New New Brutalism: The Architecture of Troubled Times, Then and Now
Le Corbusier, one of the pre-eminent figures of modern architecture, has been widely quoted as saying “a hundred times have I thought New York is a catastrophe,” a statement he immediately qualified with “and 50 times…it is a beautiful catastrophe.” Fittingly enough, it was the adoption of Le Corbusier’s term béton brut [raw concrete] which heralded the coming of an architectural style ideally suited to a modern era that, justifiably or not, has consisted of populations perpetually viewing themselves as being on the brink of catastrophe. The New Brutalist form, which was essentially inaugurated and proselytized in the 1950s by the architect couple Alison and Peter Smithson (the style was eventually freed of the superfluous “New” when it moved beyond its English epicenter after the 1950s), has proved itself oddly resilient, gradually becoming more recognized and even celebrated for this fact.
Insofar as we use built environments to embody the history of ideas rather than the history of forms, Brutalist structures seem perfectly tailored towards an area in which the conflict of ideas (and, by extension, ideologies) has never been more obvious in public discourse, and more potentially likely to explode into a conflict that will permanently alter interpersonal relations. Nearly every site that could be described as a public forum, whether actual or virtual, has become ideologically contested in the digital age, with acclaim and attention becoming much harder to come by for moderate or simply non-aggressive voices. In a climate where a significant amount of the American populace feels that an ideologically driven civil war is not only possible, but inevitable, it would make sense that much thinking about the aesthetic and ethical qualities of our habitats is already in a “post-catastrophe” mode.
Brutalism, despite the gloss of cruelty inherent in that name, has always had playful and good-humored exponents that defy a one-dimensional assessment of the movement: the undulating modular blocks of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67 complex in Montreal, for example, exude a free spirit hardly in keeping with any contemporary understanding of “brutality,” also managing to ameliorate some skepticism about the aesthetic appeal of “raw concrete” itself. However, I believe that Brutalist architecture has increased in its relevance precisely because of it offers us an unparalleled projection surface for our persistent musings on catastrophe, be they of the optimistic or pessimistic variety. The key designs in the Brutalist canon, whether they are functionalist slabs or experiments in non-orthogonal dynamism, seem catastrophe-proof; their rigidity and defiant lack of inessential elements putting their apparent durability on par with that of natural monuments. Hypnotically repetitive and stylistically unique examples of the form, like the hovering space station aesthetic of the Druzhba Sanatorium in Crimea or the Genex Tower / Western City Gate in Serbia, play on utopian and dystopian sentiments alike, with their surfaces seeming impenetrable to all but projections of the human imagination. More intensely austere projects, like the pre-cast concrete Buffalo City Court Building, are striking enough in their monumental character that it is tempting to see them as larger-than-life placeholders marking a break between past periods of conflict and speculative, future periods of the same.
Having said this, it was not durability but a perceptible nakedness of intent (i.e. Peter Smithson’s mantra of “directness, truthfulness, no concessions”) that truly distinguished Brutalism from other Modernist forms, and which makes its projects an attractive counterweight to the endless deceit of the (dis)information age. The authenticity of such structures was also bolstered, in the New Brutalist beginnings at least, by a very direct connection to catastrophic scenarios: this style was, after all, largely conceptualized within a post-WWII Britain subject to austerity rationing and visually marked by ruins. Early members of the informal, trans-disciplinary New Brutalist think tank had experienced first-hand intense levels of privation and anxiety during the war years: the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi had seen his whole family designated as “undesirable aliens” after Italy’s declaration of war on Britain, while the author J.G. Ballard had been held for two years in a Japanese internment camp. Most of the project’s pioneers did seem mentally steeled for scenarios in which they would be building atop literal rubble and psychological / ideological debris, trying to re-calibrate the moral compass of humanity in the process.
