BRUTALISM / CLOG

Brutalism. It’s the architecture movement that the public loves to hate, and architects dare to love. It’s also the latest topic tackled by , the quirky publication that takes a long slow look at what’s important in architecture now.

While Brutalism, a movement that reached its height in the 60s, may not seem a timely topic, nothing could be further from the truth. With Brutalism’s monolithic beasts reaching their not-so-golden golden years, the question to re-model (often prohibitively expensive, considering these projects’ complexity) or just demolish (as the public often begs for) is an urgent one – as the recent preservation debates over ’s Orange County Building (successful) and Bertrand Goldberg‘s Prentice Women’s Hospital (not) reveal.

However, while this edition of CLOG of course mentions these debates, Brutalism shines in exploring the bigger questions these debates provoke: Why is Brutalism so loathed? What is it, really? And – can Brutalism be saved? Should it be?

Beginning with Reyner Banham’s seminal 1955 tract “The New Brutalism,” CLOG: Brutalism starts off by exploring Brutalism’s identity crisis as an architectural movement: is it an ethic (as the Smithsons certainly claimed for it) or an aesthetic (as most architects/individuals quickly and almost exclusively ascribed it to)?

The only way to answer that question is to understand Brutalism’s post-war context, its original raison d’etre, and how it was subsequently (mis?)interpreted.

Brutalism has its roots in state-led reconstruction after World War II, a context that in “The Morality of Concrete” Jack Self describes as directly responsible for its form: “Brutalism’s modular spaces manifested a social desire for a standardized society—cultural cohesion, shared values, and a fair quality of life for all. The Brutalist citizen, therefore, has to be understood as an abstract egalitarian ideal, not as an individual lost in a microscopic concrete cave of some gargantuan building” (29).

Kovacs and Aleksandr Bierig take the claim even further in their article “Brutal Taste,” saying that Brutalism was actually an expression of the architectural id: “Through its monuments, architects are given a hint of tangible, physical “autonomy”—freedom from (or at least momentary dominance over) the concerns of the world. [...] Brutalism, then, was the last bastion of the Modern, in several senses—it held the Modernist dreams of architects alongside the fragile cohesion of public institutions within its overgrown exoskeletons” (31).

Of course, as both of these authors hint towards, Brtualism’s “overgrown,” “gargantuan” concrete forms (although idealized by their architects) practically beg to be misinterpreted. Although Self claims that the “death” of Brutalist buildings owes more to ideology than style – in his words, they “just couldn’t survive in a neo-liberalist climate that favored” individuality and difference (29) – there can be no denying that Brutalism’s style has played a significant part in its demise. As Timothy Rohan points out in his article “The Rise and Fall of Brutalism, Rudolph and the Liberal Consensus,” popular opinion has swayed against Brutalism far before the neo-liberalists, when the anti-Establishment generation of the 60s accused Rudolph’s buildings of being “Fascist” (61).

Indeed, Brutalism’s interpretation problem is twofold. The first is its lack of concern for context; the second, is its name. As Benjamin Strak concisely puts it in his article, one of the stand-outs of this edition of CLOG, “Though the term refers strictly to the French béton brut concrete of early buildings, the -ism stuck because it neatly captured the bloody-minded way the architecture imposed itself on its immediate surroundings” (97).

Strak goes on to describe the 1959 French ski-resort of Flaine, located in the Swiss Alps, conceived by Eric Boissonnas and overseen by Marcel Breuer, which has proven to be that rare example of Brutalism loved and – tellingly – made a historical landmark. Why? Strak makes the compelling case that it’s a question of context: sitting “heroically in the face of hostile external conditions[, i]ts raw architecture reaffirms a vision of human progress in the face of the elements [...] Perhaps the real deficiency of Brutalism is simply its existence as a primarily urban phenomenon” (97).

