Rugged walls, huge residential liners, imposing cultural sites – and all made of concrete. This unique character has mired Brutalism in controversy since its very conception, with the style now so under threat that an initiative to preserve these unloved concrete giants has been launched by the German Architecture Museum (DAM).
In 2017, the initiative resulted in the exhibition SOS Brutalism – Save the Concrete Monsters, which first opened in Frankfurt before being showcased in other locations including Vienna, Taiwan, and Yale University in New Haven, US, in recent years. The exhibition aimed to give a previously unprecedented overview of the heritage of this supposedly garish architectural style, while also dispelling prejudices. The French term ‘béton brut’, meaning ‘rough’ or ‘raw’ concrete in English, describes not only the most obvious feature of Brutalist architecture, but also its attitude: a rejection of the coquettish cloak of decorative design in favour of stark authenticity.
In the early 1950s, architects such as Alison and Peter Smithson began to appreciate the value of this raw, unrendered material as a fully-fledged design tool. They were preceded by French designer Le Corbusier, who shaped the cityscape of Marseille from 1947 onwards with his grey blocks of flats named unités d’habitation, thereby cementing in place a style of architecture that went around the world as ‘Brutalism’.
With its seemingly unfinished and coarse aesthetics, Brutalism did not enjoy a good reputation. Nevertheless, manifestations of this new style, defamed as ‘concrete jungles’, sprang up all over the world in the period from 1955 to 1979. This phenomenon can be partially explained by a practical side effect of construction using concrete: its malleability as a cast material – which opened up entirely new horizons in plastic design. Architects could now create sculptures and invent experimental building forms that would become unique monuments to Brutalism.
American architect William Pereira made use of this new freedom, for example, when he designed the library at the University of California in San Diego in 1965. The Geisel Library is now enthroned on steel concrete pillars in a prominent location on the campus and, with its glass cantilevers, looks like something from the set of a science fiction film. More than just a functional building, this geometric behemoth acts as a monumental statement.
In Japan, too, architecture took on new dimensions as a result of Brutalism. The International Conference Centre in Kyoto, for example, with its hulking aesthetics, radiates an aura of rigid endurance. In 1963, architect Sachio Otani ‘transplanted’ the intimidating mega-complex on reinforced concrete supports into the green landscape and embedded it in a garden setting with concrete paths.
In Europe in particular, Brutalism also gave rise to innovative concepts for social housing. In the Créteil district of Paris, for example, sturdy concrete towers designed by architect Gérard Grandval rose from the ground like plants. The curved balconies on 15 storeys of the ten round towers seem to be budding from their central columns like sprouts – a tongue-in-cheek moniker that these cylindrical residential buildings are still known by to this day. Nevertheless, ‘les Choux de Créteil’ have been an architectural attraction since their completion in 1974.
The Alexandra Road Estate in London, whose white reinforced concrete has ‘graced’ an entire street in Camden since 1972, was once equally ridiculed and criticised. Today, the 300-metre-long complex of terraced apartments is a listed building and in 2017, its architect, Neave Brown, was honoured for his life’s work with the highest British architecture award: the RIBA Gold Medal.
In contrast to the ‘residential bunkers’, sacral Brutalism had it a little easier. Elemental architecture appeared morally good and even devout in this context. Materials such as glass, steel and stone rounded off the natural aesthetics and ‘grounded’ the structure. It was Le Corbusier again who sparked this off in 1955 with his Notre-Dame du Haut chapel in Ronchamp. This was followed by immense church structures such as the stone Cathedral of Our Lady, or ‘Mariendom’ of Neviges, which was erected in 1963 in Velbert, North Rhine-Westphalia, based on a design by Gottfried Böhm.
Many people still find Brutalism ugly. But it has never wanted to please in the conventional sense. Its beauty lies in its pure design and its rejection of a softening façade. In this naturalness, Brutalist buildings are consistent and radical, but also unpretentious, honest and to this day a model of modern architecture.