Their success depended upon voices whose proclamations would be as bold and unequivocal as the projects they were drafting: one of these was the critic Reyner Banham, whose 1955 defense of Brutalism remains one of the keynote texts on the subject 65 years later (even after his eventual repudiation of the style’s ultimate relevance). Apart from the Smithsons themselves, it was Banham who most passionately proposed that then-‘New’ Brutalism’s aspiration towards the embodiment of ideas was one of its most enduring strengths. This was a point that is none-too-subtly driven home by the subtitle of Banham’s 1966 volume The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? This question would be answered by Banham simply enough: New Brutalism was not “a stylistic label” like “Neo-Classical or Neo-Gothic,”[i] but a statement demarcating a clear ethical stance. Elaborating on this, Banham insisted that “all great architecture has been ‘conceptual’ […] and the idea that any great buildings, such as the Gothic cathedrals, grew unconsciously through anonymous collaborative attention to structure and function is one of the most insidious myths with which the Modernist movement is saddled.”[ii] Such attitudes, lent credence by the Smithsons’ own attitudes towards information vis-à-vis physical space, could be seen as early iterations of the modus operandi later taken up by radical urban planning groups like Archigram, whose focus on purely conceptual and even implausible habitats represented what Hadas Steiner adtroitly describes in his own musings on Brutalism:
Architectural representation would be a medium for ideas about structure itself, through which one could, it was hoped, confront radically new structural and social possibilities and explore the contours of intangible entities.[iii]
If nothing else, this was an approach that allowed for architects to descend from the rarefied heights of their profession and become more fully integrated into “pop” culture, with newer magazines of architectural drawings being not dissimilar from “’zines” in their urgent and excited tone.
Despite his initially impassioned defenses of New Brutalism’s ethical uniqueness, Banham realized full well that there were contradictory opinions, and that many used the Brutalism descriptor as a pejorative term from the outset. It was essentially born out of ideological polarization of “Communists vs. the Rest”: more specifically, it was a “term of Communist abuse…intended to signify the normal vocabulary of Modernist architecture — flat roofs, glass, exposed structure — considered as morally reprehensible deviations from the ’new Humanism,’ [which] meant, in architecture at that time, brickwork, segmental arches, pitched roofs, small windows […] picturesque detailing without picturesque planning.”[iv] Banham knew that it would be necessary to make a positive programmatic descriptor for the movement that allowed it to be defined on its own terms, and so set forth the following three-pronged proposal:
The definition of a New Brutalist building . . . must be modified so as to exclude formality as a basic quality if it is to cover future developments and should more properly read 1.) Memorability as an Image [alternately written as ‘formal legibility of plan’]; 2.) Clear exhibition of Structure; and 3.) Valuation of materials “as found.”[v]
I would submit that, since this checklist is not organized hierarchically, the second item on this list is maybe the one that most visibly distinguishes the New Brutalist school from other types of architecture. Le Corbusier, perhaps the true originator of this style, exhibited this early on with his structures that appeared “coarse, rugged, created by man […] weathered, affected by the work of time” (this in sharp contrast to Mies van der Rohe’s “crystal-clear, sharp-edged, machine-made buildings,”[vi] the likes of which were initially an influence on New Brutalism but would eventually be derided by Peter Smithson as “Miestakes”. At this early stage, Brutalism’s potential as a great polarizer was already evident, with Le Corbusier’s structures seeming to be a “consciously ‘brutal’ reaction to the machine mass-produced Miesian building types,” which themselves were “more readily accepted by a technologically oriented and economically-minded society.”[vii] This polarization would continue throughout the 1950s and certainly the more ideologically contested 1960s, where something like the work of Paul Rudolph — one of the great innovators of the hammered, corrugated concrete wall surface — could be denounced with a straight face as “fascist.”
Banham stood at the ready to counter such accusations. He insisted that the distaste for these buildings was not really because of their imperious, domineering qualities, but the way in which they forced observers and inhabitants to confront a more familiar, comfortable atmosphere of near-universal deceit:
“…what has caused Hunstanton [School] to lodge in the public’s gullet is that it is almost unique among modern buildings in being made of what it appears to be made of [emphasis mine]. Whatever has been said about honest use of materials, most modern buildings appear to be made of whitewash of patent glazing, even when they are made of concrete or steel. Hunstanton appears to be made of glass, brick, steel and concrete, and is in fact made of glass, brick, steel and concrete. Water and electricity do not come out of unexplained holes in the wall, but are delivered to the point of use by visible pipes and manifest conduits.”[viii]
If these details seem to describe something like a warehouse rather than an actual habitation, this is not that far from the Smithsons’ own aspirations, as they wished for the builders of their Soho House to “refrain from any internal finishes wherever practicable.”[ix] This commitment to honesty as a fundamental design quality would later be echoed by Rudolph, who neatly summed up the Brutalist attitude by stating his preference for pre-fabricated concrete walls over glass-and-metal facades, and attributed this to a desire for “buildings that respond to light and shade” over “buildings that are all reflection.”[x] For Brutalism’s most enthusiastic proselytizers and adherents, an aesthetic based around reflection would be a parallel to deflection or distraction from truly useful information in interpersonal matters, part of a sweeping program to (following Adolf Loos’ infamous 1908 article “Ornament and Crime”) use ornamentation as a layer of camouflage over the raw flesh of reality. In contradiction to the “fascistic” accusations leveled at so many Brutalist artifacts, this enforced nakedness led to a certain flexibility as well. Numerous Brutalist architects insisted on considering topological qualities over geometric ones when conceptualizing new projects, and this meant a resilience of form that not only allowed Brutalist designs to encompass everything from single housing units to juggernaut skyscrapers, but reinforced the existing impression of their being resilient to catastrophe.
