Supporters of brutalist architecture are attempting to revive the much-maligned building style by organising a month-long campaign in Melbourne.
Derived from the term ‘béton-brut’, French for ‘raw concrete’, the brutalist building movement took off in Australia between the 1950s and 1970s in the post-war period, offering a building type that was cost-effective and sustainable, and had well-designed spaces that could accommodate many people. Featuring Besser blocks, large, nearly hollow, concrete bricks, these buildings were ugly and lacked visual appeal.
Australian buildings that qualify for the brutalist label include Sydney's UTS Tower and the Police Centre in Surry Hills, Melbourne's Total House and Harold Holt Swim Centre, the Perth Concert Hall, and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra among many more.
These structures are now undergoing a revival, says Rachel Elliot-Jones, a convenor of the Brutalist Block Party, a month-long campaign designed to bring the unpopular building style into the spotlight. She explained that supporters of the building style are drawn to the materiality and the raw nature of these buildings, and would like to preserve the diversity and significance in the city.
The Melbourne campaign will feature a program of talks and events including a culinary event incorporating a ‘brutalist’ meal.
The University of NSW's director of urban development and design, Professor James Weirick, a big fan of the building style, explains that the architectural design that evolved in the post-war era is fraught with contradiction, as it combined a social purpose of creating a community with a Cold War focus on protection and fortification.
The current campaign to reclaim brutalism is happening at a time when many of its buildings are being demolished. Though the 1965-built Total House car park and office building received Victorian heritage listing in 2014, others are being redeveloped into more modern structures; for instance, Greenland is developing the site of the former Sydney Water Board building on Bathurst St into an 82-storey residential tower with 500 apartments, while Sirius, a 78-apartment brutalist social housing tower in The Rocks in Sydney is also being redeveloped.
Weirick believes the best brutalist buildings are the ones put to public use such as the University of Technology, Sydney building. However, the downside of brutalist architecture is that the buildings have limited use and are hard to adapt for other purposes. Sydney University's law faculty building on the corner of King and Philip Streets is being demolished because it can't be updated successfully.
Image: The Sirius public housing building in The Rocks, Sydney has been recommended for heritage listing but the Government still wants to relocate tenants to make way for development (Picture: WolterPeeters)