New Brutalism and Why It Matters


Brutalist architecture flourished from 1951-1975, having descended from the modernist architectural movement of the early 20th century. It became popular with governmental and institutional clients in the UK, the US, France and the Soviet Union, and reached as far as Japan, India and Brazil.

After the Second World War, Great Britain launched its post-war social reconstruction as an extensive government programme whose construction included building new schools and new towns. The programme accommodated population ranging from 20,000-69,000.

Under the leadership of C.H. Aslin, prefabricated schools were designed in a ‘reduced’ Neo-Georgian manner or in a contemporary style modelled after Swedish architecture’s long-established Welfare State. It was in the 1930s that the construction of the Swedish Welfare State positively led to the social and cultural changes. This architectural style, with shallow-pitched roofs, brick walls, and picture windows so-called ‘people’s detailing’, presumably considered to be sufficiently ‘popular’ for the realisation of English social reform.

The style also garnered wide acceptance through the influence of The Architectural Review editors, J.M. Richards and Nikolaus Pevsner, who opted for a less rigorous approach to the creation of the built form by the early 1950s. In his 1955 lecture, ‘The Engishness of English Art’, Pevsner publicly asserted picturesque informality as the very essence of British culture by propagating the idea under the title of ‘The New Humanism’.[1]

The Swedish architect, Hans Asplund, coined the term Nybrutalism (New Brutalism) to describe a villa in Uppsala, designed by Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm in 1949. But it was in England rather than Sweden the radical reaction that it denotes first arose by Peter and Alison Smithson who, as the initial proponents of the movement, adopted the term in their practice to denote an ethos of uncompromising honesty in architectural forms and materiality. The Brutalists responded to the challenge of ‘people’s detailing’ by making a direct reference to the socio-anthropological roots of popular culture, while rejecting outright the petit-bourgeois respectability of Swedish empiricism.

The Hunstanton School - the Smithsons’ only built structure – remained an essential precept of Brutalist architecture and was finally published in 1954. The building emphasised ruthless adherence to the expressive articulation of mechanical and structural elements. In his essay “The New Brutalism” published in December 1955, the British architectural critic, Reyner Banham, acknowledged Alison Smithson’s first public use of the term New Brutalism in her description of a small house in SOHO in 1953. She wrote,”It is our intention in this building to have the structure exposed entirely, without interior finishes wherever practicable. The contractor should aim at a high standard of basic construction, as in a small warehouse.”

Designed to be built in brick, with exposed concrete lintels and an unplastered interior, this project made numerous references to the British warehouse vernacular of the late 19th century, antedating by a year the publication of the equally brutal avant project for Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul in Paris. The Smithsons followed their enthusiasm for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German-American architect who was commonly known as Mies, with a subtle reworking of Le Corbusier’s béton brut (raw concrete) manner: as they put it in 1959, ‘Mies is great but Corb communicates.’[2]

In the 1930s, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret made a subtle shift in their domestic architecture towards a topographic sensibility, contrasted with their apparently spontaneous acceptance of ‘vernacular’ construction as a mode of expression. Here the vernacular was being consciously embraced for its material articulation, for its capacity to enrich the abstract and reductive nature of the Purist style. Juxtaposition of contrasting materials became not only an expressive bricolage palette but also as a means of building.[3]

Unité d’Habitation built at Marseille in 1947-52 is a ‘brutalist’ social condenser where its basic methods of construction of concrete superstructure casting showed rough timber formwork. Each two-storey apartment cellular unit extending through the width of the building forms independent megaron, suspended within the concrete frame equipped with sun-baffle balconies and canopies as brise-soleil. Interior ‘streets’ on every other floor provide horizontal access to these interlocking cross-over units. An agglomeration of 337 private dwellings share other public domains that include a shopping arcade, a hotel and a roofdeck, a running track, a paddling pool, a kindergarten and a gymnasium.

