Powerful, imposing structures with an unpretentious and unapologetic aesthetic, yet standing out for their bold individuality, brutalist buildings are difficult to fall in love with at first sight.
So what is brutalist architecture?
An architectural style that was quite popular in mid 20th century from the 1950s up until the 1980s, especially in civic projects and institutional buildings and in the form of sculpture-, brutalist architecture establishes the right of building materials and structural features to be seen, admired and even celebrated.
It even found its way into inetrior design.
Featuring visually heavy edifices with geometric lines, solid concrete frames, exaggerated slabs, double height ceilings, massive forbidding walls, exposed concrete and a predominantly monochrome palette, brutalist buildings prioritised function over form, and stripped-back minimalism over flashy design.
Interestingly, the term ‘brutalism’ has nothing to do with the cold, menacing aggro of this architectural style; the word is derived from the French phrase, béton burt, meaning ‘raw or unfinished concrete’. In fact, the negative perceptions around brutalist architecture could be attributed to this word association – such buildings are often seen as unfriendly, intimidating and even uninhabitable. Brutalism is considered one of the most divisive among all architectural styles, thanks to the strong emotions it evokes amongst the design community as well as the masses.
Robin Hood Gardens by English architects Alison and Peter Smithson 1972, London, England. (Photo: Claudio Divizia via Shutterstock). Brutalism as a term was first applied in 1954 by these architects, referencing French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s design style.
Brutalism – the genesis
Post-Modernist in spirit and quite basic in form, brutalism eschews decorative elements. This almost-monolithic architectural style represented a rejection of the eclectic and hedonistic trends that came to be associated with contemporary design in the early 20th Century.
The reconstruction in the post-war period, especially in Britain and Eastern European countries such as Russia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, was majorly influenced by socialist ideals, resulting in buildings that were utilitarian, austere and soulless but low cost. Concrete was not only inexpensive, it also allowed speedy construction.
Thus began a new era of ‘socialist architecture’.
The genesis of the brutalist design movement can be credited to French-Swiss Modernist architect Le Corbusier, who over a career spanning 50 years, designed several buildings across the world and is known for pioneering reinforced concrete columns that could support the weight of the building. Bare concrete columns, for instance, were a signature aesthetic of his buildings.
Following the war, Corbusier was commissioned to design a social housing project for the working class in Marseilles, France. Built in 1952 to house up to 1600 people in 337 apartments, the Unité d’Habitation represents the birth of brutalism – the building’s massive reinforced concrete framework, modular apartments and absence of decorative features kick-started a whole new architectural style that was embraced across the world and remained popular for almost three decades. The Unité d’Habitation was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2016.
Unité d’Habitation by Le Corbusier 1952 Marseilles, France
In many ways, Corbusier’s brutalism represented a reformist movement in building architecture, in which structural elements were deliberately given prominence over decorative features.
In addition to Britain and the USA, examples of the fortress-like brutalist architecture can be seen in most of East Europe (the former Soviet bloc), France, Italy and Germany as well as Japan, China and India, especially in university campuses, council and city buildings, public housing projects, museums, churches and schools.
For admirers of brutalism, London should be on the bucket list of destinations with buildings such as Trellick Tower, Brunswick Centre, Royal National Theatre, Centre Point and The Barbican Estate. Considered the brutalism capital of the world, London boasts of more than 50 brutalist buildings. Closer home, the iconic but endangered Sirius Tower in Sydney designed by Tao Gofers in a stacked box configuration is one of the more prominent examples of brutalism in Australia.
Sydney’s Sirius building (Image: Creative Commons)
Sydney architect and brutalist expert Glenn Harper had identified more than 30 buildings in 2017 including nine on the Sydney University’s Camperdown-Darlington campus. Three brutalist buildings in NSW have achieved heritage status: the hand-built home of German emigre architects Hugh and Eva Buhrich in Castlecrag, the family home of Harry and Penelope Seidler in Killara, and the former Torin Corporation factory in Penrith. There are also others in Melbourne and Canberra.
Peaking in New York City in the 1970s, brutalism began losing its position in popular architecture at the turn of the same decade, with the downfall blamed not only on its functional shortcomings, expensive maintenance and inability to remodel but also the way this architectural style came to be perceived as a symbol of urban decay and totalitarianism.
The grandeur of raw concrete was short-lived with the exposure causing visible damage to these buildings, and turning them into ugly monstrosities that also affected the streetscape. Brutalist buildings lost their appeal in public imagination and the architecture was derided as an example of bad taste.
Almost three decades later, brutalism is making a comeback in building design trends. Interestingly, some of the reasons that led to the decline of this architecture style – permanence, inflexibility and bulk – are being cited to support its revival.
Several brutalist buildings have been saved from demolition through public movements for preservation – some have been added to national heritage lists while others have achieved UNESCO heritage status. Many crumbling buildings that once proudly stood out on the skyline, have given way to newer buildings but there are several that are architectural landmarks and will, perhaps, remain standing thanks to their iconic status and the efforts of conservation groups.
