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Brutalist Architecture From Around the World

Rob is an avid traveller and a keen photographer who showcases his work on Flickr and sells his images through Adobe Stock and Shutterstock.

Our Understanding of Brutalist Architecture

The modern perception and understanding of the term 'brutalism' and its namesake form of architecture is that it is brutal (i.e. harsh) in terms of its appearance and that that's how it got the name, as a collective form of architecture, as brutalism, or brutalist style. The English term 'Brutalism', however, is derived from the French term 'beton brut', which simply translates into English as 'raw concrete'.

Beton Brut was a style preferred by the Swiss-French architect, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as, Le Corbusier.

IBM Building in Boca Raton by Marcel Breuer

IBM Building in Boca Raton by Marcel Breuer

Pioneering Modern Architecture

Le Corbusier came to prominence in the 1920's with his theories on design and, specifically, architecture. His thesis, Towards an Architecture, is still read by Architecture students around the world today. From the late 1920's until his death, Le Corbusier was involved in numerous modern architecture projects, most notably in France, India and in America - the most famous example being his work on the United Nations Complex in Manhattan.

Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh

Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh

Le Corbusier and the Modernist Movement

Le Corbusier's architectural vernacular was based upon the use of raw concrete. However, his focus was never on the individual building itself but more on how the building related to the place around it. Le Corbusier was interested in master-planning on a large scale. He designed models of entire neighbourhoods and districts. These plans generally consisted of a series of tall structures linked by elevated pedestrian connections, with retail and community uses situated above ground. The towers would be adequately spaced out so that they would be stood surrounded by large green spaces. The street-level was to be given over to the motor vehicle, which was gaining popularity (and affordability) and which was seen as the future.

The Y-Block at Oslo's Government Quarter

The Y-Block at Oslo's Government Quarter

Post-war Planning

Inspired, in part, by Le Corbusier's vision of the future, planners and architects around the world sought to implement their own versions of his ideas in the years following the second world war. In Europe in particular, and especially in the UK, this was a time of significant rebuilding - not just as a result of damage sustained during the war, but also as part of a planned jump to the future. Masses of what was perceived to be inadequate housing, industrial and commercial buildings were cleared to make way for something new. British cities like Birmingham and Coventry had large parts of their centres re-planned and re-built following similar principles to those laid out by Le Corbusier and his peers in the modernist movement.

Panjab University Student Center

Panjab University Student Center

A Global Movement

The Modernist Movement spread across the globe and pervaded all parts of art and design. Modernist buildings were common throughout the Soviet Union and many countries throughout Europe. In the 1950's, Le Corbusier himself was given carte blanche to create a plan for a new city in India named Chandigarh. Several monumental buildings, all designed with an external façade made of raw concrete, were completed during the fifties and sixties. These include: the High Court of Justice; The Secretariat (the largest of the new buildings, housing the Government offices); and, the most important of the all the new buildings planned, the Palace of Assembly, completed in 1961.

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Preston Bus Station

Preston Bus Station

The Costa Plan, Brasilia

Brasilia, capital of Brazil, was masterplanned by a student of Le Corbusier. In 1957, Lucio Costa was selected to masterplan a new city, which would be the capital and administrative centre of the country. Whilst Lucio Costa created the plan, the majority of the buildings were designed by Oscar Niemeyer, who arguably went on to become significantly more famous, and who is now generally the architect most commonly associated with Brasilia.

Falling out of Fashion

From around the 1980's the modernist architecture vernacular had fallen out of fashion. Post-modernism was en vogue, later to be replaced by a more contemporary style of architecture that generally became the de facto style - albeit with subtle flourishes borrowed from earlier styles.

In cities across the world, residents and decision-makers started to look at the modernist buildings of the pre-war years with disdain. In many cases, the raw concrete had not aged well and made the buildings appear a far-cry from how they looked when they were first completed. Some of this was down to poor maintenance, weathering poorly in the local climate and, in some cases, shoddy construction and quality of materials.

The movement had come to an end and a gradual process began of erasing these buildings from history one by one. By the turn of the 21st Century, some groups had gained momentum and influence in championing their merits and calling for our architectural past to be valued and appreciated for the vision that stood behind it, rather than to be thrown on the scrapheap of history just because it was no longer in fashion.

In the UK, many of the finest examples of modernist/brutalist architecture were given Listed status, protecting them from demolition or bastardisation. Across the globe, some were even given UNESCO protections.

Architectural Revival

For a time, it appeared as if a renewed sense of appreciation for brutalist/modernist architecture was upon us. More buildings from the modernist period were given Listed status and were refurbished and/or repurposed rather than demolished. Whilst many continue to be under threat, there is now a prominent voice espousing the virtues of these buildings and protecting them from harm.

Brutalism opponents however, including landowners, planners and developers who want to redevelop their land, argue, in many cases quite correctly, that it's not so much the ugliness of these buildings, but more about the poor relationship they have with their surroundings and their lack of active frontages.

It's true that a lot of the examples of brutalist architecture that we still see around us were built as part of a vision of how architects and planners envisaged the world around us. Cities and towns in the mid-twentieth century were being designed more and more around the motor vehicle. Pedestrians were pushed into subways and shopping precincts which turned their backs to the roads and were insular in their design. They became 'dead' places in the evenings and suffered from a lack of activity and passive surveillance.

Unité d'habitaction, Marseille

Unité d'habitaction, Marseille

Concrete and the Move to a Zero Carbon Economy

Whilst the renewed appreciation for our brutalist past has saved many examples of modernist architecture from the wrecking ball, it is unlikely that this will lead to a rebirth of the style. We are now facing a climate emergency and cities and nations around the world are actively making plans to reduce carbon emissions and move towards a zero carbon economy.

Concrete, the main material in brutalist architecture, includes a huge amount of embedded carbon when compared to other building materials. Concrete has a massive carbon footprint, with cement - the key ingredient - being the source of around 8% of the world's carbon emissions.

Whilst that means we aren't likely to see an explosion of new buildings in this style, it could mean that many of the surviving examples of brutalist architecture may now stick around for a lot longer given that it is more carbon-efficient to reutilise existing buildings rather than to demolish and rebuild.

Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports, Lithuania

Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports, Lithuania

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Robert Clarke

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 06, 2021:

The photos are beautiful and clear.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 06, 2021:

Very informative and interesting article. Thanks.

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