Brutalism in Architecture: 5 Concrete Examples
Do you find Brutalism ugly?
What is Brutalism?
Brutalism was an intentionally tough-looking (and to many, unsightly) school of architecture featuring rough-cast concrete forms that began in England in the 1950’s.
After World War II, Britain required housing for many displaced people and so the government set goals to create 300,000 new homes yearly. These goals were able to be met by utilizing the prefabrication skills so recently learned during the war and the years of arms manufacturing by pouring concrete into frames known as “shutters”.
The Brutalist movement, despite having ended around the 1980’s, still generates plenty of debate between conversationists who admire its logical use of hard-wearing material and visible construction methods, and those who either lived in said buildings and vocal critics of the style who believe it was simply too ugly to exist.
Much of the ugliness came from not the use of heavy-duty concrete, but from it being uncared for – the rainy and often dark skies of England caused moss and dark patches to grow on the material over time, the steel reinforcements to rust, and the scourge of cities, spray paint, was often used to mark up those large empty walls that seemed to be begging for some good old-fashioned tagging.
Robin Hood Gardens
The Robin Hood Gardens housing estate in East London, England was designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, and for years was unfortunately considered oppressively confining and full of crime as well despite the good intentions of its designers.
But ugly or not, these buildings do exist, and some will for a long time as they have since been endowed with historical significance, some even receiving awards. But there are also those that are in danger of being demolished, like The Orange County Government Center in Goshen, N.Y.
J. Edgar Hoover Building
The J. Edgar Hoover Building is one of the buildings that suffers from deferred maintenance and failing components, and is unfortunately now considered outdated for the current work of the FBI. The government plans to demolish all 2.4 million square feet of it and build afresh in a new location.
Having grown up in Queens, NY and taken numerous classes on the CUNY Queens College campus when growing up, the Student Union building will always epitomize the Brutalist movement for me. I fell in love with massive concrete structures early, and for whatever reason even as an adult I gravitate toward these forms, no matter how bunker-like they feel.
And speaking of bunkers, Brutalism is making a comeback in Israel (for example, at student center at the Ben Gurion University in Beersheva), where buildings designed in that style provide people with a greater sense of safety, whether it be true or simply perceived.
“A curved road is a donkey track, a straight road, a road for men.”
Personally (watch out, my inner Le Corbusier is aching to be set free!) I think concrete is a wonderful material, and can be used to express many different styles, not just raw, boxy forms. In fact, many buildings built in the Brutalist style have undergone updates to their concrete facades. For example, the Park Hill estates designed in the 1950s by city architects Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith has undergone an eight-year renovation to its stained and neglected megastructure. And who can argue with the beauty of that?
Trellick Tower, located in West London and designed by Ernő Goldfinger, was completed in 1973 and is a fascinating example of the Brutalist movement, employing logical design using the harshness and heaviness of concrete… while creating extremely bright and livable spaces inside. I think the detached elevator tower is gorgeous!
The National Theatre, designed by Denys Lasdun, sits on the banks of the Thames and is the proud home of three theatres. Giving the impression of an urban mountain, this structure was expressed in raw concrete.
Western City Gate in Belgrade, Serbia (Genex Tower)
Genex Tower in Belgrade, Serbia on the other hand, stretches 35 stories into the sky and was intended to serve as a welcoming gate into Belgrade from the west. The towers meet in the middle by a revolving restaurant, and the taller of the towers is a residential (the shorter tower serves as commercial space).
- Jonathan Glancey, The Story of Architecture. Dorling Kindersley Publishing, New York, 2000.