Another stand-out of CLOG: Brutalism is Michael Kubo, Chris Grimley and Mark Pasnik’s brilliant articles “BRUTAL”/“HEROIC,” which also contend that the bane of Brutalism’s existence is its name, which helped to reduce the movement from a philosophical expression to a “stylistic label” – and a pernicious one at that:

“Originally seen to reflect the democratic attributes of a powerful civic expression—authenticity, honesty, directness, strength—the forceful nature of Brutalist aesthetics eventually came to signify precisely the opposite: hostility, coldness, inhumanity.[...] Separated from its original context and reduced in meaning, Brutalism became an all-too-easy pejorative, a term that suggests these buildings were designed with bad intentions” (166).

However, Kubo, Grimley, and Pasnik take the argument one step further, by suggesting a rhetorical re-appropriation of Brutalism, a new name: “Heroic.”

“Like the ethic-or-aesthetic of Brutalism, Heroic refers at once to the formal attributes of the buildings themselves—powerful, singular, iconic—and to the attitudes of the architects and institutions that created them. [...] Heroic carries both positive and negative connotations. It underscores the ambition, but also the hubris that marked the architectural production of the time. Unlike Brutalism, which has become nearly impossible to dissociate from its negative connotations, Heroic acknowledges the complexities of these buildings—both the intentions from which they grew and their controversial status today” (167).

While I’m more inclined to side with Strak’s perspective, one which allows the Brutal to become Heroic via its context, there’s no denying that Kubo, Grimley, and Pasnik clearly have a point. Brutalism is not just a victim of its historical context or aesthetics, but also of its damning name; perhaps if we re-calibrated the debate, and began discussing the value of “Heroic” buildings, rather than “Brutal” buildings, these concrete beasts would have a greater chance for survival – maybe even affection.

After all, surely they aren’t all bad? Surely, there is something loveable about them? As Alastair Townsend points out in “Concreteness,” Japan’s concrete-loving culture has put concrete on such a premium that some residents even place faux concrete wallpaper on their walls (89). In Bangladesh, inadvertently Brutalist structures have popped up in response to the country’s extreme, cyclone-prone climate (91). And in “Brutalism, with Chinese Characteristics,” Evan Chakroff makes the case that a kind of neo-Brutalism, one that builds from Brutalist’s social housing ideals but incorporates traditional Chinese typologies, could be an essential model for China as it enters the age of the megacity.

Of course, CLOG is never just a collection of philosophically-driven articles, but also an eclectic compendium of fun and unexpected elements – and Brutalism is no exception. Highlights include fascinating quotes from the likes of Ada Louise Huxtable (24) and Paul Goldberger (25,51); an article from Moshe Safdie on Habitat ’67 (74-77); stunning images of Le Corbusier’s Chandigargh taken by Iwan Baan (33-40); and a chart outlining Brutalist projects by year and type (124-145).

And, among my personal favorites: a diagram of the Brutalist Schools of Architecture across the US (102-3; “in architecture school, sometimes the building can be the least brutal thing”); and, the hilarious “Is Your Building Brutalist? A Checklist for Owners?” (138-9; “Is your building an ‘acquired’ taste?” / “Has it been used as a setting for a dystopian or science fiction film or television series?”).

The Brutalist debate – to save or not to save – will certainly keep raging in the years to come. CLOG: BRUTALISM, with its varied accounts of Brutalism’s heartfelt promise vs its impracticality; its social consideration vs its inhumanity; its unlikely loveableness vs. its downright ugliness is a well-needed compendium that will help us put the debate, and those maligned Brutalist buildings themselves, back in context (where they certainly belong).