Le Corbusier headed the masterplan design of Chandigarh, the new administrative capital of the states of Haryana and Punjab, in 1951. The capitol complex was declared World Heritage by UNESCO in July 2016, citing “The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier an outstanding contribution to the Modern Movement.” Chandigarh achieved monumentality in the design of three monuments as a direct response to the severity of the climate by appropriating Fatehpur Sikri’s concept of traditional ‘parasol’. By using this shell form either as a prelude (the Assembly entrance canopy), or as a constant (the vaulted roof of the High Court), or as a dominant (the crowning parasol of the Governor’s Palace), Le Corbusier was able to suggest the character and status of each institution with the intent to represent a modern Indian identity and free from any association with its colonial past.[4]

One notorious Brutalist building in the US is Yale Art and Architecture Building, designed by Paul Rudolph. Its signature corduroy bush-hammered concrete finish on the muscular facade disguises light filled interior in this seven-storey building consisting of over 30 floor levels. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building and Le Corbusier’s later buildings had inspired Rudolph for the design. Even though an architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, praised it as “spectacular tour de force” and the building received Award of Honor by the American Institute of Architects, it never reached critical acclaim as Rudolph had wished. On its dedication day in 1963, Pevsner criticised the building’s oppressive monumentality. Six years later, a fire broke out and the building’s misfortune affected Rudolph’s career. Subsequent insensitive renovations suffocated the interior spaces which persisted until Rodulph’s death in 1997. Gwathmey Siegel and Associates restored the interiors in 2008 bringing forth Rudolph’s original design intent and updated the renovation with current building codes.

Louis Kahn’s 1953 Yale Art Center, one of the most well-known post-war modernist buildings, stands in front of the Rudolph building. Reyner Banham described Kahn’s building as “uncompromisingly frank about its materials, ... is as revolutionary and unconventional as the use of the Plastic Theory in stressing Hunstanton’s steel H-frames [designed by the Smithsons].”

Nicolai Ouroussoff, the former architecture critic for The New York Times, wrote in his 2008 article that “the attacks against the Rudolph building had more to do with polemics than architecture. To classical modernists, the art and architecture school’s Brutalist aesthetic betrayed the taut glass-enclosed structures of Kahn’s museum. To postmodernists, it represented the indifference to history and context that they saw as the modernist movement’s greatest sin.”[5]

A complex and more diversified Brutalist architecture can be found in different regions and countries. Distinct ethical and conceptual discourses may assume cultural influences in each place that is manifested in their constructive and technological aspects. Brazil’s Brutalist movement is associated with the Paulista School (São Paulo), an informal group of Brazilian architects formed in the 1950s known for their exposed concrete structure, heavier massing and rougher finishes - in contrast to Carioca School (Rio de Jainero) of Niemeyer’s smooth and curvy surfaces. Main figures from Paulista School are João Batista Vilanova Artigas, Lina Bo Bardi and Paulo Mendes da Rocha. Furthermore, I.M. Pei, Gottfried Böhm, Marcel Breuer, Moshe Safdie, Kenzo Tange and Tadao Ando are amongst modernist architects who have had built notable Brutalists buildings in different parts of the world.

In his seminal 1955 essay “The New Brutalism”, Reyner Banham attempted to codify qualities of a Brutalist building: memorability as an image, clear exhibition of structure and valuation of materials ‘as found’

Banham further remarked “Remembering that an image is what affects the emotions, that structure, in its fullest sense, is the relationship of parts, and those materials ‘as found’ are raw materials, we have worked our way back to the quotation which headed this article ‘L’Architecture, c’est, avec des Matieres Bruts, etablir des rapports emouvants’ [‘Architecture is, with raw materials, establishing moving connections’][6], but we have worked our way to this point through such an awareness of history and its uses we see that The New Brutalism, if it is architecture in the grand sense of Le Corbusier’s definition, is also architecture of our time and not of his, nor of Lubetkin’s, nor of the times of the masters of the past. Even if it were true that the Brutalists speak only to one another, the fact that they have stopped speaking to Mansart, to Palladio and to Alberti would make The New Brutalism, even in its more private sense, a major contribution to the architecture of today.” Banham expanded this essay into a book published in 1966 entitled The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? detailing the emergence of Brutalism.

[1] K. Frampton, Modern Architecture : A Critical History, Thames & Hudson, London, 1992, p. 262-3
[2] Ibid., p. 226
[3] Ibid., p. 224
[4] Ibid., p. 229-30
[5] Ouroussoff, Nicolai. “Yale Revelation: Renewal for a Building and its Original Designer”, August 27, 2008.
[6] ‘L’Architecture, c’est, avec des Matieres Bruts, etablir des rapports emouvants’, Le Corbusier : Vers une Architecture.

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Henry Gunawan Tjhi
Henry leads HGT Architects in producing designs and studies in the field of architecture, interior design, adaptive re-use and master planning. His research covers issues of spatial, material and atmospheric qualities in architectural design.

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