The following is excerpted from Phaidon's new book Atlas of Brutalist Architecture, the only book to thoroughly document the world's finest examples of Brutalist architecture, with more than 850 buildings—existing and demolished, classic and contemporary—organized geographically into nine continental regions.
The last decade has witnessed a fundamental shift in the way people regard Brutalist architecture. Partly driven by the aestheticization of Brutalism on social media, but also the re-evaluation that comes with the distance of time, Brutalism, as understood by the popular majority today, is no longer confined to the classic canon of architecture from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, nor by Reyner Banham’s iconic essay “The New Brutalism,” published in 1955, in which he named and defined Brutalism as an architectural movement for the first time. Without a doubt, the architecture of the post-war period is at the heart of the Brutalist canon, and Banham’s polemic still resonates; however, Phaidon’s Atlas of Brutalist Architecture demonstrates—through its selection of more than 850 Brutalist buildings—that there is now a much more inclusive definition of Brutalism at work in the twenty-first century.
There have been many attempts to name and define the architectural movement that came to be known as Brutalism—and that thinking and writing, and indeed the controversial naming of this style of architecture, constitute one strand of what is considered to be Brutalist architecture today. In the middle of the twentieth century, as people were starting to question whether Modernism was the only valid form of architectural expression, architects were experimenting with new ways to create meaningful buildings.
The terms ‘New Brutalism’ gained international traction when British critic Reyner Banham decided to unravel the meaning of New Brutalism in an essay for the Architectural Review in December 1955, after which it entered the lexicon of architectural styles. From then on, the term became particularly associated with Britain's quest to develop a form of architecture that could provide the many new buildings the country badly needed. Banham identified New Brutalism’s principle qualities with numerical crispness: "1. Formal legibility of plan; 2. Clear exhibition of structure; 3. Valuation of materials for their inherent qualities 'as found.'" He concluded that the memorability of a building as an “image” was paramount—an interesting concept at a time when the image, particularly the photographic image, was rapidly being considered as an artifact in itself, a discrete object—and added for good measure that a little je-m’en-foutisme (the French for a ‘couldn’t-give-a-damn-approach’) should be in the mix.
As an architectural philosophy, Brutalism was a gift for socialist utopian ideologies and had a strong presence in the architecture of the former Soviet empire in both Europe and Central Asia. It was heralded as a way of creating a ‘national’ architectural style. In the wake of World War II and the erection of the Iron Curtain, new post-war planned cities in the Eastern bloc, such as Novi Zagreb in Croatia and Novi Beograd in Serbia, were designed to reflect a Communist utopia. Many of the structures of the Soviet strand of Brutalism, such as the Druzhba Sanatorium in the Ukraine and the Ministry of Highway Construction in Georgia, display an unexpected gregariousness and geometric originality not often associated with the Soviet era but are now undeniably part of the wider Brutalist canon. Across the world then, on every continent, new parliaments, institutions, cities and buildings were being constructed to express ideas about culture, politics and independence. Regardless of location or motivation, the architectural manifestation has proven to be remarkably consistent in its material expression. Never has an architecture travelled so far, so fast. In the twenty-first century, it is now possible to see that Brutalism was—and still is—a truly global movement.
But what is one era’s style is the next era’s eyesore. Several high-profile Brutalist buildings in the UK and the USA have falled foul of controversial demolition orders in recent years, despite ardent campaigning for their rescue. The Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens, a monolithic development of public housing in East London, was fiercely fought for, but the battle was lost. One apartment was saved by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. "Keeping fragments in museums is no substitute for keeping the whole thing,” says Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society in London, “but it does show its importance. It’s a cautionary tale for the future.”
Today, in the midst of this demolition binge, a new generation is learning to appreciate the extraordinary visual appeal of these buildings—as well as their laudable social ambitions. Despite the tragic loss of many Brutalist structures, some have, at the very least, been salvaged through the abstracted image, and the publishing, posting, and sharing of such images has brought Brutalism to the attention of a wider audience.
The buildings described below are scheduled to be demolished.
