Brutalism: The Word Itself and What We Mean When We Say It

Record of a Pecha Kucha-style presentation at Architecture + (Kent State), Friday November 18th, 2011

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The word “Brutalism” has lost its meaning. At present, it equates to: large buildings, sometimes of concrete, constructed sometime between World War II and the end of the 1970s. The sheer number of projects this describes is staggering, and many of the architects responsible for them in fact despised the term. We need to relearn the story of this pervasive locution.

Once upon a time, Brutalism referred only to “The New Brutalism,” a snide phrase coined by Alison and Peter Smithson to describe their unbuilt project for a townhouse in the SoHo neighborhood of London. For the Smithsons, “New Brutalism” was initially interchangeable with what they called “the warehouse aesthetic,” which sought to capture the raw quality of materials. As Peter Smithson pointed out in a late interview:

“Brutalism is not concerned with the material as such but rather the quality of the material, that is with the question: what can it do? And by analogy: there is a way of handling gold in Brutalist manner and it does not mean rough and cheap, it means: what is its raw quality?” [Peter Smithson: Conversations with Students, Princeton Architectural Press, 2004]

This raw quality, the treatment of materials “as found,” came to define the aesthetic proclivities of the group seen here, composed of the Smithsons, photographer Nigel Henderson, and the sculptor Edouardo Paolozzi. Eventually this group formed a part of The Independent Group, which is credited with launching Pop Art. For them, Brutalism was not a style but something else, hence:

“Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work. Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.” [Alison & Peter Smithson, “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Design (April 1957)]

Immediately recognized as radical and transformative, “The New Brutalism,” was the subject of much debate. In fact, a series of think pieces had appeared in journals before the Smithsons managed to complete their first building, the Hunstanton Secondary School seen here.

One of brutalism’s strongest early supporters was historian and critic Reyner Banham. In 1955 he published an essay summarizing the defining characteristics of this new style as follows:

“1, Formal legibility of plan; 2, clear exhibition of structure, and 3, valuation of materials for their inherent qualities ‘as found.’”

Banham found this simple list inadequate, so he added:

“In the last resort what characterizes the New Brutalism in architecture […] is precisely its brutality, its je-m’en-foutisme, its bloody-mindedness.” [Banham, “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Review (December 1955)]

Banham later published what he purported to be the definitive statement on The New Brutalism, comprising an international selection of buildings. His contention was that the interplay of ethics and aesthetics defined production and reception of brutalism.

The trouble is, Banham excluded most of the buildings we now regard as brutalist. No Paul Rudolph, no Marcel Breuer, no Boston City Hall, and only one early project by Louis Kahn. And for the record, the Smithsons shunned Banham’s book, accusing him of co-opting their ideas to serve his own agenda.

 Surely, the binary put forward by Banham is much too blunt and exclusionary. In order to rethink the word brutalism itself, it may be useful to return to the dictionary. Let’s look at the definitions of the parts in question. I’ve made a few redactions for the sake of brevity:

“brutal”

  1. savagely violent: a brutal murder
  2. punishingly hard or uncomfortable: the brutal winter wind
  3. without any attempt to disguise unpleasantness: the brutal honesty of his observations

“-ism”

  1. denoting an action or its result: baptism
  2. denoting a state or quality: barbarism
  3. denoting a system, principle or ideological movement: feminism
  4. denoting a basis for prejudice or discrimination: racism
  5. denoting a peculiarity in language: colloquialism
  6. denoting a pathological condition: alcoholism

[Oxford American Dictionary, 2007 Edition]

If we cut and paste a bit we might come up with something satisfactory:

“brutalism”: A state or quality of principled but pathological hardness or discomfort, without any attempt to disguise its unpleasantness.

A bit convoluted, but you get the point. Using this makeshift definition, the word itself might be reframed to describe a particular attitude about building, best described by Banham’s “bloody-mindedness.” Unlike the historically loaded word style, the idea of an attitude might effective at drawing together the diverse group of architectures to which we affix the word in question.

Universally recognizable by its severe, abstract geometries and the monolithic use of concrete, block and brick – this attitude called brutalism became a consensus approach to monumentalizing modern architecture.

If this story of Brutalism is indeed about consensus, our primary question should be: what made this uncompromising, imposing, and frankly quite impractical attitude so seductive?

The story of Paul Rudolph’s Art & Architecture building at Yale University might be instructive. Commissioned when Rudolph was appointed dean at the Yale School of Architecture, the completed building is overflowing with quotations and citations of the history of architecture.

Like Wright’s Larkin Administration Building, Rudolph wanted his work at Yale to have a sense of permanence, a built-in history, monumental enough to rival Roman ruins. In spite of his erudition, Rudolph’s building is most often remembered as the site of a mysterious arson.

The oft-cited myth is that a disgruntled architecture student, fed up with the building’s presence in his life, set fire to his desk in protest. True or not, this myth makes discussion of the building’s architectural merit or lack of merit extremely difficult. When we talk about Rudolph, we have to talk about the fire.

I’m tempted to cite Bernard Tschumi’s “Advertisements for Architecture,” in particular two sentiments expressed here, below the photographs:

On the left, “Architecture is defined by the actions it witnesses as much as by the enclosure of its walls.” And on the right, “Architecture only survives where it negates the form that society expects of it.” Through his actions, the arsonist responsible for Yale’s fire altered the narrative of Rudolph’s building and of brutalism in general, but might the story someday change?

While no mysterious event clouds our view of the Hunstanton School, the overwhelming personal narrative constructed by Alison + Peter Smithson certainly does. Known for talking big and building little, the Smithsons were never as successful as their books would have you believe.

Their largest project, Robin Hood Gardens council housing in London, is one of the worst failures of urban renewal during the brutalist moment. Its foundering hurt their reputations, and larger commissions never came their way. Unlike Rudolph, however, the Smithsons regained their stature by changing their attitude. Their work in the 1970s traced a shift away from the unhomely airs of brutalism toward a sophisticated engagement with Postmodernism, and a more open embrace of history.

The story of brutalism reminds us that once upon a time, there was disciplinary consensus. In retrospect, this consensus appears a peculiar convergence between ethics and aesthetics, during which truth in materials and the question of monumentality dominated the discipline no matter one’s ideological bent, a time when do-gooders and designers held certain goals in common. Successful or not, the results of this peculiar convergence are all around us, reminders that we could all use an attitude adjustment.

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