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Brutalist architecture is a style of architecture that flourished from the 1950s to the mid-1970s, spawned from the modernist architectural movement. Examples are typically very linear, fortresslike and blockish, often with a predominance of concrete construction. Initially the style came about for government buildings, low-rent housing and shopping centres to create functional structures at a low cost, but eventually designers adopted the look for other uses such as college buildings.
Critics of the style find it unappealing due to its "cold" appearance, projecting an atmosphere of totalitarianism, as well as the association of the buildings with urban decay due to materials weathering poorly in certain climates and the surfaces being prone to vandalism by graffiti. Despite this, the style is appreciated by others, with some of the angular features being softened and updated in buildings currently being constructed in Israel and Latin America, and preservation efforts are taking place in the United Kingdom.
The English architects Alison and Peter Smithson coined the term in 1953, from the French béton brut, or "raw concrete", a phrase used by Le Corbusier to describe the poured board-marked concrete with which he constructed many of his post-World War II buildings. The term gained wide currency when the British architectural critic Reyner Banham used it in the title of his 1966 book, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?, to characterise a somewhat recently established cluster of architectural approaches, particularly in Europe.
Brutalist buildings usually are formed with striking repetitive angular geometries, and, where concrete is used, often revealing the texture of the wooden forms used for the in-situ casting. Although concrete is the material most widely associated with Brutalist architecture, not all Brutalist buildings are formed from concrete. Instead, a building may achieve its Brutalist quality through a rough, blocky appearance, and the expression of its structural materials, forms, and (in some cases) services on its exterior. For example, many of Alison and Peter Smithson's private houses are built from brick. Brutalist building materials also include brick, glass, steel, rough-hewn stone, and gabions. Conversely, not all buildings exhibiting an exposed concrete exterior can be considered Brutalist, and may belong to one of a range of architectural styles including Constructivism, International Style, Expressionism, Postmodernism, and Deconstructivism.
Another common theme in Brutalist designs is the exposure of the building's functions—ranging from their structure and services to their human use—in the exterior of the building. In the Boston City Hall, designed in 1962, the strikingly different and projected portions of the building indicate the special nature of the rooms behind those walls, such as the mayor's office or the city council chambers. From another perspective, the design of the Hunstanton School included placing the facility's water tank, normally a hidden service feature, in a prominent, visible tower.
Brutalism as an architectural philosophy, rather than a style, was often also associated with a socialist utopian ideology, which tended to be supported by its designers, especially Alison and Peter Smithson, near the height of the style. Critics argue that this abstract nature of Brutalism makes the style unfriendly and uncommunicative, instead of being integrating and protective, as its proponents intended. Brutalism also is criticised as disregarding the social, historic, and architectural environment of its surroundings, making the introduction of such structures in existing developed areas appear starkly out of place and alien. The failure of positive communities to form early on in some Brutalist structures, possibly due to the larger processes of urban decay that set in after World War II (especially in the United Kingdom), led to the combined unpopularity of both the ideology and the architectural style. Nevertheless, this style had a strong position in the architecture of the European socialist countries in the period of about 1975-1989 (Czechoslovakia, GDR, USSR). In Czechoslovakia brutalism was presented as an attempt to create a "national" but also "modern socialist" architectonic style.
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The best known early Brutalist architecture is the work of the French architect Le Corbusier, in particular his Unité d'Habitation (1952) and the 1953 Secretariat Building (Palace of Assembly) in Chandigarh, India.
Brutalism gained considerable momentum in the United Kingdom during the mid twentieth century, as economically depressed (and World War II-ravaged) communities sought inexpensive construction and design methods for low-cost housing, shopping centres, and government buildings. Nonetheless, many architects chose the Brutalist style even when they had large budgets, as they appreciated the 'honesty', the sculptural qualities, and perhaps, the uncompromising, anti-bourgeois, nature of the style.
Combined with the socially progressive intentions behind Brutalist streets in the sky housings such as Corbusier's Unité, Brutalism was promoted as a positive option for forward-moving, modern urban housing. In practice, however, many of the buildings built in this style lacked many of the community-serving features of Corbusier's vision, and instead, developed into claustrophobic, crime-ridden tenements. Robin Hood Gardens is a particularly notorious example, although the worst of its problems have been overcome in recent years. Some such buildings took decades to develop into positive communities. The rough coolness of concrete lost its appeal under a damp and grey northern sky, and its fortress-like material, touted as vandal-proof, soon proved vulnerable to spray-can graffiti.
In the United Kingdom, Architects associated with the Brutalist style include Ernő Goldfinger, wife-and-husband pairing Alison and Peter Smithson, Richard Seifert, Basil Spence, John Bancroft and, to a lesser extent perhaps, Sir Denys Lasdun.
