Some people love it, and a lot of people hate it. Brutalism is famously, you guessed it, quite stark and brutal. But before you dismiss it outright, let me take you through its fascinating political, economic, and social history, and look at some of the most interesting buildings it produced around the globe.
People often talk about brutalism when they see a minimal concrete building with no design features to speak of. While this may be true of some developments in the movement, and interpretations of it down the line, there is a rich a beautiful history of innovative design in Brutalism. I recently saw a series of ski lodges in Utah that were built in the 60’s and 70’s, but clearly very influenced by Brutalism. They combined the use of concrete and steel with some wood finishes, adding warmth and a touch of something natural.
Brutalism (also called New Brutalism), narrowly defined, was the term used to describe the theory, ideas, and practice of a small number of young architects in Great Britain from 1950 to 1960. Broadly conceived, Brutalism came to describe an international approach to architecture that reflected social ideals, industrial and vernacular means, and humane goals.
History of Brutalist Architecture
Given the exigencies of building in Europe in the years immediately following World War II, namely, limited resources and unlimited demand, it was no surprise that the new generation of postwar architects saw before them not merely opportunity but the challenge to respond to circumstances that seemed unprecedented in European history. After World War I, architects seemed to approach the task of rebuilding in Europe with revolutionary idealism and an optimistic trust in mechanical technology. International Modernism seemed to represent not only all that was modern but also all that was valuable in a devalued and degraded world. The generation following World War II had less use for idealism, revolutionary or otherwise, and diminished trust in technology. It was in that context that the Brutalist apothegm “An ethic, not an aesthetic” acquired significance.
A pioneer of modern architecture, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, was not only the main predecessor of and influence upon Brutalism, but also created some of its most iconic structures. He first considered the use of concrete as a student with Auguste Perret in Paris, then in 1914 he studied the technology of reinforced concrete with the engineer Max Dubois. As Le Corbusier recalled, “reinforced concrete provided me with incredible resources, and variety, and a passionate plasticity…” His early design for the Dom-Ino House (1914-15), an un-built prototype for temporary residences required after World War War, used a concrete modular structure for which residents could build their own exterior walls using materials stored on site. The idea was, as he described it, “a juxtaposable system of construction according to an infinite number of combinations of plans.”
Brutalist Architecture and Fascist Architecture
While they are not the same thing, there is an interesting intersection between brutalist architecture and
Most examples of fascist architecture are built to house political facilities or represent the fascist political scheme, which is explained by David Rifkind who, in his academic journal, argues that Italian architects used modern architectural principles to “reshape and restructure Italian society”; essentially saying that the ideals of Fascist Italy were reflected on the new wave of architecture Mussolini prompted.
Le Corbusier’s five points of architecture are incorporated into many fascist buildings. Most all fascist buildings adhere to at least three of the five points, with the majority adhering to the points of a free facade and pilotes, and some, such as Lodovido Belgiojoso’s Feltrinelli Building, utilizing ribbon windows. Corbusier’s five points are towards a “new architecture”, that is, a modern architecture. The fact that fascist architecture utilizes these points to a beyond-common extent proves how deeply engrained modernity is in the fascist spectrum of architecture. This isn’t to say that any building with a free facade is automatically following Corbusier’s five points and is, in turn, modern simply because of it, but the extent to which these points are utilized and how they appear in form on the buildings, notably the facades as a mix of ribbon windows, pure white paint, unadorned surfaces, provide substantial evidence that the fascist architects who designed these buildings take the very modern idea of Corbusier’s five points to heart.
Mussolini’s Obelisk is a prime example of the marriage of classical and modern forms and ideas in fascist architecture. Mussolini’s Obelisk is stark white and made up of layered rectangles of varying heights all melded together with a central rectangle towering well over the others. When pictured next to Frank Lloyd Wright’s sketch of The Illinois, the perceived similarities multiply. The Obelisk uses vertical rectangles, making the form more brutal and harsh, whereas The Illinois favors the slimness of tapered edges and extremely tall layers that seem to fan out of the central form like petals of a flower. An obvious difference between the two is the fact that The Illinois was sketched with the idea of it being realized as a building, and Mussolini’s Obelisk is only an obelisk and not meant to be used. There are idealogical divides between fascist ideals, and the way that translates into architecture, and modernist or brutalist ones. The forms, though, contain many overlaps and similarities.
