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 CLOG, 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 Paul Rudolph’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...
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
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
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
158 SAVE THE PRENTICE WRECKING BALL: THE MONUMENT TO BRUCE
160 COLISEUM MEMORIAL
162 GONE IN FORTY SECONDS
164 BRUTALLY RESTORING BRUTALISM
173 IMAGE CREDITS
You can buy your own edition of CLOG: Brutalism at CLOG’s Website.