"Brutalism: Your buildings, belong to us..."

Brutalism: Dystopian Utopia

Written by Najee Wilson.
Architecturally speaking, Brutalism is an effort for modernity…It’s lack of ornament is a true vision of the future. One that is all too familiar in our daily lives, its at the point that we hardly notice these basic and generally unremarkable buildings. These utilitarian structures give the sense of a Dystopian Utopia, a world perfectly content in its brutish appearance. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Brutalism as an architectural style. I find its heavy shapes, harsh angles and packing box quality, charming. Brutalism is defined by time, post war era, characterized by severe, abstract geometries and most importantly the use of concrete as well as block and brick. Brutalism has arguably produced some of the most loathed structures. Buildings which when built had wildly different purposes that find themselves on the brink of demolishment. Many architects that we know and love the world over have contributed to the style both intentionally and unintentionally. So, before the wrecking balls swing, I heroically chain myself to its piloti to reflect on, debate, understand and learn from Brutalism.

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Image by Alex Spain.

Brutalism is widely regarded as architecture for architects. In the December 1955 issue of The Architectural Review, we see the first inkling of this new ‘isim’. Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces, which are at work. Where most architecture is to welcoming to its occupants, Brutalism takes the “fuck you very much approach”, confronting and belittling those who dare enter. With such varied opinions of where the style first occurred I say lets come back to that later, and for now lets identify what these structures consist of. Take a look around your own city, state or town for answers to these series of questions to help identify these structures.

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The old adage, “That baby has a face only a mother could love.” is one that certainly holds true when it comes to brute architecture. Is the building in question, of an “acquired taste”? Most buildings of the brutalism style are generally regarded as ugly, but Defining ugliness is difficult, and while it can describe a lack of elegance or perhaps even resolution, ugliness is also often ascribed to that which is simply unusual. Coco Chanel once said, “Elegance is Refusal”, sure she was referring to statement jewels but lets pretend that stark cantilevers are the statement jewels for Brutalist structures. Refusal of ornament and acceptance of alienation of conventional furnishing options make these fortresses of solitude more elegant with each sharp right angle.

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The exposed utilities such as pipes, electrical and ductwork give these otherwise stark interiors some life. The Centre Georges Pompidou is a great example of how this sort inside out topsy-turvy design helps to take the most mundane aspect of the structure and bring it center stage. Turn your attention to the overall shape of the structure. Are there more than 3 flat roof or outdoor terrace levels? Are the exterior walls painful to touch? Béton brut, which translates to “raw concrete”, unlike their Modernist heroes, who rendered clean white plaster over messy brick and concrete, the brutalists’ bare walls, revealed the naked honesty of construction. Naked walls cleanse the environment of cosmetic trappings and mass-produced finishes. Concrete is special in the sense that it fossilized the craft of construction creating texture as a byproduct of creation.

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Boston City Hall.

Paul Rudolph and John Johansen are Architects who would have never identified themselves as Brutalists. But the common thread that ties their works to later examples are those buildings were commissioned by clients ranging across public, corporate and religious sectors and under democratic, dictatorial, communist, socialist, and every other form of regime. That said, non-architects seem to have developed a fairly consistent consensus regarding what makes buildings “Brutalists.” Anti-Beauty was and is still a major point of contention for Brutalists and non-Brutalists alike. So, Does this building have a zealous fan club? Has someone proposed nuking the building? (Extra points if your organization is actively trying to destroy it or abandon it) Some of these structures now exist as a curiosity to be visited, photographed, and written about-not only as a place of contemplation but also a place to be contemplated. Brutalism stands alone as an architectural movement almost entirely defined by the photographic image.

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The structures themselves have not performed well over time and subsequent rusting and spoiling of surfaces has become a metaphor for urban decay more generally this has become the justification from their amputation from the metropolitan body. Where the buildings are readily torn down, they live on forever fetishized is their brutish glory. But it is certainly safe to say that Brutalism blossomed in Britain in a moment when post war social order was being radically redefined as a result of the communal task of total war, the nation had been unified by death and in turn realized a shared sense of humanity.

Brutalism was a tool of the state-led reconstruction to rectify the vast devastation. The most un-shocking revelation is that the style has become synonymous with governmental buildings, shopping malls destined to be the make out spots for teens far and wide, but lets not forget low rent public housing. Dimmer a film by Talmage Cooley and La Haine directed by Mathieu Kassovitz both come to mind when I consider what life could be if the world became rich with Brutalism. These literal farms for harvesting a life of penury seem to only irrigate certain roses that grown in these grassless jungles to a better life. Its most intriguing to me how the austerity of architecture can literally affect ones life be that negatively or positively.

