Loved and loathed, revered and reviled: Brutalism remains one of the most controversial and misunderstood architectural styles of the 20th century.
To its fans, Brutalism represents the bold, ambitious and utopian energy of the post-war era, in which architects set about transforming towns and cities to better serve the people. To critics, Brutalism was a monstrous, dystopian landscape-destroyer.
What is Brutalism?
Not necessarily brutal
A common misconception is that the word Brutalism derives from the word brutal: in reality it probably came from the French expression ‘béton brut’: French for ‘raw concrete’ and coined by the architect Le Corbusier during the construction of Unité d’Habitation in 1952.
The term ‘nybrutalism’ was used by the Swedish architect Hans Asplund to describe the Villa Göth in 1950, and was later picked up by visiting British architects.
In his seminal 1955 essay, the architectural critic Reyner Banham described the emerging trend in British architecture as ‘The New Brutalism’. Banham characterised this movement by its ‘its bloody-mindedness’ and described Alison and Peter Smithsons’ Grade II* listed school at Hunstanton as one of England’s first examples.
Not all concrete
The Smithsons priority was ‘reverence for materials’, be they timber, brick, concrete or glass: a Brutalist building should be constructed from natural materials honestly expressed.
The Hunstanton School might not meet your expectations for a Brutalist building, but as Banham explained it is without decoration and ‘made of what it appears to be made of’: at its core, the function of the building and the materials used in its construction were honest and exposed.
Of equal importance are the Grade II* listed flats at Langham House Close, designed by James Gowan and James Stirling 1955-8 and the Grade II Sugden House, designed by the Smithsons in 1956.
It has nothing to hide
The Grade II* listed Park Hill Estate in Sheffield is of international importance and was the most ambitious city development of its time: it was Britain’s first completed scheme of post-war slum clearance and rehoused thousands of people.
The architects, Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, broke with the architectural tradition of concealing a building’s services and left the concrete frame exposed, filling it in with brick. Meanwhile in London, Ernő Goldfinger created a striking and memorable silhouette with his Balfron and Trellick Towers, by leaving the lift tower and communal heating systems exposed.
It was of its time
Brutalism appeared in the 1950s and lasted roughly until the 1970s. This post-war era was one of optimism and ambition: rapid population growth and the creation of the Welfare State meant an increased need for new houses, schools and other civic buildings. Meanwhile, changing social attitudes insisted on a higher standard of living for all.
The material shortages triggered by the Second World War ended in 1954, along with rationing, and the period saw extensive advances in engineering. The primary architectural style adopted during this time was a refined, almost twee, English version of Scandinavian Modernism. Typified by the buildings of the Festival of Britain, Brutalism was the antidote to this: a more raw style of architecture.
It proffered new ideas about housing
Millions of houses were damaged or destroyed during the Second World War and consecutive Post-War governments from both political parties made housing a priority.
Architects began to explore new options for living: building upwards and bringing streets inside their buildings. At Park Hill, Lynn and Smith attempted to recreate the community spirit of the slum housing they were replacing by creating ‘streets in the sky’, which were wide enough for milk floats.
However, the mood for high-rises declined after the Ronan Point disaster, in which a gas explosion caused the collapse of an entire corner of a 22-storey tower block in Canning Town, London. Some architects, like those working for Sydney Cook at Camden Council, focused on building low-rise estates in the 1960s and 1970s. Neave Brown’s Grade II* listed scheme for Alexandra Road in North West London reinterpreted the traditional high street, giving every flat a private outdoor space.
It inspired new designs for places of worship
Many of the churches built after the Second World War demonstrated a new theological outlook: the Grade II* listed Church of St Paul on Bow Common Lane in east London was designed (1958 to 1960) to prioritise the altar, rather than the priest, placing God at the focus of worship.
The vicar Gresham Kirkby, a committed Christian Anarchist, commissioned the architects Keith Maguire and Robert Murray to design the church, which was constructed from brick and concrete. Meanwhile in Bristol, Clifton Cathedral (completed 1973) was designed with a horseshoe of seating to give all congregants the best possible view.
Written by Charlotte Goodhart