimately doomed it. Brutalist architecture’s use in government buildings, student housing, and low income housing made an already challenging style more unappealing. After all, these are places people don’t necessarily choose to be. With the style forced on its residents, the backlash was inevitable. In a sense, the harshness in design came to embody a harshness in function.

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Andrew Melville Hall, University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Like other Brutalist structures, it drew inspiration from ships. Designed by James Stirling. Photo by Eric Jonathan Martin

Various articles, including a New York Times piece from 2016, suggest that brutalist architecture may be poised for a comeback. As the piece points out, the style fits in well with a Tumblr/Instagram aesthetic that embraces minimalism and simplicity. Like any school of art or design, there is good and bad. Great brutalist architecture creates visual appeal in its clean lines and symmetry. On the other hand, some brutalist structures simply resemble concrete slabs. But the best buildings illustrate that there isn’t a lack of design, but rather that the design focuses on on the structures themselves. The movement is impressively widespread, stretching across Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa. A 2016 article in The Guardian celebrates its revival, arguing that the utilitarian and unpretentious nature represents a welcome antidote to the ostentation of steel and glass towers that seemingly get taller and taller across the world’s metropolises. Perhaps upon its revival, the movements’ skeptics will come to appreciate the unconventional beauty of “raw concrete.” 

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Waseda University Engineering Buildings; Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan. Designed by Katsuo Ando & Associates. Photo: Tumblr
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Grand Central Water Tower; Midrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Designed by Gapp Architects, Photo by Gapp Architects.

 

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Royal National Theatre; London, England. Designed by Denys Lasdun. Photo by Melissa Moris
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Lauinger Library; Georgetown University, Washington DC, United States. Designed by John Carl Warnecke and Associates. Photo by Deane Madsen.