The Brutalist divide: Concrete monsters or architectural icons?
12 October 2018
The architectural style of Brutalism, with its bold swathes of exposed concrete, has won over a new generation of admirers after dividing opinion for decades. A new book collects 850 examples from around the world, many of which were once dismissed as 'monstrosities'.
The vast grey structures of Brutalism, a style named after the French 'beton brut' meaning raw concrete, are often associated with post-war architecture and gained traction in the 1950s as towns and cities rapidly rebuilt after the destruction of the war.
However Brutalism isn’t a uniquely British or even European architecture style. Buildings following Brutalist principles are seen across the world, from churches in Canada to accommodation in Amsterdam, gymnasiums in Japan and hotels in Puerto Rico. As Phaidon's new book The Atlas of Brutalism puts it: “Never has an architecture travelled so far, so fast.”
It has even reached North Korea, where the concrete pyramidal structure of The Ryugyong Hotel reaches 105 storeys into the sky. Once the tallest building in the world, work has stopped multiple times since it began in 1987. Glass panels were added to the vast concrete structure but it remains incomplete and unopened, the tallest unoccupied building in the world.
Brutalism is divisive. In the documentary Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry Jonathan Meades describes Brutalist architecture as being “in reaction to the smooth, sleek, elegant work which had preceded it. It didn’t seek to be pretty, it didn’t seek to soothe. And it was soon the object of loathing. Monstrosity had a new word to prefix it – concrete.”
Buildings were derided as ugly, voted the worst buildings and, despite being only decades old, demolished. Meades argues: “We don’t expect films or novels or paintings or sculptures to be pretty so why should we expect buildings to be pretty? There are other qualities we seek. Nightmares are more captivating than sweet dreams, more memorable too.”
Tricorn Centre was voted Britain’s ugliest building in 2001 and after English Heritage decided not to list the building Portsmouth City Council staged a radio competition for the winner to set its destruction in motion by a gigantic bulldozer called the Cruncher.
Other icons of Brutalism that fell foul to the wrecking ball included Owen Luder’s Trinity Square Car Park, the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens and Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago.
Now there is an increasing appreciation for the buildings, not just for their bold facades but their clever interiors. “In the midst of this demolition binge, a new generation is learning to appreciate the extraordinary visual appeal of these buildings – as well as their laudable social ambitions,” says the Atlas.
Websites like sosbrutalism.org provide a platform for campaigns to save Brutalist buildings, with a colour-coding system to show if buildings are endangered or saved. Ongoing high-profile campaigns include the Save Our Sirius - to keep Australia’s Brutalist apartment block with views of Sydney Opera House - and Save Dunelm House, the concrete student union at Durham University.
The rise of Instagram has also renewed interest and appreciation of these buildings, with nearly half a million images tagged with the English word #brutalism alone.