Development of Brutalism into Modern Day
Despite its short life as an identifiable movement, Brutalism came to occupy a central position in the redefinition of the history of 20th-century architecture. The first built Brutalist work was the Secondary School at Hunstanton in Norfolk, England (Peter and Alison Smithson, 1954), which employed what seemed at first glance to be a Miesian aesthetic of pure structural clarity. For a building at that time in Britain to follow the example of Mies van der Rohe would have been provocative enough, but the Hunstanton School added another dimension to Miesian clarity: that of the mundane, the diurnal, the literal. Thereafter, the Smithsons turned their attention to larger questions, especially the need for a new approach to public housing in post-World War II Europe. Their new concerns resulted in no built works of their own, but their original ideas became profoundly influential.
The movement was vilified, and the buildings it yielded became synonymous with crime-ridden, trash-strewn, fluorescently lit, graffitied menaces. (Recall, if you will, the droogs in A Clockwork Orange parading in slow motion alongside Southmere Lake, its banks lined with the grim tower blocks of Thameshead.) Fast-forward a few decades, however, and it’s back as a desired stylistic pose—or perhaps a concrete bunker in which we can all take shelter. Many movements, like the left-leaning midcentury-modern structures, were meant for the Everyman but often ended up serving as luxury status symbols. Brutalist architecture, especially the few homes and converted commercial buildings that people can actually live in today, is similarly pounced on by aesthetically focused elites.
10 Most Iconic Brutalist Buildings Around the World
1. Barbican Center and Estate
The Barbican Center is an arts center situated on Silk Street in London, UK and is home to BBC Symphony Orchestra. The performance arts center is the largest in Europe with its largest theater, The Barbican Hall having a capacity of 1,943 people. British architectural firm, Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon was in charge of the design of the center and the firm incorporated the use of concrete in the building’s exterior and a multi-level layout to produce a brutalist architectural design. The design has elicited varied opinions with some people admiring its unique design while others seeing it as an eye sore (the building was voted as London’s ugliest building in 2003). I have a hard time believing this, as I found it incredibly awe inducing and beautiful, especially once immersed in it. It consists of so many different varied pavilions and levels that connect to each other with concrete staircases. There is a mix of materials, however, using brick work, simple metal lamp posts with round glass ball shades. The scale of the complex is just overwhelming, and it creates a stunning sense of scale, with wide open spaces that are continuous between large buildings. From the London city streets, you feel as if you’ve just stepped into another world.
2. Spomenik Memorials
For many years, Yugoslavia’s futuristic “Spomenik” monuments were hidden from the majority of the world, shielded from the public eye by their remote locations within the mountains and forests of Eastern Europe. That is, until the late 2000s, when Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers began capturing the abstract sculptures and pavilions and posting his photographs to the internet. Not long after, the series had become a viral hit, enchanting the public with their otherworldly beauty. The photographs were shared by the gamut of media outlets (including ArchDaily), often attached to a brief, recycled intro describing the structures as monuments to World War II commissioned by former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito in the 1960s and 70s. Spomeniks – which means monuments in Serbo-Croatian – look like alien landings, crop circles or Pink Floyd album covers. Tito asked leading architects of the Yugoslav cultural movement, such as Dušan Džamonja, to design them.
“Spomenik #2 (Petrova Gora)”, of a curved, metal sculpture with several pieces missing, is the “Monument to the uprising of the people of Kordun and Banija”, designed by Vojin Bakic and finished in 1981. It stands on the site where 300 barely armed local peasants were killed fighting against the ferociously violent fascist Ustaše militia in 1942. “Spomenik #5 (Kruševo)”, a bulbous white concrete structure with a walkway through the middle, is the Ilinden Monument in Macedonia, which is dedicated both to the Ilinden Uprising of 1903 against the Ottoman Empire (it contains the remains of one of its leaders) and to local partisan battles in 1941-44. The funding surprisingly did not come from central government, but in fact from decentralized Eastern European countries at the time, alongside factories and individual donors. So, while they are often called “Tito’s monuments“, after the dictator himself, they are in fact much more a result of community decision making and smaller scale funding. Left without any indication of what they commemorate, or even of who designed them, the results are “deliberately oblivious” to the anti-fascist struggle that they commemorate, or to why the artists and communities thought they were appropriate.
