Brutalism is one of the most contentious architectural movements, and opinions on its legacy are still divided. Others criticize it for what they feel to be a lack of tenderness and empathy, while others see it as a potent representation of the era's values.
Several brutalist structures have been destroyed because of their alleged deformities and associations with societal decline. However, there has been an increasing understanding of the distinctive qualities of brutalist architecture in recent years, and some structures have even been preserved and honored.
The argument over brutalism is a reflection of broader issues with architecture's purpose in society and the relationship between its form and its function.
Why Brutalism Took Over?
For many reasons, brutalism is a significant architectural movement. It signifies a shift from the extravagant ornamentation and decoration of earlier architectural styles by highlighting raw materials and a focus on utility.
It represents a broader skepticism about the role of technology and progress in society, emphasizing instead a feeling of earthiness and connection to the planet. Finally, brutalism has emerged as a significant cultural and historical marker of the mid-20th century, representing the social, political, and economic factors that shaped the period.
The style is characterized by a range of features, including:
- Raw, exposed concrete surfaces: The use of raw, exposed concrete surfaces, which are left unpainted to highlight the material's rough grain, is one of the traits that distinguish brutalist structures.
- Monumental scale: Large, imposing structures with a feeling of heaviness and stability are typical of brutalist architecture.
- Bold, blocky shapes: The style is distinguished by stark, blocky forms that frequently have a sense of geometric abstraction.
- Functionalism: Brutalist structures place an emphasis on utility and functionality over aesthetics.
- Lack of ornamentation: Brutalist architecture generally lacks ornamentation in favour of emphasising the building's raw materials and structural components.
- Expressive structures: Cantilevers, flying buttresses, and other innovative construction elements are frequently found in brutalist architecture.
- Intense light and shadow: The building's dramatic impact is enhanced by the use of raw, exposed concrete surfaces that produce a powerful interplay of light and shade.
Many architects were very ambitious when implementing this style, and they designed some of the most recognizable structures the architectural fraternity has ever seen. Here are a few instances of such famous buildings:
La Tourette Monastery, Le Corbusier
The emergence of brutalism was heavily influenced by Le Corbusier, a forerunner of modern architecture, whose use of concrete and integration of nature served as inspiration for the movement. Particularly, he was the architect of the Brutalist icons Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and Unité d'Habitation housing complex. Le Corbusier's designs reflect his commitment to modernism and functionalism, prioritizing the needs of their occupants.
La Tourette Monastery, designed by him, is a prime example of Brutalist architecture. Its imposing raw concrete exterior and angular shapes create a strong visual impact. The interplay of light and shadow on its surfaces further enhances its striking appearance. La Tourette Monastery's austere and functional design, combined with its uncompromising use of materials, epitomizes the brutalist style.
Brutalist elements in La Tourette Monastery include:
- raw concrete as the primary material
- bold geometric forms with simple lines
- emphasis on functionality and efficiency
- integration of nature through windows and courtyards
- minimalist aesthetic
- high ceilings and open spaces
- strategic use of light to create dramatic shadows and contrasts.
St. John's Abbey Church, Marcel Breuer
A noteworthy example of brutalist architecture can be found in Collegeville, Minnesota. The church, which was built in 1961 and was designed by Marcel Breuer, is a part of the bigger St. John's Abbey complex, which also features a college and a monastery.
The brutalist style is evident in the church's use of bare concrete and angular forms. The building's thick concrete walls are broken up by slender windows and huge, abstract sculptures, giving it an ominous presence in the landscape.
With towering concrete columns and a strong, simple design, the church's interior is just as stunning. A crucial aspect of the room is the use of natural light, which enters through tiny openings in the walls and roof.
St. John's Abbey Church is a site of spiritual meditation and pondering despite its intimidating exterior. The plain, unpretentious interior is intended to evoke a feeling of peace and tranquillity, inspiring guests to concentrate on their spiritual journeys.
Brutalist elements in St. John's Abbey Church include:
- exposed concrete as the primary material
- bold angular forms and patterns
- strategic use of natural light
- minimalist interior with a focus on functionality
- integration of sculpture and artwork such as the bronze crucifix designed by Joseph Aspell.
The National Assembly Building, Louis Kahn
The National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh is an outstanding specimen of brutalist design. The building, designed by the famous architect Louis Kahn, was finished in 1982 and has since evolved into a recognizable emblem of Bangladesh's independence. The structure is made of reinforced concrete and brick masonry has a grand entryway, and has an 11-story central tower that mimics a massive geometric pattern.
