Chunky, Blocky and Raw: Is Brutalism Architecture Making a Comeback?

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 
Unité d'Habitation in Marseille
Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, is arguably the most influential Brutalist building of all time. It's also one of 17 projects by 20th-century French architect Le Corbusier to be added to UNESCO's list of internationally significant architecture sites. Flickr/Denis Esakov/(CC 3.0)

Strike up a conversation about the world's most beautiful buildings, and it might be a while before anyone mentions an example of brutalist architecture. There could be numerous French buildings on the list like the Palace of Versailles or something more recent like the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, but Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation in Marseille probably won't be at the top of anybody's list.

Yet that building, completed in 1952, has been called the architect and designer's "most significant and inspiring" by ArchDaily. Made of bréton-brut concrete, which was inexpensive in post-WWII Europe, the innovative building housed 1,600 individuals and included spaces for dining, shopping and gathering. And its heavy look and raw material established brutalism, a style that has been fighting for its rightful place in the imagination of architecture lovers ever since.

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What Is Brutalism?

Brutalism is an architectural style that came out of the postwar era and was defined by several key characteristics, including large building forms, unique and striking shapes, heavy-looking materials, and unfinished surfaces and materials, says Brandon Buck, RIBA and design director at global design firm Perkins&Will. Buck also is leading the team enhancing the Brutalist Richard Seifert building at 41 Tower Hill, London.

It is the unfinished surfaces that are responsible for brutalism's name — the raw concrete it's known for is calledbéton brut in French. The style predominantly makes use of this exposed concrete and sometimes brick with an overlay of a monochrome color palette. Of course, there is a need for other materials in construction, like steel, timber and glass, but those are secondary.

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"I think it's hard not to be impressed with the striking nature of Brutalist architecture," says Buck, who compares the style to walking through a modern art museum — even if you don't love everything, it makes you stop and wonder and feel something.

Brutalism, Popular or Not?

With the understanding that the moniker attached to this 20th-century style of architecture relates to raw concrete rather than it's "brutal" nature, it's curious that it has earned such a negative image.

"If you think about popular culture, there is a raft of movies that painted Brutalist buildings in a bad way because of what was happening around those building," Buck says. He cites the housing estate in the film "A Clockwork Orange" as an example. Uses like this in popular culture have fed into the reputation of brutalism's, well, brutalness.

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In fact, Brutalist buildings are sometimes touted as ugly or hated. But it's important to keep in mind that the style had an important purpose and historical context.

"At the time, in the late '50s early '60s, the cost of concrete was pretty affordable," says Buck. In the postwar era, there was a surplus of energy and a big push for labor, so concrete felt like a sensible building material at the time. It became popular for authoritative buildings like government and university structures, as well as social housing.

In that era, people liked it. Architects that advocated for the style "sought to project a sense of strength through these large, fortress-like designs," Buck explains.

Yet even with the focus on sensibility and authority, Brutalist architecture had a softer side in that it displayed the rawness and imperfections of handmade items.

"There is something very human about that," says Buck.

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Famous Brutalist Buildings

Brutalist buildings and structures can be found throughout the world; you've probably seen many without realizing it. In addition to Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation that started it all, his Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, is "one of the most important buildings of the 20th century," according to Dezeen.com.

In the U.K., wife and husband team Alison and Peter Smithson "led British brutalism through the latter half of the 20th century," according to ArchDaily, designing "streets in the sky" modern housing, as well as the headquarters of the Economist and a building at Oxford University.

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Swiss-British architect Richard Seifert was prolific in his creation of Brutalist buildings, including the 34-story "'beehive' grid of glass and concrete" Centre Point in London, which was unused for decades and has now been redeveloped into a high-end residential tower. Barbican Centre and Estate is another of London's famed Brutalist structures; its architects at Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were inspired by the Unité d'Habitation.

Another attempt at "reimagining apartment living," Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67, built for the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal, combined the concrete of Brutalism with Japanese Metabolism for a look that defined by modular cubes.

Boston is home to many examples of Brutalist architecture, including Boston City Hall, which has been described as a "concrete fortress." Its design is the result of an international contest for which the winning concept was submitted by Gerhard Kallmann, Noel McKinnell and Edward Knowles, admirers of Le Corbusier.

One of the most recognizable Brutalist buildings is the Geisel Library at University of California San Diego. Designed by William Pereira, completed in 1970 and constructed of reinforced concrete and glass, the building's two-story pedestal holds six additional stories, cantilevered above it.

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Brutalism for Home Décor and Interiors

If you're looking to incorporate Brutalist style into your life, you don't have to move to a mid- to late-20th century building to do it. Home décor influenced by Brutalist ideas is readily available. A piece of Brutalist-inspired sculpture might also do the trick.

"There is an interest and appeal for that type of piece to be in people's homes and office spaces," says Buck.

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The Vault explains that today's Brutalist interiors begin with a large textured base and maintain an emphasis on natural materials. What's new is that polished and chrome metallics may be added. The clean shapes and forms present a good juxtaposition against other palettes that are more colorful or include things like brass and copper, Buck explains.

"The tone of the concrete and its imperfections go well with other material palettes from an interior design perspective," he says.

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Is Brutalism Making a Resurgence?

After falling out of favor in the 1980s, partially due to its association with totalitarianism, writes Jessica Stewart for My Modern Met — think socialist modernism — brutalism appears to be making a comeback. It's not that new Brutalist buildings are popping up like it's the 1960s, but rather existing structures are getting a second look and being enhanced, refurbished and retrofit.

"That's really a big movement right now," says Buck, who is working on a Seifert building in London's Tower Hill. The solid structure of Brutalist buildings is often compatible with adding several stories, so today's architects can keep the essence of a building and provide a better feel and environment that feeds into the community.

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"People see the merits of brutalism now and are using some of those characteristics in different ways," he says.

In a lot of the Brutalist architecture, the fenestration is minimal or minimized in proportion to the spans of the concrete, so one enhancement is often to increase the size of the openings. This was one of the goals with the controversial 2018 Cooper Carry update to the Marcel Breuer-designed Central Atlanta Library. Recladding of a façade can also be used to improve the performance of the building in order to control heat loss or gain, according to Buck.

Thanks to the combination of their initial functionality, their structural soundness and connection with many important architects, Brutalist buildings are experiencing a revival in this century. Like it or not.

"They do tend to be striking," says Buck. "They do tend to demand a response."

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