It’s hard to define brutalism exactly, but it’s the kind of style you recognize when you see it. Brutalism is an architectural style rooted in modern architecture, emphasizing minimalist, angular constructions that feature bare building construction materials — especially concrete.
While brutalism can be regarded as a “brutal” aesthetic, its name actually comes from something else: “béton brut,” which is a French term that translates to “raw concrete”. Many times, you can single out brutalist buildings by this key feature of visible raw concrete.
Concrete — it’s the stuff much of our cities are built from, but somehow, it seems like we don’t really want to see it. We cover concrete in all sorts of things, from plastic to paint and even gravel; sometimes, it’s for practical purposes, like adding an extra layer of thermal insulation, while other times it’s for purely aesthetic reasons, but walk around most cities, and you won’t see much exposed concrete.
Unless, that is, you walk past brutalist buildings.
Brutalism has its origins in modern architecture, drawing from the famous “form follows function” approach that defines much of industrial design. It’s a minimalistic, simple, and practical style, rooted in necessity rather than aesthetics — though this is not to say that brutalist buildings can’t have interesting designs.
Brutalism sought to adapt principles of simplicity that were already taking shape in the early 20th century in Europe and propel them into a practical but brash fashion during the WWII reconstruction.
Although the style became popular in socialist countries and became, at least in part, associated with socialism, brutalism actually originated in the last place you’d expect: Britain.
London may have its famous skyscrapers, but much of the British landscape is actually dominated by small, quaint houses — a striking difference to the large, apartment blocks present in most other countries.
As Britain was trying to rebuild as quickly as possible following WWII, it needed to prioritize efficiency, and efficiency meant replacing many small houses with a few larger buildings. Modernist architects were increasingly being sought out, and brutalism emerged as a counter-cultural approach to the dominant design in the country at the time.
Although it is an architectural style, brutalism has come to represent something of a political visual style. Brutalism is rooted in simplicity and functionality, adopting the straightforward principles of a post-WWII world that needs quick reconstruction. But it’s also a bit of an anti-aesthetic style. It was inspired by the avant-garde, brash idiosyncrasies of architects that wanted a departure from the old styles, but also became associated with a departure from the old way of thinking about society. It was a rejection of the old way of doing things, both in architecture and in society. The early brutalists saw it as a philosophical approach to architectural design, a prioritization of function over form, creating simple, honest, and functional buildings that accommodate people.
These ideas quickly slid into other territories. Brutalism is a branch of modern architecture, and several other sub-styles also favored function over form, but brutalism became associated with a socialist utopian ideology. Some of its early proponents embraced this idea, and unsurprisingly, the communist bloc also embraced brutalism.
Not only did the idea of large communal buildings fit in with the communist ideology, but brutalist buildings were also more affordable than many alternatives, and they could be built with relative ease and pretty quickly.
Perhaps brutalism became too strongly associated with socialism because at some point, it seemed to lose a great deal of its aesthetic appeal in the west. The movement which aimed to make the concept of building construction transparent and comprehensible, without romanticism and obscurities, was obscured by the socialist air of brutalism
For decades, brutalism was never truly abandoned but it never really became popular either outside of the communist bloc. The passage of time didn’t help it either — concrete often ages ugly and takes on a rather unpleasant look.
Massively concrete buildings also became associated with economic hardship as many places struggling to build quickly and cheaply relied on brutalist architecture. The utopian ideas linked with brutalism gave way to the practicality of the style to move into the forefront, although some (again, in the communist bloc) also used brutalism for monumental projects.
However, brutalism received a rather unexpected boon from many universities. In the 1950s, 1960s, and even 1970s, many universities were undergoing a transition process and were trying to expand as higher education became more accessible to more people. In the US, brutalism gained a foothold, especially on university campuses, where the ease of construction was particularly appealing.
Several iconic American brutalist buildings were erected during this period, and while some stoked a lot of discussion and polarization (and some were widely hated), some brutalist campus buildings became very popular in this period. For instance, the Yale Art and Architecture Building was a milestone in the acceptance of brutalism in the US (and beyond). The building’s construction was given a lot of press and featured in magazines such as the New York Times and Time Magazine.
But by the 1980s, the brutalist movement was all but over. In wet or damp climates, the concreteweathers greatly, turns black, or gets covered in water streaks or even vegetation, prompting widespread distaste. By the 1980s, so many socialist countries had fully embraced brutalism that the movement became associated with authoritarianism. Its “cold” and rigid appearance also fell out of favor, especially in Europe and the US, where it was associated with the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. In 2005, a British TV show ran a public vote to select twelve buildings that ought to be demolished, and eight of those selected were Brutalist buildings. Brutalism is often quoted as the most hated type of architecture and it often stirs heated discussions and draws in a lot of criticism.
But unexpectedly, brutalism still managed to gain a foothold.
Firstly, brutalism gained a small but loyal following. Brutalism appreciation groups are active on social media, and as people saw brutalist buildings disappear from their cities more and more, they also started to appreciate and care about them more. Brutalism has become fashionable yet again, at least for a small but vocal crowd. But perhaps more interestingly, brutalism also started to change and adapt.
Because brutalism lacks clearly defined rules, and its main appeal (functionality and cost-effectiveness) is universal, it was applied in different ways in different areas. In the tropics, brutalist buildings are often inundated by lush plants and vegetation; what looks cold and rigid in the UK or eastern Europe is lush and fertile in places like Brazil or Costa Rica.
The juxtaposition of concrete and plants injected new life into brutalism, with the lush greenness complementing many of brutalism’s initial shortcomings. Eco-brutalism gave buildings a new face and gave new directions to this once-hated style.
Love it or hate it, this unique style has left quite a mark on architecture. From counterculture movement to philosophy to an eco rebirth, brutalism has been through a lot in just a few years. Maybe, just maybe, it has even more to give.