Feature image: Reading Pavillion, Jinhua Architecture Park, Herzog & de Meuron, Jihua, China, 2006.Photograph by Addison Godel via AnOther Magazine
No other architectural style is more polarizing among laypeople and architects alike than brutalism. A style born out of utilitarianism, its mark is instantly recognizable with its towering, nondescript, yet attention-grabbing concrete structures.
Brutalism has fluctuated in favor over the past few decades. Despite its detractors, brutalism is much more than “lazy” design—the style contains a wealth of historical context and ideological nuance, allowing it to showcase the duality of raw materials and simplicity.
Learn about brutalism’s origins, founding architects, characteristics, and place in popular culture and history as we answer the question, “What is brutalism?”
Origins of Brutalism
In 1950, Swedish architect Hans Asplund used the term “nybrutalism” (new brutalism) to describe a residential brick building called Villa Göth in Uppsala, Sweden. The house’s construction features elements that would soon become key to the brutalist style, like the open showcasing of a building’s inner materials and supports. According to #SOSBrutalism, this can be seen above the building’s windows, where the I-beams are visible. This is “an example of how the choice of material is displayed openly in this house.” While certainly not the first appearance of brutalist characteristics in architecture, Asplund was the first to name this set of characteristics.
The term “brutalism” quickly spread to Asplund’s colleagues in England, where the style emerged in the country’s post-war reconstruction. Brutalism is most commonly associated with the UK and former Soviet Union countries. The name “brutalism” also comes from the French phrase “béton brut” (raw concrete), as popularized by British architectural critic Reyner Banham in 1955.
Founding architects of brutalism include Alison and Peter Smithson, Chamberlain Powell and Bom, and Ernö Goldfinger, according to the Royal Institute of British Architecture. Brutalism is widely agreed to be a reaction to the nostalgic architecture of the 1940s due to its assertive defining characteristics and materials.
Concrete is the most prominent material used in brutalist buildings and is practically synonymous with the style. Other common materials include brick, glass, and steel. Brutalism stems from the modernist movement and relies heavily on elements of minimalism.
The Royal Institute of British Architecture outlines four notable features of brutalism, including rough surfaces, massive forms, unusual shapes, and expression of structure. Brutalism’s main aesthetic and philosophical appeal is its emphasis on equality and functionality. Other standard features of brutalist buildings include the exposure of the building’s inner workings and connected elevated walkways between apartment buildings to simulate the feel of neighborhood communities, known as “streets in the sky.”
Brutalist buildings are common on university campuses and other institutions such as libraries, government offices, and courts. Brutalism’s presence on college campuses, in particular, is incredibly prevalent. University libraries or other university-owned buildings use brutalism to stand out among other campus buildings that may look more traditional. One well-known example is the Geisel Library (1970) by William Pereira at the University of California, San Diego.
Geisel Library is most recognizable as a work of brutalism for its unique, otherworldly shape and prominent use of glass and concrete.
Today, brutalist buildings are most commonly found within cities and other urban, densely packed population centers. However, since the style's initial rise to prominence, the desire for low-cost housing and office spaces with the brutalist aesthetic has dwindled, leaving brutalist buildings as the subject of heavy criticism within the architectural world.
Criticism surrounding brutalism is typically directed at the style’s overuse of concrete, with many claiming that the concrete exteriors of brutalist structures seem cold, soulless, or foreboding. Research has shown that high levels of urbanization can be detrimental to mental health, and some may consider brutalism to fall within the category of hostile architecture, contributing to its negative characterization.
The name “brutalism” certainly doesn’t do the style any favors, either. It has previously been proposed that brutalist architecture instead be referred to as “heroic” to combat the negative connotation the term “brutal” may imply. In recent years, brutalist buildings have been voted to be demolished, as many see them as an “eyesore” within their location’s greater architectural profile.
BluPrint notes that, even after brutalism’s inception, “brutalist buildings came to be associated with urban decay, crime, and social deprivation” and that “the imposing structures eventually evoked feelings of repression, intimidation, authority, and hostility for most.”
Although many feel that brutalism is a part of architectural history that should be left in the 20th century, new, more modern ways of thinking about and improving upon the style have breathed new life into it as of late.
Comeback and Sub-styles of Brutalism
Much of brutalism’s slow comeback since its fall in popularity during the 1970s and 80s is thanks to the recontextualization of brutalism. As we move farther away from the post-war era brutalism was initially conceived for, younger architects can look at brutalism through an objective lens, finding the style’s strengths and how it can be enhanced for the 21st century.
The solid structure of brutalist buildings allows them to easily be modified in terms of story additions or outer ornamentation. This allows the original essence of the building to be maintained while updating it to appeal to modern ideas of community and urban planning.
One way a new generation of architects is updating brutalism is by creating eco-brutalism, a sub-style of brutalism that stems from the desire to “upcycle” brutalist buildings that would otherwise be a waste of resources to demolish. Additionally, the demolition of concrete-reliant brutalist buildings can harm the environment and the public by releasing toxic contaminants into the air.
Brutalist works are upcycled by adding sustainable elements to them and allowing the greenery and plants around the original structure to reclaim the surrounding area and outer facades of the building. Eco-brutalism has become popular with Gen Z due to its emphasis on sustainability and consideration for the environment.
Brutalism has undoubtedly left a strong impression on both popular culture and history, and the reevaluation of its cultural perception may also be contributing to its new identity.
Brutalism is intrinsically linked with Europe’s post-war history in the 1950s. As previously mentioned, brutalism was most commonly seen within low-cost social housing buildings in the post-war UK. The use of concrete in these buildings appealed to architects and designers as newly reconstructed buildings needed to be sturdy enough to withstand bombings that left many European cities leveled during the war.
Because brutalism concerned itself with function over ornamentation due to its place in the reconstruction of post-war areas, it modeled democratic-socialist ideas of community, and an architectural philosophy was associated with the idea of a social utopia. With its strict adherence to the maxim “form follows function” and Soviet ideals of living, brutalism spread to former Eastern Bloc countries. This historical context is another factor that contributes to brutalism’s misunderstood reputation. Even though the Soviet Union has dissolved, brutalism can still connotate totalitarianism and oppression.
Pop culture has also played an integral role in the public’s perception of brutalism. Many sci-fi films have utilized brutalism in their settings to convey both dystopian and utopian societies. Some examples of film and TV shows that have featured brutalist architecture include A Clockwork Orange (1971), Blade Runner (1982), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Loki (2021).
The real-life use of brutalism for government buildings and offices may contribute to the style’s portrayal as sinister or evil in speculative fiction, as noted by 99% Invisible.
History and fiction have helped make brutalism what it is today, and without the important context of both elements, it’s easy to see why brutalism is so controversial within architecture.
The love-hate relationship the architectural world has with brutalism is a testament to its ubiquity and memorability. The ironic beauty of brutalism is that everyone can look at and interpret the style in their own way. To some, it’s dystopian and overbearing. To others, it may be utopian and heroic. Plus, meaningful new twists on the style allow brutalism to evolve and change with the current architectural landscape.
As we move towards the future within architecture, design, and sustainability, it’s clear brutalism is coming with us—whether we like it or not.
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