Tokyo (JP), 1970
On a cramped urban plot in Tokyo, this embassy for Kuwait is designed around two main elements that are separated in section: a two-story penthouse apartment for the Ambassador, including reception hall and dining room; and chancery operations below. The six-story arrangement not only dovetails with the restricted Mita district site, it also subtly references traditional Arabic architecture and mashrabiya screens. Instead of large openings to the street, the composition is inward-facing with internal courtyards giving privacy from public view, screened by recessed glazed openings in the reinforced concrete walls. At ground level, two large core shafts punctuate the paved entrance lobby and demarcate access to public or private spaces. The shafts rise the building’s full height, providing the primary vertical structural support for the separate building elements.
Kenzo Tange used the new technological advances of reinforced concrete to the full in this project, expressing its strength through bravely cantilevered volumes that hinge about the central cores. Inside, offset sections and double-height spaces shape grand, restrained spaces. The success of the project prompted several other commissions for Tange’s embassy buildings in Tokyo, including the Bulgarian (1974) and Turkish Embassies (1977). Despite the stature of Tange’s work, this embassy will be demolished in 2018.
HÖTEL DU LAC
Tunis (TN), 1973
A popular icon on 1970s postcards of modern Tunis, the futuristic Hôtel du Lac was designed by Raffaele Contigiani, and was intended to present Tunis as one of the most modern and livable cities of the Arab world. The hotel is not far from the natural inland lagoon of Lake Tunis, which was once the city’s ancient harbor.
An inverted ziggurat, this is a form Contigiani had trialled for his Italian pavilion at a 1954 Zagreb exhibition. The hotel expands by one room width at the end of each floor, resulting in the uppermost level being twice the width of the ground floor. Particularly impressive are the sinuous yet angular external staircases that wrap around the lateral facades of the hotel. The building was bought in 2013 by the Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company (LAFICO), who announced their intention to demolish it and replace it with a luxury hotel. Looking like something from another plant, Hôtel du Lac may have inspired some well-known science fiction itself. George Lucas filmed parts of Star Wars (1977) in Tunisia, using the desert location Onk Jmel to portray the planet of Tatooine. The Sandcrawler, a massive Tatooine mobile fortress, bears a striking resemblance to the extraordinary Hôtel du Lac.
DUNELM HOUSE, DURHAM UNIVERSITY
Architects Co-Partnership; Ove Arup & Partners
Durham, England (GB), 1965
A conglomeration of cuboid, angular forms clinging to the plunging banks of the River Wear valley, Dunelm House was completed in 1965 as a student union and staff club for Durham University. Edecuted during a ‘golden age’ of building for British higher education, the design was masterminded by Architects Co-Partnership, working alongside Ove Arup & Partners. Arup’s elegant Grade 1-listed Kingsgate Bridge, completed two years earlier in 1963, is adjacent, forming an airy counterpoint to Dunelm House’s imposing mass. A bronze bust of Arup gazed down from one of the building’s facades until it was stolen in 2006. Inside, a variety of social spaces, some large, some intimate—bar, canteen, games room, meeting rooms and music venue (hosting performances by Pink Floyed and Procol Harum in the 1960s and 1970s)—interlock over different levels. The impressive internal staircase descends in a single straight line, giving a sense of a connecting “street.” Panoramic views of the river below and cathedral opposite open up through mullions slashed into the walls. The building has suffered from technical issues such as water ingress, and Dunelm House is now scheduled for demolition; the university plans to run an open architectural competition for its replacement, but a battle to preserve it continues.
WELBECK STREET CAR PARK
Michael Blampied & Partners
London, England (GB), 1970
Located close to Oxford Circus in central London, Welbeck Street Car Park is an excellent example of the prefabricated concrete architecture of the 1970s. It was built to serve as a car park for customers of the nearby Debenhams department store on Oxford Street. Designed by Michael Blampied & Partners, the multi-story car park accommodates half the plot between Marylebone Lane, Henrietta Place and Welbeck Street. It stands on an asymmetrical pentagonal ground plan, following the line of the streets.
