Brutalist architecture gained momentum in the United Kingdom from 1950s to the mid 1970s, emerging from the modernist architectural movement. The English architects Alison and Peter Smithson coined the term in 1954, from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete”. The term established itself in the public lexicon after British architectural critic Reyner Banham used it in the title of his 1966 book, “The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?”, following which, it became an umbrella term for a variety of architectural disciplines. (Click photos for image sources.)
Love them or hate them, brutalist buildings are certainly striking, utilising concrete in gaunt, angular geometry. The use of concrete is explained by the need to rebuild the war-torn European landscape swiftly after World War Two, at minimal cost to its economically crushed nation states. But whatever its functional use, brutalism arguably became as much a philosophy as a style. Furthermore, its representation of socialist utopian ideology was reflected in the left-wing zeal of many who designed and commissioned it.
The need to replace bombed-out homes, government buildings and shopping centres also gave way to the further demolition of many grand buildings from the 1950s onwards that bad been untouched by the war. This was particularly evident in the more industrialised northern cities, supporting the argument of brutalism as political philosophy as well as architectural discipline. One important example of “Brutalist Britain” – Park Hill flats – has since been earmarked as a historic building.
Initially, these “cities in the sky”, as they were referred to, were a welcomed departure for those who had previously lived in squalid Victorian slums. Great pains were taken to re-home communities together, with neighbours remaining neighbours and many working folk having hot water and indoor toilets for the first time. Initially, these huge blocks of flats were well received.
But critics accuse brutalism of disregarding the social, historic, and architectural environment of its surroundings, making the introduction of such structures in existing developed areas appear out of place and alien. The failure of positive communities to form early on in some Brutalist structures led to the combined unpopularity of both the ideology and the architectural style. In addition, many of the buildings constructed in this style lacked the community-serving features of their forefather’s vision, morphing into claustrophobic, crime-ridden tenements.
But whatever your personal philosophy – be it capitalist, socialist or other – the ability of the powers-that-be to project their own philosophical and idiological tenets onto the architecture of the day is astounding. From Victorian ego to socialist utopia, the story of our times is written on the buildings we live and work in everyday.
Check out these great picture of brutalist architecture in Perth, Australia. (All images on this page link to their sources.)