Many brutalist buildings are being transformed through extensive restructuring and renovations to make them more habitable, current, and less of an eyesore. While some have been turned into residential apartments, quite a few have been reborn as hotels and arts complexes.
In terms of new construction, American rapper Kanye West’s Yeezy HQ designed with Willo Perron adopts brutalism in its concrete walls and furnishings. Several homes are also part of this resurgent design movement with architects revisiting the traditional concepts of brutalist architecture to create amazingly warm and cheerful living spaces, proving concrete can be beautiful too.
Social media has been playing an important role in the revival of brutalist architecture. An Instagram search for #Brutalism turns up more than 500,000 images. Several books have also been published on the subject, helping sustain popular interest.
Phaidon’s Atlas of Brutalist Architecture is a compendium of 878 buildings across 102 countries, featuring 20th Century masters such as Marcel Breuer, Lina Bo Bardi, Le Corbusier, Carlo Scarpa, Ernö Goldfinger, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, Oscar Niemeyer, and Paul Rudolph, as well as contemporary architects including Peter Zumthor, Alvaro Siza, David Chipperfield, Diller and Scofidio, Herzog & de Meuron, Jean Nouvel, and Zaha Hadid.
Rest assured, brutalist architecture is back in fashion again and here to stay instead of being relegated to the footnotes of architectural history.
Famous brutalist buildings from around the world
1. Sirius Building, Sydney
Designed by Tao Gofers in 1979, Sirius is an iconic architectural landmark in Sydney sitting on prime real estate in the Rocks Area, overlooking the harbour and offering generous views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Plans to demolish the public housing building failed following outrage from the local community with the court judgement agreeing with popular opinion.
2. Trellick Tower, London
Designed by architect Ernő Goldfinger, the 32-storey Trellick Tower was built in post-war London to provide modern and affordable housing to people who had lost their homes in WW2. The architect’s tyranny was quite well-known, inspiring Ian Fleming to name one of his villains after him. Completed in 1972, the building – once considered the ugliest in the world – received Grade II heritage status in 1998.
Photo by Tom Oliver Payne
3. Centre Point, London
One of London’s earliest skyscrapers, Centre Point was designed by George Marsh of R. Seifert and Partners architects as a concrete and glass structure rising 34 storeys above ground. Completed in 1966 and Grade II listed in 1995, Centre Point is currently being transformed into a residential building.
Photo by Tom Oliver Payne
4. Preston Bus Station, Lancashire, England
Completed in 1969 by Ove Arup and Partners to a brutalist design by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson of Building Design Partnership with E.H. Stazicker, the majestic Preston Bus Station was all set for demolition six years ago before receiving a reprieve.
Photo by Gareth Gardener
5. Kanye West’s Yeezy Studio, Calabasas, California
A design collaboration between rapper Kanye West and Willo Perron, the Yeezy Studio sits inside a 1970s concrete office building at a tech business park. The brutalism theme is expressed through concrete walls and polished concrete floors, monolithic bookshelves and matching black worktables,
Photo by Nicholas Cope
6. Economist Plaza, London
Formerly the offices of The Economist Magazine for 52 years, Economist Plaza was designed by Alison and Peter Smithson in the brutalist style and completed in 1964. The complex comprises of three towers of varying height, arranged around a raised plaza. The Grade II-listed building is currently being refurbished.
Photo by Grant Smith
7. The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, San Francisco, California
Designed by Pier Luigi Nervi and Pietro Belluschi in collaboration with local architects John Michael Lee, Paul A. Ryan and Angus McSweeney, the cathedral was built in 1971. The design process was as challenging as it was controversial with features such as impressive cantilevers, a saddle roof segmented into hyperbolic paraboloids, and dramatic interiors.
Photo by Connie Zhou/ OTTO
8. Boston City Hall, Boston
A building that has had its share of critics thanks to its brutalist architecture, the fortress-like Boston City Hall was a design collaboration between Gerhard Kallmann, Noel McKinnell and Edward Knowles, all admirers of Le Corbusier’s work. Constructed in 1968, the concrete building completed 50 years in 2018, surviving its many detractors and threats to demolish the structure.
Photo by John Tlumacki/ The Boston Globe
9. Harry and Penelope Seidler Home, Killara, Sydney
Built in 1967 based on their own design, the family home sits comfortably on the bushland site, accommodating four levels, all connected by a central half-flight of stairs. Featuring exposed concrete, Tasmanian Oak ceilings, stone-and-basalt fireplace and built-in furniture, this 1967 Wilkinson Award winning house is also listed on the NSW State Heritage Register.
Photo by Brenton McGeachie
10. Geisel Library, La Jolla, California
The futuristic, almost alien design of the Geisel Library is the brainchild of architect William L. Pereira, who has several memorable buildings to his name. Built in 1970, the library is named in honour of La Jolla native, Theodor Seuss Geisel, and houses a vast collection of Dr Seuss drawings, books, audio recordings and memorabilia.
Photo by Erik Jepsen