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Brutalist architecture is a fragmented movement in architecture that flourished from the 1950s to the mid-1970s, descended from the modernist architectural movement of the 1930s. Brutalism became popular with government and institutional clients, with numerous examples in Britain, France, Germany, Japan, United States, Canada, Brazil, and Australia. Examples are typically massive in character (even when not large), fortresslike, with a predominance of exposed concrete construction, or in the case of the "brick brutalists" ruggedly detailed brickwork and concrete together. There is often an emphasis on graphically expressing in the external elevations and in the whole-site plan the main functions and people-flows of the buildings. Brutalism became popular for educational buildings (especially university buildings), but was relatively rare for corporate projects. Brutalism became favoured for many government projects, high-rise housing, and shopping centres to create an architectural image that communicated strength, functionality, and frank expression of materiality.
In its ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy, Brutalism can be seen as a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism and frivolity of some 1930s and 40s architecture. In its most coherent critical appraisal (that of Reyner Banham) Brutalism was posited not as a style at all but as the expression of an atmosphere among architects of moral seriousness. "Brutalism" as an architectural critical term was not always consistently used by critics; whilst architects themselves usually avoided using it altogether. More recently, "brutalism" has become used in popular discourse to refer to buildings of the late twentieth century that are large or unpopular - as a synonym for "brutal" - making its effective use in architectural historical discourse problematic.
The term "brutalism" was originally coined by the Swedish architect Hans Asplund to describe Villa Göth in Uppsala, designed in 1949 by his contemporaries Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm. He originally used the Swedish-language term nybrutalism (new brutalism), which was picked up by a group of visiting English architects, including Michael Ventris. In England, the term was further adopted by architects Alison and Peter Smithson. The term gained wide currency when the British architectural historian 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.
The best known early Brutalist architecture is the work of the Swiss 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.
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Brutalist buildings usually are formed with repeated modular elements forming masses representing specific functional zones, distinctly articulated and grouped together into a unified whole. Concrete is used for its raw and unpretentious honesty, contrasting dramatically with the highly refined and ornamented buildings constructed in the elite Beaux-Arts style. Surfaces of cast concrete are made to reveal the basic nature of its construction, revealing the texture of the wooden planks used for the in-situ casting forms. 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 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. 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.
In the United Kingdom, Architects associated with the Brutalist style include Ernő Goldfinger, wife-and-husband pairing Alison and Peter Smithson, some of the work of Basil Spence, the GLC Architects Department, Owen Luder, John Bancroft and arguably 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, one of the largest libraries in the world, is 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.
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." Similar sentiment is found in the poem Slough. 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.
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.
Brutalist appears at its most brutal when placed in a historic context such as next to a listed building or within a conservation area. Excellent examples exist in historic university cities such as Edinburgh, Scotland.
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, physician, 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. These elements are also found in renovations of older brutalist buildings, such as the redevelopment of Sheffield's Park Hill.
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 unsuccessfully campaigned against the demolition of buildings such as the Tricorn Centre and Trinity Centre Multi-Storey Car Park but successfully in the case of Preston Bus Garage, the Hayward Gallery and others as tide seems to be turning in a mature appreciation of the style.
J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C.
Baptist Medical Pavilion building in downtown Jacksonville, Florida.
D.B. Weldon Library at the University of Western Ontario
Birmingham Central Library Building, Birmingham, England.
The Zumberge Library at the Allendale-campus of Grand Valley State University.
Car park in Hanover, Germany.
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