Brutalist architecture  

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Brutalism at the Schoonselhof cemetery. Unidentified headstone seen from the back (rear). Photo © JWG
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Brutalism at the Schoonselhof cemetery. Unidentified headstone seen from the back (rear).
Photo © JWG

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Brutalism is an architectural style that spawned from the modernist architectural movement and which flourished from the 1950s to the 1970s.

The term Brutalist Architecture originates from the French béton brut, or "raw concrete", a term used by Le Corbusier to describe his choice of material. In 1954, the English architects Alison and Peter Smithson coined the term, but it gained currency when the British architectural critic Reyner Banham used it in the title of his 1954 book, The New Brutalism, to identify the emerging style. The style has been refined at times and experienced historic appreciation and resurgences into the twenty-first century.

Examples are typically very linear, fortresslike and blockish, often with a predominance of concrete construction. Initially the style came about for government buildings, low-rent housing and shopping centres to create functional structures at a low cost, but eventually designers adopted the look for other uses such as college buildings.

Critics of the style find it unappealing due to its "cold" appearance, projecting an atmosphere of totalitarianism, as well as the association of the buildings with urban decay due to materials weathering poorly in certain climates and the surfaces being prone to vandalism by graffiti. Despite this, the style is appreciated by others, with some of the angular features being softened and updated in buildings currently being constructed in Israel and Latin America, and preservation efforts are taking place in the United Kingdom.

Brutalism as an architectural style also was associated with a social utopian ideology, which tended to be supported by its designers, especially Alison and Peter Smithson, near the height of the style. The failure of positive communities to form early on in some Brutalist structures, possibly due to the larger processes of urban decay that set in after World War II (especially in the United Kingdom), led to the combined unpopularity of both the ideology and the architectural style.

Contents

History

The early style was inspired largely by the work of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, and in particular his Unité d'Habitation (1952) and the 1953 Secretariat Building in Chandigarh, India.

Brutalism gained considerable momentum in the United Kingdom during the mid twentieth century, as economically depressed (and World War II-ravaged) communities sought inexpensive construction and design methods for low-cost housing, shopping centres, and government buildings. Nonetheless, many architects chose the Brutalist style even when they had large budgets, as they appreciated the 'honesty', the sculptural qualities, and perhaps, the uncompromising, anti-bourgeois, nature of the style.

Combined with the socially progressive intentions behind Brutalist streets in the sky housings such as Corbusier's Unité, Brutalism was promoted as a positive option for forward-moving, modern urban housing. In practice, however, many of the buildings built in this style lacked many of the community-serving features of Corbusier's vision, and instead, developed into claustrophobic, crime-ridden tenements. Robin Hood Gardens is a particularly notorious example, although the worst of its problems have been overcome in recent years. Some such buildings took decades to develop into positive communities. The rough coolness of concrete lost its appeal under a damp and gray northern sky, and its fortress-like material, touted as vandal-proof, soon proved vulnerable to spray-can graffiti.

Criticism and reception

Brutalism has some severe critics, including Charles, Prince of Wales. His speeches and writings on architecture have excoriated Brutalism, calling many of the structures "piles of concrete". "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe", said Prince Charles at the Corporation of London Planning and Communication Committee's annual dinner at Mansion House in December 1987. "When it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble." Much of the criticism comes not only from the designs of the buildings, but also from the fact that concrete façades do not age well in damp, cloudy maritime climates such as those of northwestern Europe and New England. In these climates, the concrete becomes streaked with water stains and sometimes with moss and lichens, and rust leaches from the steel reinforcing bars.

At the University of Oregon campus, outrage and vocal distaste for Brutalism led, in part, to the hiring of Christopher Alexander and the initiation of The Oregon Experiment in the late 1970s. This led to the development of Alexander's A Pattern Language and A Timeless Way of Building.

In recent years, the bad memories of under-served Brutalist community structures have led to their demolition in communities eager to make way for newer, more traditionally-oriented community structures. Despite a nascent modernist appreciation movement, and the identified success that some of this style's offspring have had, many others have been or are slated to be demolished.

Theodore Dalrymple, a British author, physican, and political commentator, has written for City Journal that Brutalist structures represent an artifact of European philosophical totalitarianism, a "spiritual, intellectual, and moral deformity." He called the buildings "cold-hearted", "inhuman", "hideous", and "monstrous". He stated that the reinforced concrete "does not age gracefully but instead crumbles, stains, and decays", which makes alternative building styles superior.

Brutalism today

Although the Brutalist movement was largely dead by the mid-1980s, having largely given way to Structural Expressionism and Deconstructivism, it has experienced an updating of sorts in recent years. Many of the rougher aspects of the style have been softened in newer buildings, with concrete façades often being sandblasted to create a stone-like surface, covered in stucco, or composed of patterned, pre-cast elements. Modernist architects taking this approach in recent projects include Steven Ehrlich, Ricardo Legorreta, and Gin Wong. The firm of Victor Gruen and Associates has revamped the style for the many courthouse buildings it has been contracted to design. Architects from Latin America have been reviving the style on a smaller scale in recent years. Brutalism has recently experienced a major revival in Israel, due to the perceived sense of strength and security the style creates.

Even in Britain, where the style was most prevalent (and later the most reviled), a number of buildings recently (as of 2006) have appeared in an updated Brutalist style, including Solidspace's 1 Centaur Street in Lambeth, London, and Elder & Cannon's The Icon in Glasgow in Scotland. The 2005 Stirling Prize shortlist contained a number of buildings (most notably Zaha Hadid's BMW Central Building and the eventual winner, Enric Miralles' Scottish Parliament Building) featuring significant amounts of exposed concrete, something that would have been regarded as aesthetically unacceptable when the prize was inaugurated nine years previously.

There also has been a reappraisal of first-generation Brutalist architecture and a growing appreciation that dislike of the buildings often stems from poor maintenance and social problems resulting from poor management, rather than the designs themselves. In 2005 the British television channel Channel 4 ran a documentary, I Love Carbuncles, which placed the U.K.'s Brutalist legacy in a more positive light. Some Brutalist buildings have been granted listed status as historic and others, such as Gillespie, Kidd and Coia's St. Peter's Seminary, named by Prospect magazine's survey of architects as Scotland's greatest post-war building, have been the subject of conservation campaigns. The Twentieth Century Society has campaigned against the demolition of buildings such as the Tricorn Centre and Trinity Centre Multi-Storey Car Park.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Brutalist architecture" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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