A brief introduction to Brutalism

Loved and loathed, revered and reviled: Brutalism remains one of the most controversial and misunderstood architectural styles of the 20th century.

The National Theatre bathed in sunlight, St Paul's Cathedral can be seen in the background
Sir Denys Lasdun’s Grade II* National Theatre. Photo by Mark Hammond (via Enrich the List)

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.

So, what is Brutalism?

The Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth - an imposing grey car park
The Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth, designed by Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon, was described by Prince Charles as ‘a mildewed lump of elephant droppings’ and compared to Stonehenge and Lincoln Cathedral by Jonathan Meades. It was demolished in 2004. © Historic England Archive BB96/10639

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.

Concrete c;olumn detail at the Barbican Centre
The Barbican Centre, City of London © Historic England Archive DP100575

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.

Exterior of Smithdon School glass frontage facing a paved area
Smithdon School, Hunstanton © Historic England Archive DP180592

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.

Three story brick flats
Langham House Close, Ham Common © Historic England Archive DP148204

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.

Sugden House, Hertfordshire
Sugden House, Hertfordshire © Historic England Archive DP161835

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.

Wide image of large block of flats in two sections, facing green space
Park Hill Estate, Sheffield © Historic England Archive DP030881 (Header image: DP030888)

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.

Balfron Tower in east London
Balfron Tower, east London © Historic England Archive DP137832

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.

Preston Bus Garage, with buses parked up
Preston Bus Station was the largest in Europe when it opened in 1969, the architect Keith Ingham wanted to give ordinary people something of the luxury of air travel, © Historic England Archive DP142034

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.

The Denys Wilkinson building at University of Oxford
The Denys Wilkinson building at University of Oxford was designed by Philip Dowson at Arup © Historic England Archive DP196522

It proffered new ideas about housing

A wide walkway at Park Hill Estate, Sheffield
Post War Buildings, Elain Harwood. Park Hill, Sheffield, South Yorkshire. Exterior, detail of walkway.

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.

View of Alexandra Road estate flats, with front gardens for each property
Alexandra Road Estate, London © Historic England Archive DP147527

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 (1958-60) to prioritise the altar, rather than the priest, placing God at the focus of worship.

*temp*
Post War Buildings St Paul, Bow Common, Burdett Road, London. General view of exterior.

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.

Interior of Clifton Cathedral, Bristol
Clifton Cathedral, Bristol © Historic England Archive DP161825

Further Reading:

8 responses to A brief introduction to Brutalism

  1. John Waterton says:

    Some people simply don’t like the brutalist aesthetic, and of course they are free to hold that opinion. But for others, a major flaw in brutalism is that in the UK climate it often doesn’t weather well, with its bold white concrete rapidly degenerating to dismal grey blotches. While HE has the power to list, it’s a pity that HE can’t also force the owners to keep them bright and beautiful.

    • Dominic James-Moore says:

      Hi there. I very rarely reply to these things.

      I spend a lot of time walking and cycling through London in pretty dismal weather, past Euston, Russell Square, the Barbican etc. I’ve concluded that : the concrete is never going to be cleaned. And, bit by bit, I’m starting to appreciate it as it is.

  2. Patrick says:

    I live in a brutalist building (ham flats by james stirling) and although i like the aesthetics,i can tell you they are damp,prone to condensation and internally cramped.the windows and sills rot constantly due to poor design considerations.very poor sound insulation horizontally.

  3. For some reason, communists used to love this style. I’m from the former communist bloc so every time I see a brutalistic building, I’m reminded of those times.

  4. Yewtree says:

    Brutalism is not my cup of tea but this was a very interesting post. I learnt stuff, like the fact that it referred to raw concrete. (Either that or it smells like cheap aftershave.)

  5. Macbeth says:

    Sorry, but I love the Alexandra Road Estate, London !

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