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  • Writer's pictureHazel Perla

The Rise and Fall of Brutalism

It is said that fashions always come back. This applies to clothing, music, and art, and in the case of architecture, there is no other current that exemplifies this better than brutalism. Starting in the mid-20th century, this style became popular before reaching its peak in the mid-70s, when it fell apart as a tacky model. However, this is now changing with a renewed interest and appreciation for an architectural style that was once ridiculed.

Known for its use of functional reinforced concrete and steel, modular elements, and utilitarian feel, Brutalist architecture was used primarily for institutional buildings. Imposing and geometric, Brutalist buildings have a graphic quality that is part of what makes them so attractive today. Although it might be thought that the term Brutalist comes from the imposing effect of its constructions, it actually comes from the French name of the material from which they are made, raw concrete, or béton brut.

Associated with schools, churches, libraries, theaters, and social housing projects, brutalism is often intertwined with the 20th-century urban theory that looked toward socialist ideals. With the need to build after WWII, brutalism spread throughout the world, but it had a particular force in the UK and communist countries of Eastern Europe, where it was sometimes used to create new national architecture. socialist.

The origins of brutalism

The French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier's love for concrete resulted in a building that many consider the birth of brutalism. The Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, France was his first project in a decade after World War II put him on hold from his profession. Completed in 1952 and built to be a working-class dwelling, Le Corbusier's design called for a giant reinforced concrete frame so that it could accommodate modular apartments. The gigantic complex, which could house up to 1,600 people, was largely devoid of decorative elements and paved the way for future brutalist projects.

The term Brutalism in relation to architecture was first coined by Swedish architect Hans Asplund to describe a square house called Villa Göth in 1949. This was adopted by architects from England, where this style was perfected by Alison and Peter Smithson. Together they are best known for the Robin Hood Gardens housing complex in East London. Completed in 1972, this complex was built from precast concrete slabs and while it was made with the Smithsons' ideas for ideal living in mind, it never lived up to its goals. In 2017, the eastern block was demolished as part of a redevelopment plan. As an example of how far brutalism has come, the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired three floors of the demolished building.

The fall of brutalism

By the 1980s, brutalism fell out of favor. This was due in part to the cold and austere nature of this architectural current, which was often associated with totalitarianism. Another point against brutalism was that the raw concrete used in construction deteriorated greatly over time, with marks of water damage and general wear and tear that detracted from the aesthetics achieved years before. British writer Anthony Daniels, who goes by the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple, called the raw concrete of brutalism "monstrous", noting that it "does not age gracefully, but crumbles, stains and decomposes." The author blamed Le Corbusier for the architects' love of concrete, stating that "one of his buildings, or one inspired by him, could ruin the harmony of an entirely urban landscape."

The new appreciation of brutalism

In the past five years, a new appreciation for brutalism has emerged. Books like SOS Brutalism: A Global Survey, How to Love Brutalism, Soviet Bus Stops, and This Brutal World celebrate the art behind this architectural style. Virginia McLeod, the editor of Phaidon's Atlas of Brutalist Architecture, first noticed this new interest in brutalism on Instagram.

"I noticed more and more interest in brutalist architecture," says McLeod. "People were excited about it, and they loved its graphic quality." The hashtag #brutalism has more than 500,000 images and conservation groups seek to safeguard examples of brutalist architecture, which are often demolished without a second thought.

No one knows exactly why brutalism has caught on once again, but GQ's Brad Dunning has an interesting theory. Brutalism is the techno music of architecture: rigid and threatening. Brutalist buildings are expensive to maintain and difficult to destroy. They cannot be easily remodeled or modified, so they tend to remain as the architect intended. Perhaps this trend has become fashionable again because permanence is particularly attractive in our chaotic world that seems to be falling apart.


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