To better drive home this point, it is well worth looking at another creative field that has taken the outstretched hand of the Brutalist ethic and aesthetic: popular and “alternative” music. Music remains a bellwether for public attitudes on contentious subjects, and in the case of New Brutalism, musical works inspired by that movement have provided one of the most intriguing proofs of this style’s “durability through resilience” and its intimate emotional connection to tragedy or upheaval. It is worth taking a look at two recent, very similarly named releases from the electronic music milieu to understand just how much the aforementioned statements on Brutalism have manifested themselves outside of intellectual or academic spheres of influence. A New Brutality, from London-based producer Perc a.k.a. Alistair Wells, features Erno Goldfinger’s inimitable Trellis Towers on the front cover, utilizing this landmark Brutalist construction as the template for an overdriven, predatory rush of post-industrial damage. The alternately pummelling and smoldering music on the release fits into a kind of tradition for utilizing this particular building complex as the projection surface for psychological terror, i.e. J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise or the Black Mirror interactive feature Bandersnatch. The music also provides a fairly stark contrast with the New Brutalism EP of the Manchester-based duo Rainer Veil, which uses for its cover art an image of the Preston bus station designed by Ove Arup and Partners, and whose audio program is a comparitively benign suite of languid caresses and flickering grayscale atmospheres: an epehemeral mix that is seemingly a world removed from the “hard” surfaces of Brutalist work, yet still oddly redolent of its ethos. The press release for Rainer Veil’s newest outing, Vanity, even reads like a defense of Brutalist architecture (i.e. “a breaking away from the binds of overthinking, an embrace of imperfection”).[xi]
More striking examples of Brutalist inspiration on music continue to crop up in addition to these. For example, the boldly tessellated concrete wedges of the late Welbeck Street Car Park grace the cover of the Irresistible Art of Space Colonization and its Mutation Implications, a recent album by Italian esotericists Sigillum S (deftly defying expectations, the artwork by Petulia Mattioli shows a sort of rainbow-colored magma oozing over the surface of the structure). Maybe the most salient connection of the New Brutalist aesthetic into pop culture comes courtesy of Peter Chadwick’s photographic guide This Brutal World, whose superposition of pop music lyrics with pristine photography of Brutalist landmarks helps to validate the thesis that both New Brutalist architecture and certain types of emotionally bare, no-nonsense music (Joy Division, etc.) are animated by a common impulse: that is to say, they are cognizant of past catastrophes and of looming disaster, but charge ahead to innovation even when saddled with this disconcerting knowledge. Meanwhile, Banham’s description of New Brutalism as “sophisticated primitivism” also presaged the linking of various d.i.y. music styles to Brutalist architecture, and to other aesthetic innovations which aim for a similar impact.
With all else that has been said to this point, it feels as if “sophisticated primitivism” is the key to why Brutalism stands as an antidote to the current wave of catastrophism. This is, after all, the inversion of “technological infantilism,” a pathological condition whose symptoms manifest more malevolently the more we come to expect technological immediacy to deliver the rest of the world unto our favored ways of thinking and acting. It really is not inconceivable that something as hideous as a new civil war might erupt out of our incessant techno-tribalism, itself enabled by social media echo chambers and their discouraging of dialogue and compromise. Brutalism stands as an example of the maturity that a culture can maintain while still licking the wounds sustained from past disasters, and as such deserves to be rediscovered at a time when we are hurtling towards new ones.
[i] Banham, R. (1966). The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? London: The Architectural Press.
[iii] Steiner, H.A. (2006). “Brutalism Exposed: Photography and the Zoom Wave.” Journal of Architectural Education, 59(3): 15–27.
[v] Banham, R. (2011). “The New Brutalism.” October, 136: 19–28.
[vi] Curcic, S. (1969). “Reviewed Work(s): The New Brutalism. Ethic or Aesthetic by Reyner Banham.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 3 (2): 171–173.
[viii] Banham (2011).
[ix] Smithson, P. & Alison Smithson (1953). “House in Soho, London.” Architectural Design, December 1953, p. 342.
[x] “Boston Bucks a Trend.” Architectural Forum 113 (Dec. 1960), 64.