Brutalism: from Manifestation of Power of the Establishment, to a Symbol of Counter-culture

Geisel Library

Geisel Library in San Diego, California (photo: O. Palsson)

Architecture is what makes or breaks the city’s atmosphere. Don’t we all love cosy Mediterranean villages with their old and crooked buildings or massive medieval cathedrals in central Europe? Skyline and skyscrapers are usually the ones depicted on postcards from modern metropolises. Even though the buildings that represent a city are extremely different, Brutalist architecture is rarely encountered in such context. It is arguably one of the most underappreciated styles of architecture.

Trellick Tower

Trellick Tower in London (photo: WikiMedia Commons)

Brutalism is a style of architecture that was popular from 1950s all the way to 1970s, and is characterised by massive plain concrete structures. The name of it is derived from French word “brut”, meaning “raw”, which in this case stands for raw concrete, which is one of the most distinctive features of this style. Brutalism has derived from Modernist architecture. This style that is encountered worldwide, mainly aims to express power, stability or scientific progress and is not meant to look comfortable or conforming to somebody’s needs. Even smaller structures were designed to appear massive and fortress-like. In most occasions, Brutalist buildings were used for governmental institutions, universities, galleries or even apartments and supermarkets. Interestingly, instances, when such buildings housed corporations are far less frequent.

Barbican Complex

Barbican Complex, London (photo: Dirk Ingo Franke)

Even though Brutalist architecture was popular during the cold war, it was embraced on the both sides of the Iron Curtain. But its implications were slightly different in different regions. In capitalist Western countries, brutalist buildings mostly symbolised modernity and materialism that is why they were often built as housing estates or shopping centres. One of the most famous Brutalist architectural complex in the world, the Barbican in London, was designed as housing along with a shopping centre, school and all of the other facilities. Soviet take on Brutalism was slightly different, since in this area the emphasis was mostly put on displaying scientific progress and power of the Communist party. Consequently, many buildings had far more complicated shapes, were more massive compared to their Western counterparts. In Communist countries, Brutalist architecture was used for everything ranging from Communist party headquarters to bus stops and monuments. The latter are extremely spectacular, as they were meant to capture the greatness of Communist ideology.

Russian State Scientific Centre for Robotics and Technical Cybernetics in Saint Petersburg (photo: Richard Anderson)

Situation has changed a lot in a few decades that followed though, and now many of the Brutalist buildings are either abandoned or demolished. Architecture that once represented the height of human sophistication and scientific achievements is now regarded as ugly. While situation differs for every building, these concrete behemoths are generally frowned upon in Western Europe and North America. This becomes obvious by looking at lists if the ugliest buildings published by various news outlets (the Telegraph, Independent) where brutalist buildings add up to around one third of the buildings featured. In Western countries, many of the Brutalist structures have made place for newer buildings. Most famous demolished examples could be Red Road Tower in Glasgow, Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth, England or Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore. Many other iconic Modernist concrete buildings are still planned to be demolished. Once again, the situation is somewhat different in the ex-Soviet Union countries, where most of the Brutalist structures are abandoned rather than demolished. Most famous examples could be Circus in Chisinau, Moldova, Ministry of Highways in Tbilisi, Georgia or Russian State Scientific Centre for Robotics and Technical Cybernetics in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Numerous other examples of buildings and massive monuments are scattered across the former territory of Soviet Union and other communist states. Either way, no matter if we are talking about east or west, most of the Brutalist pieces of architecture are bound to disappear over the coming decades.

Demolition of the Tricorn Centre

Demolition of the Tricorn Centre, Portsmouth, England (photo: GarryReggae)

While Brutalism is mostly considered to be ugly and outdated, it still has some dedicated admirers. The community of concrete modernist building lovers has been connected through web 2.0 and now there are blogs, like FYB, or Facebook groups, such as The Brutalism Appreciation Society, where people share their opinions and findings. The latter has around 26 000 members, many of them actively share their discoveries and engage in discussions. Many of these fans are knowledgeable about art and culture, some of them are architects themselves. Brutalism is also loved by hipsters. Search Instagram for ‘Brutalism’ and you will find numerous photos of concrete with Instagram filters appearing alongside pictures of coffee and vinyls. Dedication of some people goes beyond that as well, as now there are paper craft models of famous Brutalist buildings that fans can build themselves. Fan activity has also resulted in convincing governmental authorities to preserve Brutalist structures, such as Boston city hall. One can argue that the beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this comparably small group of people is trying to preserve unique pieces of architecture for the future generations.

Papercraft of Space House

Papercraft of the Space House in London (photo: Zupagrafika)

We can now see that the Brutalism, once a symbol of establishment and human progress, is mostly supported by counterculture members. It is hard to point out why this collective change of heart towards massive concrete buildings happened, but it is important to remember that they are valuable pieces of architecture. Just like the medieval villages or metropolitan skyscrapers, brutalist buildings are significant artefacts of cities and their histories. Next time you see one of these concrete behemoths, stop and think about it for a while, since they can be gone in the near future.

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