Brutalism


It was mocked and misunderstood. But it produced some of the most sublime, awe-inspiring buildings on the planet. Jonathan Meades, our speaker at the 2014 Antony Dale lecture on Concrete poetry, gives his A-Z. This is an abridged version. For the full version in pdf format, click here.
 
Asplund
The term nybrutalism, new brutalism, was the jocular coinage of architect Hans Asplund. He applied it to a small brick house in Uppsala designed in 1949 by his contemporaries Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm. Were it not for the material, the house might stand as the very example of the light, ascetic, prim, nordic modernism that afflicted Britain for some years after the war. The Festival of Britain in 1951 was actually The Festival of Plagiarising Scandinavian Architecture.
 
Béton brut
Reyner Banham, an architectural critic whose prose may cause all but the entirely insentient to wince, expanded Asplund’s coinage, turning it into a bilingual pun on the French béton brut – literally raw concrete.
 
Cité Radieuse
Before the war, Le Corbusier’s work was sleek, smooth, right-angled, rational. Postwar, he dumped a technical manual in favour of ecstatic poetry. La Cité Radieuse in Marseille, aka l'Unité d'Habitation, was the first of his exercises in sculptural and plastic moulded concrete. L’Unité gave the word brutalism a meaning.
 
Dystopia
Brutalism is the decor of dystopian films, literature and comics, just as gothic is for horror. See Alphaville, A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, Get Carter, La Haine..

The Trinity Square car park, Gateshead, as seen in Get Carter

Expressionism
Brutalism, as Nikolaus Pevsner pointed out with some distaste, had its roots in expressionism, the jagged, often counter-intuitive, mostly brick idiom that flourished in the Netherlands, Germany and the Baltic states from 1910 to 1930.
 
Förderer
The boundary between architecture and sculpture, which Le Corbusier had broached, was now comprehensively trampled. The architects who most took advantage of this were Walter Förderer in Switzerland and Germany, Gottfried Böhm in and around Cologne, and Fritz Wotruba in Vienna. Their work defines brutalism.
 
Geology
Brutalist architecture did not seek to represent geological formations. It sought to create buildings that matched such formations, even challenged them. Mankind could take on nature and win, could make its own yardangs and hoodoos.
 
H
To anyone under the age of 50, brutalism belongs to the age of their non-existence. But now, architects have gradually turned to brutalism for inspiration. The most prolific is Jurgen Mayer Hermann, who trades as J Mayer H.
 
Imperial College London
Sheppard Robson’s magnificent hall of residence in South Kensington was finished in 1963 and demolished 42 years later. It is not shown on the practice’s website. Nor are its slightly later and happily extant lecture halls at Brunel University. Are its current architects embarrassed by their predecessors’ work?
 
Jasari
The School of Advanced Proxenetism, in Albania’s capital Tirana, was designed by the late Nexhat Jasari, whose other works included soundproofed containers, experimental dungeons and the Presidential Bison Run.
 
Konstantinov
Skopje in Macedonia was largely destroyed by an earthquake in July 1963. The masterplan for rebuilding was undertaken by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. Most of the actual buildings were designed by Yugoslav architects, among them Janko Konstantinov, whose post-office complex presages the wild and delirious spomenik memorials to the National Liberation War (ie the second world war).

Jonathan Meades in front of Skopje post office, Macedonia

Luder
The three finest works of British brutalism were designed by Rodney Gordon of the Owen Luder Partnership. They were: Eros House in Catford, London; the Tricorn in Portsmouth; and the Trinity in Gateshead.
 
Monstrosity
It took more than three-quarters of a century before high Victorian architecture began to be rehabilitated through the efforts of John Betjeman, Evelyn Waugh, etc. Their pleas went unheeded. Thousands of “monstrosities” were destroyed. The survivors are now widely valued, and lost ones are mourned. We have learned nothing.