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In contrast to the dubiously breathtaking beauty some these of the concrete structures, decay is everywhere. This decrepit wonderland ripe with broken glass and visible leaks, the concrete retains its powerful aura. If one took a stroll on its grounds one might become inspired to dream up a future world… dystopian or otherwise. Has the building in question been used as a setting for a dystopian or science fiction film or television series? Cinema has consistently looked to architecture as a metaphor for describing the human condition. However some examples of this are not real, merely a cinematic construct. Which makes me think of Le Corbusier, and his “Plan Voison” for Paris. Corbusier envisioned buildings available in a regular orthogonal grid occupying a very important part of the right bank of the Seine.

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The space was highly structured with two new traffic arteries pierced through the city, one on the east west, and the other on a north south. They pass through the fortifications and the suburban area. They have the ambition to link the capital to the four corners of the country, the major French and European cities. The crossroads at the intersection of these two avenues is the center of the plan, the center of the city in central France. In Dredd the comic series and subsequent film adaptations, Mega-City One, perhaps is the shining example of a dystopian utopia. Mega-City One spans the eastern seaboard of the US and encompasses all its major cities whose population exceeds 800 million. Residents of Mega-City One, likely call 200-story slum tower blocks home that are just as hulking and cold as one could ever dream up. In 1970 the future was made a reality for Roosevelt Island located in the middle of the East River. This offbeat off shoot of Manhattan has an incredible sense of uniformity one only an architect’s architect could appreciate.

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The fictional city, “Mega – City One”

Phillip Johnson and John Burgee proposed the island that was then known as Welfare Island and home to the cities hospitals, asylums and penitentiaries to be a full-fledged community. Unlike Corbusier, it forbade the use of automobiles on the island; the plan intended for residents to park their cars in a large garage and use public transportation to get around. The first phase of the project developed by Sert, Jackson & Associates features concrete facades, san serif font signage on each generically named storefront for example Flower Shop 568. This all paints a rather remarkable dystopian picture. Boat, car and train can reach Roosevelt Island, so if you’re looking to explore what the future was way back when then you should check it out Roosevelt Island.

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John Burgee and Phillip Johnson.

In contrast to Corbusier, Bernard Rudofsky’s “Architecture without Architects” attempts to break down our narrow concepts of the art of building by introducing the unfamiliar world of non-pedigreed architecture, Vernacular Architecture. This category of architecture based on localized needs and construction materials reflecting local traditions. Vernacular architecture tends to evolve over time to reflect the environmental, cultural, technological, and historical context in which it exists. Brutalism does not gel with this ideas because no factor like location, environmental constraints, or culture seem to effect the style overall. Phillip Johnson (protégé of Mies Van Der Rohe) Glass house is perhaps the shining example of what can happen when one designs with zero inhibitions. Taking the best elements and finessing them into The Glass House we understand as an essay in minimal structure, geometry, proportion, and the effects of transparency and reflection. Oddly enough a few notable structures have taken inspiration from their primitive vernacular cousins. Habitat 67 located in Montreal, Canada, this model community and housing complex designed by Israeli–Canadian architect Moshe Safdie resembles a Favela. Conversely, not all buildings exhibiting an exposed concrete exterior can be considered Brutalism, and may belong to one of a range of architectural styles including Constructivism, International Style, Expressionism, Postmodernism, and Deconstructivism.

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Bernard Rudofsky

Brutalism is grossly rude, it’s harsh, severe it seems cruel, and perhaps even unpleasant. Take a look at The Westyard Distribution Center; offering 100,000 square feet is situated on a massive site, which spans two Manhattan blocks from 31st and 33rd streets between 10th and Dyer Ave. Its original occupants used the space for everything from data processing to office space and even some manufacturing. The building original plan offers resilience and robustness, a willful monstrosity if you will. Honesty in how its plan, finishes informs the overall look to me is the essence of Brutalism.
“Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-produced society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work. Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.”
-Alison and Peter Smithson

Najee Wilson is a contributing writer for by such and such.

Photo credits: Fuck Yeah Brutalism, ArQtistic.com and Alex Spain.