Making a case for radical brutalism


Rinaldo Olivieri: La Pyramide, Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 1968–1973
Brutalism is in vogue – at least within some creative circles. The recent revival could be visual – there is something powerful in the design of some brutalist buildings. Or perhaps the progressive and avant-garde beliefs that underpinned brutalism make sense in our current world. Whatever the reason, it is exciting to see some brilliant new books ready to explore a movement that has been misunderstood.

One of the latest to grab our attention is ‘SOS Brutalism, a Global Survey’. Initiated by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) in Frankfurt and the Wüstenrot Foundation, this large and beautifully illustrated book studies the movement on a broader scale and within the wider context of time, ideology and location. Together with the campaign under the hashtag #SOSBrutalism, they are on a mission to preserve the movement’s legacy and many of the buildings that are in danger of demolition.

London Borough of Camden Architect’s Department (Neave Brown): Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London, Great Britain (1967/79). Photo © Gili Merin 2017
Bold, brash, provocative is how many came to see brutalism. Yet behind the raw concrete lies a movement with strong principles. New brutalism was controversial from the moment it emerged on the architectural scene in the 1950s. It was radical and informed by progressive social ideals.

Brutalism’s theoretical roots were largely British. In the years following the second world war, a group of architects, dissatisfied with existing forms of modernism, made a conscious decision to create socially-responsible buildings. It was about celebrating the heroic spirit of modernist architecture. It was about finding a language that defined a new time.

IACP (Carlo Celli / Luciano Celli): Rozzol Melara, Trieste, Italy, 1969–1982. Photo © Paolo Mazzo 2010
The term was coined by architectural critic Reyner Bonham – a twist on béton brut, the French term for raw concrete, and its use in design by the father of modernist architecture Le Corbusier. His 1952 Unité d’Habitation is made of roughly-cast raw concrete, the twelve levels house large apartments accessed from interior ‘streets’, which are raised up on columns replete with a roof terrace. It is largely seen as a model for the new brutalism that followed.

That same year Alison and Peter Smithson, the husband and wife team at the forefront of brutalism, translated some of Unité’s themes into their unbuilt design for the Golden Lane Estate in London. Here Le Corbusier’s internal ‘streets’ became exterior ‘street-decks’.

O. Gurevich / V. Zhukov: Hotel Rus, Saint Petersburg, Russia (1980/88). Photo © Konstantin Antipin 2016
During the 1960s, brutalist buildings were commissioned all over the world – civic buildings, offices, social housing. London has some great examples – the Royal Festival Hall and South Bank Centre, the Barbican, as well as Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower and Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens, both of which were completed in 1972.

Robin Hood Gardens was a summary of these ideals. Here two blocks contained both flats and maisonettes, and with the absence of cars, residents were to use the ‘streets-in-the-sky’ thus encouraging social mixing and community creation. Sadly, the 1970s were an altogether different time, and soon poverty, crime, and vandalism made Robin Hood and Trellick posters for the failure of brutalism.

Johannes Möhrle: Central Post Office, Marburg, Germany, 1965–1976. Photo © Felix Torkar 2017
SOS Brutalism identifies and analyses 102 of the key brutalist buildings around the world. It is a fascinating study of the movement, how it ended up responding to regional voices and concerns. New brutalism may have had its roots here, yet raw concrete became a global language of architecture in the 1960s and 70s with a shared vision for re-inventing modernism.

Images: Rinaldo Olivieri: La Pyramide, Abidjan, Ivory Coast (1968/73); Neave Brown: Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London (1967/79). Photo © Gili Merin 2017; IACP: Rozzol Melara, Trieste, Italy (1969/82). Photo © Paolo Mazzo 2010; O. Gurevich/V. Zhukov: Hotel Rus, Saint Petersburg (1980/88). Photo © Konstantin Antipin 2016; Johannes Möhrle: Central Post Office, Marburg, Germany (1965/76). Photo © Felix Torkar 2017.

SOS Brutalism is edited by Oliver Elser, Philip Kurz, and Paul Cachola Schmal and published by Park Books.

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Fritz Wotruba: Holy Trinity Church, Wien-Mauer, 1971–1976. Photo © Wolfgang Leeb 2011
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