With exposed concrete surfaces and structural components that serve both an artistic and practical purpose, the building's design emphasizes its powerful, raw materiality. The interior of the building is equally remarkable, featuring a sizable, well-lit assembly hall that can hold up to 350 people as well as workspaces and conference spaces. The National Assembly Building is a magnificent example of Brutalist architecture that demonstrates the strength and beauty that can be attained through the use of raw, simple materials and uncompromising design.
The building's stairways and lifts are housed in a succession of cylindrical shapes that punctuate the façade. High ceilings, large open areas, and a stark, utilitarian style define the internal spaces. The building's use of light is among its most remarkable aspects. Kahn created a number of courtyards and light wells that fill the internal areas with sunlight as part of his design strategy to maximize the use of natural light. . The result is spectacular, bathing the concrete surfaces of the structure in warm natural light.
Brutalist elements in The National Assembly Building include:
- raw concrete as the primary material
- bold geometric forms with sharp angles
- emphasis on functionality and efficient use of space
- strategic use of natural light through perforated screens
- imposing scale dominating its surroundings
- simple unadorned exterior surfaces
- integration of natural elements such as reflection pools and greenery.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Kenzo Tange
It is also referred to as the "Genbaku Dome," and it serves as a potent reminder of the devastation caused by the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The dome, one of the few structures to escape the bombardment, was initially a commercial and cultural hub. It serves as a chilling reflection of the horrors of conflict and the necessity of pursuing peace today. A moving memorial to the lives lost in the explosion, the building's distinctive dome form and skeletal remains serve as a potent call to action for a world free of nuclear weapons.
The museum's displays, which detail the destruction caused by the atomic weapon fired on Hiroshima in 1945, act as a potent reminder of the negative effects of war and the necessity of making efforts to create a peaceful world. The displays can take centre stage thanks to the museum's minimalistic design, which highlights the significance of the museum's message.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial is regarded as a brutalist building despite not visibly resembling one due to its uncovered, raw concrete surfaces that were still in place after the atomic explosion. The building's preservation as a monument only serves to emphasise its brutalist nature because it serves as a sad reflection of the devastation that war can cause and the necessity of peace.
Brutalist elements in The Hiroshima Peace Memorial include:
- exposed concrete as the primary material
- minimalist aesthetic with clean lines, stark geometric shapes with emphasis on symmetry
- integration of natural elements to create a peaceful atmosphere
- strategic use of light to create shadows and contrasts
- preservation of original atomic bomb-damaged walls serving as testament to the building's history and significance.
Le Corbusier, Alison and Peter Smithson, and Paul Rudolph were among the architects who favoured Brutalism over ornamentation. They tried to design structures that were honest, effective, and unapologetically modern because they thought architecture should represent the requirements of society. Despite losing popularity in the late 20th century, Brutalism's influence on the building world is still felt today as designers and builders continue to be inspired by its strong, minimalist aesthetic.
Among architects and enthusiasts, brutalist architecture continues to be a divisive design that frequently prompts conversation. There is an increasing understanding of the significance of saving these buildings for their cultural and historical significance, even though many brutalist structures have been destroyed over the years due to maintenance problems and shifting tastes. Love it or hate it, brutalist architecture continues to be an influential force in the world of design.
Many students often confuse brutalism and deconstructivism in their early phases of architectural education. These are a few identifying characteristics:
- Materials: Brutalism is characterized by its use of raw, unfinished materials, such as concrete, brick, and steel. In contrast, deconstructivism often uses more diverse and high-tech materials, such as glass, titanium, and aluminum.
- Forms: Brutalist buildings tend to have a strong, heavy massing with bold geometric shapes and patterns, often with a sculptural quality. Deconstructivist buildings, on the other hand, have a more fragmented and chaotic appearance, often with irregular forms and asymmetrical shapes.
- Context: Brutalist buildings often have a strong relationship to their context, and their massing and materials are often designed to relate to the surrounding urban fabric. Deconstructivist buildings, in contrast, often seek to challenge the context and create a sense of dislocation or disruption.
Ideology: Brutalism was often associated with a utopian social agenda, and many of its architects believed that the use of raw, unfinished materials could create more honest and authentic architecture. Deconstructivism, in contrast, is often associated with a more critical and skeptical outlook, and its architects often seek to challenge or deconstruct conventional architectural norms and conventions.