In Australia, examples of the Brutalist style are Robin Gibson's Queensland Art Gallery, Ken Woolley's Fisher Library at the University of Sydney (his State Office Block is another), High Court of Australia by Colin Madigan in Canberra and WTC Wharf (World Trade Centre in Melbourne). John Andrews's government and institutional structures in Australia also exhibit the style.
Paul Rudolph and Ralph Rapson from the United States are both noted Brutalists. Walter Netsch is known for his Brutalist academic buildings (see above). Marcel Breuer was known for his "soft" approach to the style, often using curves rather than corners.
Clorindo Testa in Argentina created the Bank of London and South America, one of the best examples of the fifties. More recent Modernists such as I.M. Pei and Tadao Ando also have designed notable Brutalist works.
In New Zealand, Sir Miles Warren and his practice Warren & Mahoney led the development of the so-called "Christchurch School" of architecture, which fused Brutalist architectural style with Scandinavian and Japanese values of straightforwardness. Warren's buildings have had a significant effect on New Zealand's public architecture.
Architects whose work reflects certain aspects of the Brutalist style include Louis Kahn. Architectural historian William Jordy says that although Kahn was "[o]pposed to what he regarded as the muscular posturing of most Brutalism", some of his work "was surely informed by some of the same ideas that came to momentary focus in the Brutalist position."
In the late 1960s, many campuses in North America were undergoing expansions and, as a result, there are a significant number of Brutalist buildings at American and Canadian universities, beginning with Paul Rudolph's 1958 Yale Art and Architecture Building and the 1965 Art Museum at Colgate. Rudolph's design for the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth is an example of an entire campus designed from scratch in the Brutalist style. Likewise, architect Walter Netsch designed the entire University of Illinois-Chicago Circle Campus (now the East Campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago) under a single, unified brutalist design. The University of Chicago's Joseph Regenstein Library is one of the largest libraries in the world, designed in the brutalist style. The University of Minnesota's West Bank campus features several Brutalist buildings, including Ralph Rapson's performing arts venue, Rarig Center, one of Rapson's most important works and the best example of Brutalism in the Twin Cities.
Brutalist appears at its most brutal when placed in a historic context such as next to a listed building or within a conservation area. Here the contrast in scale and detail epitomises why the style obtained its name. Excellent examples exist in historic university cities such as Edinburgh, Scotland.
Brutalism has some severe critics, including Charles, Prince of Wales. His speeches and writings on architecture have excoriated Brutalism, calling many of the structures "piles of concrete". "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe", said Prince Charles at the Corporation of London Planning and Communication Committee's annual dinner at Mansion House in December 1987. "When it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble." Defenders of the style argue that the criticism comes not only from the designs of the buildings, but also from the fact that concrete façades do not age well in damp, cloudy maritime climates such as those of northwestern Europe and New England. In these climates, the concrete becomes streaked with water stains and sometimes with moss and lichens, and rust leaches from the steel reinforcing bars.
At the University of Oregon campus, outrage and vocal distaste for Brutalism led, in part, to the hiring of Christopher Alexander and the initiation of The Oregon Experiment in the late 1970s. This led to the development of Alexander's A Pattern Language and A Timeless Way of Building.
In recent years, the bad memories of under-served Brutalist community structures have led to their demolition in communities eager to make way for newer, more traditionally-oriented community structures.
Theodore Dalrymple, a British author, physican, and political commentator, has written for City Journal that Brutalist structures represent an artefact of European philosophical totalitarianism, a "spiritual, intellectual, and moral deformity." He called the buildings "cold-hearted", "inhuman", "hideous", and "monstrous". He stated that the reinforced concrete "does not age gracefully but instead crumbles, stains, and decays", which makes alternative building styles superior.
Although the Brutalist movement was largely dead by the mid-1980s, having largely given way to Structural Expressionism and Deconstructivism, it has experienced an updating of sorts in recent years. Many of the rougher aspects of the style have been softened in newer buildings, with concrete façades often being sandblasted to create a stone-like surface, covered in stucco, or composed of patterned, pre-cast elements.
Architects from Latin America have been reviving the style on a smaller scale in recent years along with Israel, due to the perceived sense of strength and security the style creates.
Several Brutalist buildings have been granted listed status as historic and others, such as Gillespie, Kidd and Coia's St. Peter's Seminary, named by Prospect magazine's survey of architects as Scotland's greatest post-war building, have been the subject of conservation campaigns. The Twentieth Century Society has campaigned against the demolition of buildings such as the Tricorn Centre and Trinity Centre Multi-Storey Car Park.
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