Brutalist architecture is a style known for its rugged, block-like concrete buildings and its emphasis on materiality and function over decorative flourishes. Emerging in the 1950s. Brutalism became popular in the 1960s and 1970s before falling out of favor due to its cold, imposing aesthetic. However, in recent years, brutalism has seen a resurgence in appreciation, with many recognizing the style for its sculptural forms and raw expressiveness. In this post, we’ll explore the history, characteristics, examples, and renewed enthusiasm for brutalist architecture.

What is Brutalist Architecture?

The term “brutalism” comes from the French béton brut meaning “raw concrete.” Concrete is the predominant material used in brutalist buildings, often left rough and unfinished to expose its basic nature. it is a simple, block-like, hulking concrete structures.

The style gained its name from Le Corbusier’s beton brut concrete, and “béton brut” buildings in Europe by architects like Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “New Brutalism” emerged as a specific architectural movement in Britain in the 1950s, led by architects Alison and Peter Smithson. They designed several notable brutalist buildings including Robin Hood Gardens in London. 

brutalist architecture
Image Source: Google images

characteristics of brutalist architecture

Other key characteristics of the style include:

  • – Blocky, geometric shapes and forms
  • – Monolithic, fortress-like exteriors
  • – Angular, rectilinear shapes
  • – Modular, repetitive elements 
  • – Exposed, unadorned materials
  • – Function-focused design over decoration

Brutalism arose after World War II when Europe needed to rebuild quickly and on a budget. The need for cheap, general housing aligned with brutalist architecture’s emphasis on affordability, functionality, and the use of raw, inexpensive materials like concrete.

Brutalist buildings could be constructed rapidly due to their modularity and simplicity. 

Architecturally, brutalism was a reaction against the lavish decor and ornate styles of previous decades. Instead, brutalism favored truth in materials, structural clarity, and exposed building functions over decorative elements. The style also expressed socialist ideologies and egalitarian principles which were popular in the 1960s-70s when it flourished.

Characteristics and Materials of Brutalist Buildings

Rough, Unfinished Surfaces

Unlike other concrete architecture, brutalist buildings display the raw nature and textures of concrete and other materials. Concrete is left rough with imprints of wooden formwork often visible. Other raw materials like brick, glass, and steel contrast the concrete.

Modular Components 

Brutalist design is focused on functional, flexible, and cost-effective construction. Buildings are typically made of repetitive, prefabricated concrete modules that can be arranged in various configurations. 

Sculptural, Blocky Forms

Brutalist buildings feature strong, angular shapes like rectangles, squares, and pyramids stacked and arranged in unique ways to create a sculptural, blocky aesthetic. The forms are often monumental and confrontational.

Exposed Structural Elements 

Structure and function take priority over decoration. Structural elements like columns, beams, and circulation are left exposed. Services like drainage pipes, ducts, and elevator shafts may also be visible from the exterior. 

Monolithic Appearance

Buildings have a imposing, monolithic appearance achieved by the large, interconnected masses of concrete. Extensive use of concrete inside and out gives buildings a cohesive, uniform look.

Ornament-free Design

Decoration is non-existent in brutalist design. There are no applied decorative elements aside from textures and patterns from the building materials themselves.

Key Examples of Brutalist Architecture

Here are some iconic examples of brutalist architecture across the world:

Habitat 67, Montreal

Designed by Moshe Safdie for Expo 67, this experimental housing complex consists of 354 prefabricated concrete boxes stacked in various configurations. It exemplifies brutalist ideals of modular, functional design. 

National Theatre, London

Designed by Denys Lasdun, the National Theatre’s looming, slab-like exterior is made of textured concrete. The building shows brutalist architecture’s theatrical, blocky forms.

Buffalo City Court Building, Buffalo 

This imposing courthouse by Paul Rudolph features rough corduroy concrete surfaces, cantilevered shapes, and protruding angular volumes that exemplify brutalist style. 

buffalo city court

Geisel Library, UC San Diego

William Pereira’s famous university library has projecting, stacked concrete forms resembling off-kilter blocks. The tilted shapes create a gravity-defying sculptural quality.

Salk Institute, La Jolla

Designed by Louis Kahn, the Salk Institute’s concrete forms are softened by the addition of wood and environment. But the modular towers still reflect brutalist boldness in their stark, repetitive geometry. 

Boston City Hall, Boston 

This archetypal brutalist building by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles features imposing, fortress-like stone surfaces with protruding cantilevered shapes that create a striking sculptural form. 

Yale Art and Architecture Building, New Haven 

Designed by Paul Rudolph, this building encapsulates brutalist architecture with its textured concrete facades, expressive shapes, and visible structural and mechanical elements.

Brutalism in India

Brutalism appeared mostly in institutional buildings in post-independence India when concrete became readily available. Leading Indian architects like Charles Correa, B.V. Doshi, and Raj Rewal used brutalist techniques in innovative ways suited to the climate and culture. 

Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore

B.V. Doshi combined brick, concrete, and local stone to create an imposing yet environmentally suited brutalist building for the institute in the 1970s.

Madras University, Chennai

Designed by Raj Rewal in the late 1960s, the university buildings feature harsh concrete exteriors opening into tropical courtyards. Rewal’s work is described as “Tropi-brutalism.”

Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur 

Charles Correa designed this arts center in 1986 with an imposing stepped concrete structure inspired by the nine square mandala of Hindu cosmology.

Indian Embassy, Brasília 

This striking embassy building combines Correa’s modular brutalism with traditional Indian architectural elements like chattris and jaalis.

Famous Brutalist Architects

Brutalism was a global style with many talented architects using its principles in innovative ways:

**Le Corbusier** – The pioneering Swiss-French architect designed some of the first prominent brutalist buildings like Unité d’habitation. He championed rough concrete and a functional approach.

**Alison and Peter Smithson** – This British husband-and-wife team coined the term “New Brutalism” and designed the iconic brutalist Robin Hood Gardens housing complex. 

**Louis Kahn** – The American architect used concrete in refined ways like in the Salk Institute and Yale Center for British Art. He crafted a softer brutalist aesthetic.

**Paul Rudolph** – Known for rough “corduroy concrete”, Rudolph created expressive brutalist forms in buildings like the Yale Art and Architecture Building. 

**Bertrand Goldberg** – His iconic Marina City complex in Chicago comprised of striking corncob-shaped towers became an emblem of brutalism.

**Oscar Niemeyer** – The Brazilian architect pioneered tropical brutalism designs that used concrete in curved, sensuous forms.

Brutalism’s Decline and Recent Revival 

By the late 1970s, the utopian ideals of brutalism faded as social housing projects like Robin Hood Gardens developed structural and social problems. Brutalism’s monumental scale and inhuman, imposing forms came to be seen as oppressive. The style fell out of favor through the 80s and 90s.

However, brutalism has seen a renewed enthusiasm in recent years. Appreciation has grown for its sculptural qualities, honesty of materials, and radical architectural ambition. Many structures face demolition threats sparking heritage campaigns by groups like DOCOMOMO. Books, documentaries and social media groups have brought attention to preserving brutalist buildings. 

While controversial, brutalism forms an important and influential chapter in architecture history. The style’s unapologetic expression and sculptural power cannot be denied. Brutalism left an enduring mark showcasing the raw beauty concrete can achieve. Its resurgence reminds us that often what is disliked today can become beloved tomorrow. Brutalism’s striking, formidable forms will continue to fascinate architects and the public alike.

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