10 THE NEW BRUTALISM 

16 BRUTALISM: AESTHETIC OR ETHIC? 

18 BANHAM’S RECRUITMENT DRIVE 

20 ARCHITECTURE AS “IMAGE,” OR WHAT’S NEW ABOUT NEW BRUTALISM? 

22 FROM BEHIND ENEMY LINES 

24 ON BRUTALISM… 

26CITING BANHAM 

28 THE MORALITY OF CONCRETE 

30 BRUTAL TASTE 

32 CHANDIGARH, 2010 

42 THE ECONOMICS OF CONCRETE 

44 BREUER TURNS 55 

46 HEROIC PRECAST 

48 BRUTAL BAY BY BAY 

50 PRECAST CONCRETE PRODUCTION PLANTS ACROSS THE U.S. & CANADA 

52 FORM WORK

54 INTERVIEW WITH NORBERT KOEHN 

56 BREUER’S BRUT SENSITIVITY 

58 CINCINNATI’S FOUR-HEADED MONSTER 

59 SHE AIN’T UGLY, SHE’S MY TOWER 

60 THE RISE AND FALL OF BRUTALISM, RUDOLPH AND THE LIBERAL CONSENSUS 

62 PAUL RUDOLPH’S VERTIGINOUS FREE-SECTION 

64 NEW, NEWER, NEWEST 

66 JOHN M. JOHANSEN’S BUILDINGS OF THE 1960S – BRUTALISM AND BEYOND 

68 ENDANGERED IN BERKELEY 

70 THE FUTURE CIRCA 1970 

72 PROJECT ARGUS AND THE ARCHITECTURE OF IMAGE 

74 HABITAT ‘67 

78 BRUTALISM = BRUTUS + ALISON 

80 ROBIN HOOD GARDENS 

82 SIGURD LEWERENTZ. ENIGMATIC BRUTALISM 

84 IF DUCKS COULD TALK: BOTH-AND BRUTALISM 

86 SKOPJE, CONCRETE BEAUTY 

88 CONCRETENESS 

90 BHOLA’S BRUTALISM 

92 AMERICAN BRUTALISM, DEGREE ZERO 

94 THE POSSIBILITY OF RUINS 

96 BRUTALISM IN THE MOUNTAINS 

98 A HISTORICAL NATURE IN BRUTALISM

100 BRUTALISM AND LANDSCAPE DESIRE 

102 BRUTALIST ARCHITECTURE SCHOOLS OF THE US 

104 MANHATTAN BRUTAL, 2013 

114 “PLAYING THE PART” 

116 FLYOVER BRUTALISM  

118 BRUTALISM, WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS 

120 SOME IMAGES OF BRUTALISM IN AUSTRALIAN AND NEW ZEALAND ARCHITECTURE 

122 PUBLIC WORKS: ARCHITECTURE BY CIVIL SERVANTS 

124 BRUTALISM BY YEAR & TYPE 

126 UGLY 

128 STUDY FOR A COUNTRY HOUSE, 2013 

130 PARAMETRIC BRUTALISM 

132 MUSIQUE CONCRÈTE – BÉTON BRUIT 

134 THE BRUTALIST COOKBOOK 

136 PROJECT D’ARCHITECTURE POUR LE QUESTIONNEMENT DE L’UNITÉ D’ALIMENTATION 

138 IS YOUR BUILDING BRUTALIST? A CHECKLIST FOR OWNERS 

140 INTERVIEW WITH JEFFREY STREAN 

144 BROWN STUDY: REJUVENATING A BRUTALIST LIBRARY 

146 DISSECTING THE ELEPHANT’S FOOT 

148 BRUTALIZING BREUER 

150 ORANGE COUNTY GOVERNMENT CENTER: TEAR IT DOWN 

152 RUDOLPH’S REPRIEVE 

154 IMAGINING A FUTURE PRENTICE 

156 CANDIDATE 

158 SAVE THE PRENTICE WRECKING BALL: THE MONUMENT TO BRUCE 

160 COLISEUM MEMORIAL

162 GONE IN FORTY SECONDS 

164 BRUTALLY RESTORING BRUTALISM 

166 BRUTAL 

167 HEROIC 

168CONTRIBUTOR BIOS 

173 IMAGE CREDITS

You can buy your own edition of CLOG: Brutalism at CLOG’s Website.

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "BRUTALISM / CLOG" 26 Mar 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 27 Aug 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=348310>

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