3. Trellick Tower
The Trellick Tower is an iconic structure located in west London, England. It has gone through numerous phases of public perception, most notably its notorious nickname as the “Tower of Terror.”Designed as social housing for the local council, it features numerous unconventional design elements. Architect Erno Goldfinger, drew inspiration from the modernist principles of Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation for the tower’s dwelling units. It’s interesting, because it is quite harsh and unappealing from far away, but once you get close and are able to see the details and way the different elements and shapes interact with each other, you get to see the beauty there.
4. Geisel Library
Geisel Library is the main library building of the University of California, San Diego. It is named in honor of Audrey and Theodor Seuss Geisel. Theodor is better known as children’s author Dr. Seuss. The building’s distinctive architecture, described as occupying “a fascinating nexus between brutalism and futurism”, has resulted in its being featured in the UC San Diego logo and becoming the most recognizable building on campus.
The library was designed by William Pereira and opened in 1970 as the Central Library. It was renovated in 1993 and rededicated as the University Library Building, and renamed Geisel Library in 1995. The UC San Diego Library consists of Geisel Library and the Biomedical Library Building, with off-campus locations at Scripps Archives and Library Annex, the Trade Street Storage Annex, and the UC Southern Regional Library Facility.
5. Boston City Hall / Government Centre
Boston City Hall is the building which houses the Boston’s seat of government. The design of the building was done by Columbia University professor, Gerhard Kallmann and Columbia University graduate student Michael McKinnell whose design was chosen out of 256 entries. The architects decided to use monumentality in the building’s design to give the Boston City Hall its brutalist architectural style. They were heavily inspired by the Sainte Marie de La Tourette monastery. Construction of the Boston City Hall was handled by the Architects and Engineers for the Boston City Hall who broke ground in 1963 and had completed the construction in 1968.
My partner is from Boston, and his family refers to the Boston city hall as an eye sore. Most people in Boston think of it as quite ugly. While I like a lot of Brutalist architecture, I don’t find this one to be one of the most visually appealing examples. The structure, however, has intricate interlays of geometric patterns that create its windows and structure. The layout of the building is actually quite beautiful, except the entire complex is starkly set against a flat paved area, without any greenery of trees. I find this to be an essential part of how Brutalism integrates with its environment, and looks beautiful as opposed to stark.
6. The Met Breuer
On March 18, 2016, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened The Met Breuer, its new space dedicated to modern and contemporary art. Housed in the landmark building designed originally by the great Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, The Met Breuer enabled visitors to engage with the art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries through the global breadth and historical reach of The Met’s unparalleled collection and resources through a range of exhibitions, commissions, performances, and artist residencies. Designed by one of the twentieth century’s most visionary architects, the Breuer building is a Brutalist icon and a work of art in its own right, known for its monumentality and stark purity of materials. Providing not just a history of the building commission, but also charting the artistic journey of Marcel Breuer from Bauhaus-educated furniture designer to world-renowned architect, this informative publication both records and contributes to the rich history surrounding Breuer and his landmark museum.
7. Unite De Habitation, Marseille
Unite d’Habitation is a residential housing complex situated in Marseille, France. The building was constructed between 1947 and 1952 and was designed by the combined efforts of Le Corbusier and Nadir Afonso. Rough-cast concrete was predominantly used on the building’s exterior, giving the Unite d’Habitation a brutalism architectural characteristic feature. Many architects and scholars believe that the design of the Unite d’Habitation was most influential in the development of the brutalism architecture of the 1960s. In 2016, the building was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was also designated by the French government as a historical monument.
There are varying primary coloured side panels on the small balconies lining the entire front of the building. This is a detail that is often missed if you look at the building head on, or from far away. In 1947, Europe was still feeling the effects of the Second World War, when Le Corbusier was commissioned to design a multi-family residential housing project for the people of Marseille that were dislocated after the bombings on France. Le Corbusier’s idea of the “vertical garden city” was based on bringing the villa within a larger volume that allowed for the inhabitants to have their own private spaces, but outside of that private sector they would shop, eat, exercise, and gather together.
This type of project has been sorely lacking in recent years, as we move more and more towards the normalization of private home dwellings as being the most desirable. One of the most interesting and important aspects of the Unite d’Habitation is the spatial organization of the residential units. Unlike most housing projects that have a “double-stacked” corridor (a single hallway with units on either side), Le Corbusier designed the units to span from each side of the building, as well as having a double height living space reducing the number of required corridors to one every three floors. This also means each unit gets light from both directions, which I think is a wonderful invention.
