In a recent article, we discussed the unique beauty of Postmodern architecture. Today, we would like to invite you to join us, as we explore one of its descendants – Brutalism. Contrary to widespread popular belief, the term Brutalist architecture does not derive from the word brutal (even though it may seem quite fitting). Rather, it comes from the French term béton brut, meaning raw or untreated concrete.
To the untrained eye, brutalist structures, with their sharp shapes made of drab grey materials, may seem strange, and sometimes even distasteful. However, once you learn more about their history and significance, it is impossible not to find them at least a little bit charming.
The Geisel Library belongs to the University of California San Diego, and is an excellent example of Brutalist architecture
Origins of Brutalism
In the beginning of the 20th century Modernism was the leading movement in architecture. It championed bold, utilitarian designs, characterized by crisp lines and a neat, austere presence. Modernist architects saw the decorative style of classic architecture as bourgeois and impractical, and sought simpler, more elegant, and futuristic solutions, with which to replace it.
After WWII the need for cheap and practical housing skyrocketed, and Modernism had to evolve, in order to keep up with the demand. Inspired by this, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret a.k.a. Le Corbusier, one of the most influential Modernist architects, decided to move away from the neat and polished look of his previous designs, and began creating rough, unfinished looking buildings, that relied heavily on concrete. Thus, Brutalism was born. Its simple, rudimentary designs, coupled with the affordability of the necessary materials, enabled people to create a lot of residential buildings in very short span of time. Many public and governmental structures soon followed, aiming to underline the importance of austerity and functionality. Although Brutalism first appeared in Western Europe, it was quickly adopted in North America and the rest of the world. Its utilitarian designs were also favored in the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern Bloc, where it branched out into a style known as Socialist Modernism.
Full view of the Geisel Library
Rough concrete details are typical for Brutalist buildings
Characteristics of Brutalism
Honesty was a crucial element in Brutalism. After World War II life was difficult and grim, and Brutalist architecture sought to faithfully reflect this new reality, without softening or decorating it. This idea is evident in the style’s three chief characteristics:
- Form follows function – the chief mantra of Modernism, according to which the most important aspect of a building is its usefulness. Aesthetics should always take a backseat.
- Visible structural elements – beams, electrical installations and piping should all be left in the open, for everyone to see.
- Raw, untampered materials – nothing should be polished or beautified; buildings should be as rough as reality itself.
Although these characteristics were devised in order to render architecture less bourgeois and more accessible to the everyday men and women, the vast majority of people found Brutalist buildings depressing and drab, and failed to see their social and cultural significance. As a result, very little effort is put in the preservation of these structures, particularly in former Soviet countries. In many cases Brutalist buildings are no longer in use, and have been left at the mercy of the elements. Some have become pilgrimage spots for urban explorers.
The Socialist Monument in Buzludzha, Bulgaria, is a very popular spot for urban explorers
The Poplavok Cafe in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, looks like something out of an old sci-fi movie, and we love it!
Isn’t this Neo-Brutalist Structure in Seoul, South Korea, beautiful?
This short video is a great introduction to Brutalism, and explains its philosophy and origins in a fun and accessible way:
Examples of Brutalist architecture
There are Brutalist buildings all over the globe. Some, like The Breuer Building in New York, Habitat 67 in Montreal, Trellick Tower in London, and the City Hall in Boston, are very well known, and have achieved cult status among architects and critics alike. Others, like Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation are protected by UNESCO. Still others stand empty and forgotten in distant corners of the world, visited only by a handful of adventurers every year. Chances are there are at least a couple of Brutalist buildings in your own town – we hope that this article will help you see them from a new perspective, and that you will feel inspired to appreciate their unique, albeit somewhat rough, charm!
In our gallery below you will find over 70 striking examples of Brutalist architecture around the globe. Enjoy, and don’t forget to check out our Architecture Section for more interesting articles.
Detail of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation (La Cité Radieuse) in Marseille – a residential building, protected by UNESCO
The Bank of Georgia Headquarters in Tbilisi, Georgia
The Wotruba Church in Vienna, Austria
The Barbican Centre in London, England
A Brutalist building on Water Street, Liverpool, UK
The iconic Habitat 67 building in Montreal, Canada
A look inside the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, San Francisco
Les Choux de Créteil in Paris, France
The Digital Beijing Building
Hemeroscopium House in Las Rozas, Spain
The Trellick Tower in London, England
A lovely Brutalist home with plenty of greenery
Hill of the Buddha, Sapporo, Japan
The Trellick Tower – pocket size vs. original
The Boston City Hall – another Brutalist icon
The Innovation Center in Santiago, Chile
A Brutalist building in Seoul, South Korea
One of the many Brutalist monuments, built across former Yugoslavia, to commemorate the victims of WWII
Another look at the Buzludzha Socialist Monument in Bulgaria
The Saint-Pierre Building in Firminy
A Brutalist-inspired design for a police station in Riga, Latvia
SESC Pompéia, São Paulo
Unsurprisingly, the SESC Pompéia used to be a factory
The Heyward Gallery in London, England
Buildings on Rue Curial, Paris, France
More monuments from former Yugoslavia: in Podgaric…
…and Ilirska Bistrica.
Skjern River Pump Stations by Johansen Skovsted
Another one of Johansen Skovsted’s creations
A Hotel in Morelos, Mexico
The Building of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in San Diego, California
Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre in London, England
Bizarre Socialist Modernist buildings – the Druzhba Sanatorium in Yalta, Ukraine, and the Georgian Ministry of Highways in Tbilisi, Georgia
Brutalist interiors – a look inside the Instructional Centre of the University of Toronto
The Pierres Vives building in Montpellier houses three French government departments
The Hotel Adriatic II, Opatija, Croatia
Rudolph Hall in New Haven, Connecticut
Another view of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation
Buffalo City Court Building in Buffalo, NY. Note its remarkable narrow windows
The Mill Owners’ Association Building in Ahmedabad, India
Three great examples of European Brutalist architecture
The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City
Another view of The Barbican Centre, London, England
The High Point building in Bradford, England
Can you believe that this super cool structure is a bus stop in Casar de Caseres, Spain?
The Ruse municipal building, Ruse, Bulgaria
The Boston City Hall is often described as the “ugliest building in the USA.” Do you agree?
The Headquarters of the Bank of London and South America in San Nicolas, Buenos Aires
The Ilinden Monument in Krusevo, Macedonia
The grounds of the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture in Sao Paulo
King’s College London’s Macadam Building, as seen from the front…
…and from the back
A monument in Jasenovac, Croatia
Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation was built between 1947 and 1952
Prentice Women’s Hospital, Chicago, demolished in 2013
The Royal Festival Hall in London, England
The City Theater of Tehran
Centro de Exposições do Centro Administrativo da Bahia, Bahia, Brazil
Balmoral Beach House in Sydney, Australia
The Dead Sea Visitor Center in Neve Zohar, Israel
A Concrete Beach House in Valparaiso, Chile
Salters’ Hall in London, England
The building of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information in Kiev, Ukraine
Assembly Building, Chandigarh, India, designed by Le Corbusier