Brutalism

Brutalism is an architectural style featuring bold, structurally innovative forms that use raw concrete as their primary material. At once recognizable for their massing and materiality, Brutalist buildings often reveal the means of their construction through unfinished surfaces that bear the imprints of the molds that shaped them. The name for the style is most commonly attributed to Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris), who specified béton brut (concrete that is raw or unfinished) in his Unité d’Habitation apartment buildings, the first of which was completed in Marseille in 1952.

Rough Translations

The brusque Anglicization of the term brut into Brutalism as a name for the style has led to an ease of mis-association with the adjective “brutal.” Despite sharing Latinate roots, the negative connotations that come along with the word brutal (defined as cruel, harsh, and unpleasant; worse still, as savage and barbaric) tend to reinforce aesthetic dislike of the style, although the architects who employed it had no intentions of frightening people with Brutalism. Scholars Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley also argue that Brutalist is an inaccurate descriptor in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (The Monacelli Press, New York, 2015), writing:

Separated from its original context and reduced in meaning, [Brutalism] became an all-too-easy pejorative, suggesting these buildings were designed with negative intentions.

Further Reading

Architecture critic Reyner Banham wrote an article for The Architectural Review in 1955 entitled “The New Brutalism,” which serves as a starting reference for all definitions of Brutalism. In his essay, despite warning that “The New Brutalism eludes precise description,” Banham lists three qualities of Brutalist objects:

  1. Memorability as an Image
  2. Clear exhibition of structure
  3. Valuation of materials for their inherent qualities ‘as found.’

As Banham further explains,

Remembering that an Image is what affects the emotions, that structure, in its fullest sense, is the relationship of parts, and that 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’], but we have worked our way to this point through such an awareness of history and its uses that 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.

Banham later expanded this essay into a book, which is now out of print: The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (Architectural Press, London, 1966), details the emergence of Brutalism. Much more recently (in 2014), Jonathan Meades compiled an A-Z of Brutalism for The Guardian.