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Brutalist Architecture: The beauty of Rawness

The concept of brutalist architecture is quite an unusual one. It has never been “out of trend”. Generally, the genres and styles of design form a circle of the trend. What becomes old turns out to be new again, and this is true for all forms of art including music, fashion, and interiors. However, this is usually not the case with architecture. Nevertheless, Brutalism is the only form of architecture that defies this trend. It was at its peak in the mid-1970s and then replaced by various new styles of architecture. However, off late, we can see the trend of brutalist architecture coming live and applied in major projects around the globe. Let us delve deep and find answers to the question – what is brutalist architecture.

What is brutalist architecture?

Brutalist structures have a bold and unapologetic aesthetic and stand out in the environment, despite having no contextual association with the vicinity. This style of architecture came into existence around the mid-20th century. The inception of brutalist architecture can be seen in institutional and civic projects. Brutalism established the idea that a building has all rights to be seen in its raw finishes. Generally, structural systems are turned to be more ‘aesthetic’ through plaster, paint, elevation treatments, and ornamentation. However, in this genre, the core structure, the concrete frame, and the unconventional systems are admired and celebrated.

The term Brutalism derives from the French phrase “béton burt”. This translates to being ‘raw’ or ‘unfinished’.

Brutalist architecture mainly involves using heavy edifices with strong geometric lines, solid frames on concrete, and grand double-height spaces. Other characteristics include the extended slabs, huge forbidding walls, and exposed concrete facades. Brutalist architecture has a monochrome palette and the emphasis is more on the idea of “form follows function“. This replaced heavy ornamental designs with minimalism. The influence of brutalist architecture did not limit to the building exteriors. There are enough instances where interiors can be seen, planned on the guidelines of brutalism.

At times, brutalist buildings are considered inhabitable and intimidating. However, the beauty of brutalism focuses on the function and explores the real and raw aesthetics.

Features of a Brutalist design:

The typical features of a brutalist design set it apart from the rest. The following are the features of brutalist architecture:

  • Concrete Exteriors
  • Usually an unadorned and flat imagery
  • Windows usually formed by fenestrations in the walls
  • The outer skin is a continuous form
  • Repetition of Modular elements
  • Monolithic form of the structures

Examples of Brutalism in architecture:

So, now that we have understood that what is brutalist architecture and how it functions in the architectural realm, let us have a look at some of the living examples of brutalism in architecture:

1. The Geisel Library

The Geisel Library, named in honour of Audrey and Theodor Seuss Geisel, is the main library building for the University of California, San Diego. The building puts forward strong imagery of brutalism and futurism in architecture. Its brutalist features have made this structure to be the most recognized building on campus. Designed by William Pereira in 1970, this structure served as the Central Library.

The structure is designed with each floor protruding, thus giving the imagery of hands holding a stack of books. William Pereira had originally planned a steel-framed building but the design process was eventually shifted to be a reinforced concrete structure. This helped to save on construction and maintenance costs. This change in materials led to more sculptural design.

The tower if Geisel rises 8 stories to a height of about 110 ft. The two subterranean levels house the library sections, the study areas and computer labs. Whereas, the five upper stories of the tower are designed to have house collections, individual study space, and group study rooms. Moreover, the east side of this building is connected to Warren Mall by a 560 ft. long slate tiled path. This connection highlights the Stuart Collection work and is referred to as the Snake Path, Thus, Geisel Library is a great example of brutalist architecture.

2. The Trellick Tower

A grade II listed tower in London. The Trellick Tower was designed on the principles of Brutalism by Architect Erno Goldfinger. It was designed as social housing for the local council and features many unconventional design elements. Architect Erno Goldfinger took inspiration from Le Corbusier‘s modernist principles. Trellick tower stands tall with 31 stories i.e. approx. 322 feet tall and dominated the skyline of London with its brutalist principles.

The unique features here lie in the distinct separation of services from the dwelling units. The project comprises of nine different types of twin two-level flats. One of the unique features is that the main entry was designed on every third floor thus connecting to the service tower. An internal stairway was designed to direct occupants up or down into the flat internally. Thus, this led to limiting of public engagement in internal corridors allowing the flats above or below to enjoy a private barrier-free space with exposing windows on both sides. Thus, the design of Trellick Tower adds more clarity and answers the question of what is brutalist architecture, in a much better way.

3. Boston City Hall

Designed by Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell, Boston City Hall is yet another living example of the glory of Brutalism in architecture. This design was selected from 256 entries among the other entries that exhibited the common style of sleek facades and geometrical forms. The idea of having a flat brutalist facade thus became the ‘out of the box’ solution. The idea of depicting the internal functions of the building in a rugged concrete form was well appreciated. The City Hall was designed to facilitate an open and accessible place for civic and public activities. The idea was to connect most of the public activities from the lower levels to be directly connected to the plaza. Thus, we can say that brutalist architecture supported the idea of an open and barrier-free space.

Moreover, the major civic activities including the Council chamber, library, and the Mayor’s office, were all located above the public level. Whereas, the administrative offices were housed above these which lie behind the repetitive brackets of the top floors. This ensured clear and functional zoning of spaces.

Brutalist heritage of the Soviet Union

Post-war, Brutalism emerged as a low-cost building solution. Indeed a solution helped save the economy and yet helped to achieve the iconic imagery. The idea of brutalism influenced the Soviet Union in the 1970s, when function-oriented low-cost structures became the trend, thus giving rise to the concept of brutalist architecture in Soviet.

The Soviet Union tried to reflect their achievements in science and technology through abstract building elements like the monotone colour, abstract shapes, block-like shapes and massiveness of the structures. One of the common features included the use of raw materials like the stone slab and exposed steel. Striking examples of brutalist architecture in Soviet can be seen in the buildings of Ukraine in the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, the brutalism in the Soviet Union was an amalgamation of the technical processes and the Avant-Garde styles.

Notable Structures of Brutalist Architecture in Soviet Union:

National Museum of the History, Ukraine, 1975, The house of furniture, 1971, The Hotel “Salute”, 1976, Vernadsky National Library, Ukraine, 1989

Role of Brutalism in New York

Brutalist architecture of NYC is the most divisive architectural styles seen in the city. The noteworthy fact is that most of the Brutalist structures in New York were intended as affordable housing units. In the 1970s, as part of the Mitchell-Lama program, heavy concrete structures were built as economical housing alternatives to the middle-income New Yorkers. Moreover, Brutalism allowed minimal and functional interiors. This helped achieve the idea of ‘feeling of bigger space’ in the interiors. In addition, the flat facades had no ornamentation and fixtures thus saving on the construction cost. At the same time, these structures marked an iconic status in the city. Thus, brutalist architecture NYC was based on the idea of achieving ‘more with less’.

Notable Structures of Brutalist Architecture in New York:

Manhattan Plaza, circa 1977, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Chatham Towers, Kips Bay Towers, Holy Trinity Chapel of New York University, 33 Thomas Street.

Coming to an end, we can conclude that we not only understood what is brutalist architecture but also experienced its typical features and patterns. Brutalism as a movement was the only art movement in architecture to have resurfaced after its fall. The concept is thus based on two major ideas of design – ‘Form follows Function’ and ‘less is more’. Brutalism emerged as a popular style but survived beyond that.

It facilitated the Soviet Unions to re-establish their status after the devastating effects of the war. Whereas, looking at the Brutalist designs in New York, we can say that it made a way for architecture at a societal level. Brutalism in New York was used mainly as a means to create affordable housing in the upscale City of New York, where housing and economy for the middle class was a major issue. Therefore, Brutalism can be viewed as a tool of dynamism and restoration of self-confidence.