The History and Context of the Brutalist Architecture Movement
There are many words used to describe Brutalist architecture: aggressive, soulless, dystopian on the one hand; brave, rebellious, honest on the other. It is perhaps the most maligned movement in architectural history, dividing experts and laypeople alike. It can be, to many, hard to understand architecture designed to be ardently anti-aesthetic, but the Brutalist architecture movement sits within its own social and historical context. It is this which we’ll explore in this article.
The Brutalist movement descended from the Modernist movement, in the years following the Second World War, quite as Modernism had arisen as a reaction to the societal fragmentation of World War One. It was born out of a revulsion with the perceived frivolity and prettiness of 1930s and 1940s architecture in the Beaux-Arts style. For young architects, such ornamented, refined aesthetics had no place in a world ravaged by the horrors of war.
Like Modernism before it, Brutalism sought to bring the hidden into the light. As with the Pompidou Centre in Paris, whose Modernist design placed its constituent parts on the exterior, so Brutalist architecture displayed its raw materials in plain sight. Its uncompromising concrete, its external elevations and whole-site architectural plan in full view graphically expressed the functions and people-flows of the building. With Brutalism, there are no secrets, nothing is hidden behind a beautified facade. One could read it as an acceptance of the ugliness inside humanity – a direct commentary on the shock of the War and its after-effects on the collective psyche.
In this way, it is quite accurate to describe Brutalist architecture as dystopian. Indeed, it has become the chosen decor for the dystopian genre. As Gothic architecture is to horror, so Brutalism is to dystopia. Films such as A Clockwork Orange and La Haine, and countless others, set themselves within Brutalist inner-city tower blocks or similar structures.
It’s often been said that the rise of Brutalism within London in the mid-twentieth century paralleled the so-called breakdown of society. Whilst numerous political and financial aspects were the principal contributors to this perceived decline in British values, many have blamed the stark, imposing environment of the tower block, that exposed concrete, and the close-quarter living conditions of inhabitants, as exacerbating working-class tensions. This is a rather reductionist view that seeks to obfuscate the real issues at hand. The truth, perhaps, is the other way round – that Brutalism was the visual representation of what was going on in the hearts and minds of the British youth and working classes in these tumultuous post-War years.
Brutalist architecture became a popular choice for municipal public buildings, shopping centres, and many universities. Mostly, as with the London tower blocks, this was because of the inexpensive construction and design methods that the Brutalist style offered. In other contexts, large-budget projects chose it for its sculptural qualities, and for the profounding anti-bourgeois, anarchic nature of the style.
The strong criticism levelled at Brutalism is not completely unfounded. Along with the disparaging voices alluding to the rather offensive sight the buildings offer (at least to the untrained eye), there’s the perfectly legitimate criticism that the concrete facades aren’t well suited to maritime climates. Northwestern Europe is an example of the damp, cloudy climate that’s so unsuitable for concrete exteriors. Moss and lichen proliferate, the concrete becomes streaked with water stains, and the steel reinforcing bars so characteristic of Brutalist buildings are prone to unsightly rust stains. Perhaps such flaws are all part of the same Brutalist mindset, mirroring the urban decay of society at large.
The Death and the Ghost of Brutalism
The glory days of Brutalism are mostly behind us now, as – by the mid-1980s, the movement evolved into Structural Expressionism and Deconstructivism in architecture. Deconstructivism, in particular, followed on the message of discord and fragmentation that was at the heart of Modernism and Brutalism, whilst Structural Expressionism looked optimistically towards the technological future.
Of the Brutalist buildings that remain, subsequent refurbishments have sought to soften the look, sandblasting the concrete facades and adding exterior cladding. It’s the latter that was one of the main causes of the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy, where an estimated 60-80 people lost their lives as a result of cladding to the original 1967 Brutalist tower block that was not fire safe. Echoes of the Brutalist message rise once more – you can’t make poverty go away by hiding it behind pretty facades.