8. Litchfield Towers
Litchfield Towers, commonly referred to on campus as “Towers”, is a complex of residence halls at the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Litchfield Towers is both the largest and tallest residence hall at the University of Pittsburgh, housing approximately 1,850 students. Designed by the architectural firm of Deeter & Ritchey, the complex was completed in 1963 and was named for former chancellor Edward Litchfield following his death in an airplane crash in 1968. The complex consists of three towers, which during construction were designated A, B, and C in the architectural plans. The names stuck after the towers were completed, and the towers are still so named today.
The towers have housed thousands of students just arriving to their new city, school and residence. While many other Brutalist buildings have undergone a process of becoming relics, these buildings are fully in use, and do house a great many people.
9. Habitat 67
Habitat 67 looks more like a model of a Jenga game than a housing complex. Habitat 67, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, is one of the most recognizable buildings not only in Montreal but in all of Canada as well. “In the early parts of my career, I was quite obsessed with geometry and with the notion of creating three-dimensional spatial components as building blocks for construction,” says the Israeli-Canadian architect. “Habitat is an example where boxes form houses.”
Famed for hosting Expo67, the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, the building recently underwent a full restoration to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017. Now it has reopened its doors to host public with tours and is being turned into a venue for scholarly research on design and architecture. The original idea of Habitat 67 was to take aspects of suburban dwellings, such as gardens and privacy, and introduce them to the fast-growing design fabric of the modern housing project. Built-in 1967, Habitat 67 would rely heavily on typical Brutalist building materials. The complex itself consists of unevenly-stacked prefabricated-concrete boxes sitting atop one another. Although each concrete box is identical in size and interior space (354 boxes in total), the buildings themselves have various heights throughout the complex. At its highest point, Habitat 67 reaches up to 12 stories. In all, this system of Jenga-styled boxes once created 158 apartments, but have since been reduced with the joining of certain conjoined apartments. While the apartments were designed almost as social housing, to be accessible and replicable at scale, they have become a relic, and as such, completely within the realm of luxury condos.
It is always really fun to see the structure from far away, and then be able to zoom in and see it up close. It is now just individually privately owned, so you can’t see inside unless you happen to befriend an owner and get invited over for dinner, or purchase a unit when it goes up for sale(which is rare). It is a staple of the Montreal water view, however, and something anyone can see the outside of.
10. Embassy of Russia, Havana
The Embassy of Russia building in Havana, Cuba, is a tall, multi-storey skyscraper whose unique design makes it stand out in the city’s skyline. Construction of the Embassy began in 1978 and ended in 1987 and was opened as the Embassy of the Soviet Union but was changed to become the Russian Embassy after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. The building, which resembles a sword, has awed architects with its brutalist design. The Russian Embassy in Havana, Cuba was designed by Alexander G. Rochegov, and opened in 1985. Like a sword plunged into the ground, the building dominates the skyline of the city. Some say, of course this is what the Russian embassy in Havana looks like. It stands out against all of the other embassies, which are much shorter, in more traditional soft Havana Colours with white finishings.
The embassy is located at #6402 Quinta Avenida(Fifth Avenue, Miramar’s prestigious boulevard), between Calles 62 and 66, on a site of about 4 hectares (9.9 acres). Construction began in December 1978 and was completed in November 1987. The embassy opened as the Soviet embassy, in an era when Soviet influence in Cuba was immense, and transitioned to its status as the Russian Embassy after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
There is a complex weave of social, economic and political factors that formed Brutalism as an architectural movement. It can often get flattened today, as it has become trendy in many circles, just to an aesthetic. As I outlined, there are some intersections between Brutalism and Fascist architecture, while they are strictly different things. At the same time, the Yugoslavian monuments are staunchly anti-fascist, rising from a history that destroyed many peoples lives, and forming from community initiatives. Some buildings have remained centres for art and innovation, while others have been capitalized and become private condos. There are many features, as well, that have been integrated into modern architecture. When you walk around a city, look at the buildings around you: you will be bound to see a Brutalist building, or at least one influenced by it. Now you can identify it as such, and remember the fascinating history behind the movement to give each and every building context and interest. If you want to learn more about different architectural movements in history, check out our article on What are Bauhaus Buildings? 10 Things You Need to Know.