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New
Built along brutalist lines, new post-war flats had amenities, plus central heating, and were welcomed by their occupants. Social-housing projects were not yet bins for sociopaths. But they would soon become so: if blocks are unguarded, if there are no janitors, if they are not maintained … You don’t buy a car and never get it serviced.
 
Organisation Todt
The Nazis’ civil-engineering arm, named after Fritz Todt, built motorways to achieve minimal damage to the landscape. After Todt’s death in 1942, the OT was directed by Albert Speer. Its architects included Werner March, author of the 1936 Berlin Olympics stadium, and the startlingly prolific Friedrich Tamms, who created the designs for 60 different types of gun emplacement, bunkers, shelters, flak towers, U-boat bases, etc. Tamms was, arguably, the first brutalist.
 
Parent
The church of Saint Bernadette in Nevers, consecrated in 1966, is the work of architect Claude Parent and theorist Paul Virilio. For some years, they had been studying the Atlantic Wall, the coastal fortifications built – by slave labour – along the west of Europe from 1940-44. The similarities between these structures and brutalist architecture had been brushed under the carpet. In their huge bunker-like church, Parent and Virilio make the link explicit.

Sainte Bernadette church, Nevers

Quebec
Canada’s most extreme examples of brutalism are in Quebec City, which boasts Dimitri Dimakopoulos’s boorish Concorde Hotel; and in Quebec Province, home to Moshe Safdie’s thrilling Habitat 67, a collision of 150 residential units in Montreal that appear to teeter perilously.
 
Robbins
The Committee on Higher Education, chaired by economist Lionel Robbins, sat from 1961-63. Its report recommended a massive expansion of tertiary education. One minor nail, a drawing pin, in brutalism’s coffin was its rapid espousal by the Wilsonian establishment, which caused half-witted spartist protest-kids to identify it with repressive authority.
 
Soreq
Those protest-kids have no doubt directed many howls of self-righteous anger at the Soreq Nuclear Research Plant in Israel. The architect was Philip Johnson who, in his long life (he lived to 99 and never retired), jumped on many bandwagons and even started a few. One of this creepy socialite’s many enthusiasms was Hitler, which makes an Israeli commission a matter of wonder.
 
Tange
Kenzo Tange’s viscerally exhilarating Yamanashi press and broadcasting centre in the Japanese city of Kofu is a vast machine that seems to be missing vital parts.


Kenzo Tange's Yamanashi press and broadcasting centre, Kofu, Japan

Utzon
The Danish architect Jørn Utzon is celebrated for the Sydney Opera House. His essays in brutalism were failures, tentative and timid. Indeed, this was an idiom for which Scandinavians seemed to have had no stomach.
 
Vanbrugh
The proto-brutalist John Vanbrugh’s buildings were widely lambasted while he was still alive. Blenheim was described as “a quarry”.
 
World’s End
This estate of seven London towers, between King's Road and the Embankment, was designed by Jim Cadbury-Brown and Eric Lyons. More than any other London scheme, it demonstrates brutalism’s debt to expressionism, explicitly that of Hamburg and Bremen.
 
X
Team X was a loose grouping of youngish architects, manifesto folk, who in 1953 broke with CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne) to pursue a less rational architecture – in other words, they had understood the prevailing change of mood. The group included Le Corbusier’s collaborators Shadrach Woods and George Candelis, who had been instrumental in changing that mood, and the Smithsons.
 
Yale
Paul Rudolph began his career, in Florida, by designing light and airy houses. He moved from these chamber pieces to full-blown and very noisy symphonies: massive, lumbering, sullen campus buildings that manifest a spectacular indifference to what anyone thinks of them. This is sod-you-ism at its most stubborn. Rudolph was dean of Yale’s architecture school and author of that faculty’s building.
 
Zapotec
During the 1920s, there was a California craze for neo-Mayan architecture or, more precisely, exterior decoration. The pre-Columbian modes that attracted attention in the 1960s were the Zapotec and the Inca: massive, bold, cyclopean, devoted to 45° slopes. Where building ends and natural formations begin is often moot.
 

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