The most impressive feature of the project is the perforated facade, which creates a kind of concrete skin that covers the whole structure and is visible on all sides. This skin is made of rhythmical tessellated concrete polygons that were prefabricated and then mounted on the building. The striking abstract decoration is reminiscent of decorative lace. The compact facade is interrupted by brick staircase towers, which create a marked contrast to the grey concrete. The Welbeck Street Car Park is an outstanding example of popular culture from a time when architectural projects for cars were treated as civic monuments to celebrate the optimism of a modern technological era. In 2015, the building was denied heritage status and the car park is scheduled for demolition.
London, England (GB), 1979
In 1979 the National Westminster Bank opened a dedicated London operations center in Aldgate; in the same month, two miles away and beside the River Thames and Blackfriars Bridge, Lloyds Bank opened an identical program in Sampson House. Designed by Fitzroy Robinson, this 538,200 square-foot (50,000 meters squared) project was built as a centralized cheque-clearing facility and the building required large, open-plan floors to house the substantial computer equipment, as well as strict environmental and security controls. On top of these precise constraints, the building also had to include provision to run its own power generation facility, to enable operation independent of fluctuations in the National Grid.
Unlike its neighbor in Aldgate, Lloyds’ high profile river site prompted the architects to compose a structure with a low profile to avoid emphasizing the building’s necessary bulk. Rising eight levels, the structure is based on conventional in-situ concrete frames that are organized as a series of strata, with floors that pare back as they rise, while lower level concrete slabs project over the footpath. The window strips are lined in lead while spandrel panels are prefabricated concrete. Despite an application to English Heritage, the building was not listed and is scheduled for demolition from 2018.
GROENPLEIN ADMINISTRATIVE CENTRE
Hasselt (BE), 1967
Located in the center of Hasselt in the province of Limburg, the Administrative Centre is a large concrete building that fuses a rough concrete structure with elegant architectural details and rounded elements. This contrast between hard edges and curves is the main visual aspect of the design by architect Louis Ghysebrechts. Tucked between the narrow streets of the city center, the building stands on an L-shaped plot between Groenplein public square and Demerstraat.
Completed in 1967, this five-story building was constructed using prefabricated concrete modules, composed as a rational, geometric grid of horizontal and vertical beams and concrete panels with the geometric decorative elements. The long main facade of the building faces the square, and the different shapes of each floor create a horizontal rhythm. The architect added a striking curved balcony to the second story, which doubles as a cover to the entrance area below—a large concrete vault. The other floors have slightly different styles, crowned by the top floor, which is smaller with a roof terrace around it. This top floor is covered by a series of vaulted domes, an addition that aids the dynamic character of the whole structure.
WENTWORTH STUDENT UNION BUILDING, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY
Anchor, Mortlock & Woolley
Sydney, New South Wales (AU), 1972
Ken Woolley went into partnership with Sydney Ancher and Bryce Mortlock in 1964. Woolley was already acquainted with the Sydney University campus having designed its Chemistry Building (1959) and award-winning Fisher Library (1962) and in 1968 they won the commission for the university’s new 63,184 square-foot (5,870 meter squared) Student Union. The project was part of a campus expansion and had to contend with a highway cutting between old and new precincts—hence the commission required the incorporation of an existing footbridge above the highway. Ancher, Mortlock & Woolley used the bridge as the building’s primary generator. It pierces through the east facade and extends into the center, changing level and continuing beyond the rear elevation. The central thoroughfare forms the building’s spine, off which services are organized. The university also specified the use of reinforced concrete with white details that it believed would create a suitable focal point for the new campus. The architects concurred and specified off-form sandblasted concrete with white tiles wrapping the robust full-height circulation column that cuts through the upper floor. The original footbridge has been removed, replaced by a new structure to the north.
Casson Conder & Partners
Derby, England (GB), 1977
The Assembly Rooms theatre complex was the competition-winning replacement for its sixteenth-century predecessor, which was destroyed by fire in 1963 and then demolished. Designed by Casson Conder & Partners, the orthogonal form is enclosed by a skin of red brick set around reinforced concrete slabs. Occupying the same Derbyshire Market Place site, it provided two performance halls with an adjacent car parking building.
The elongated, low format of the design contains entertainment and dining spaces, a Great Hall of 6,890 square feet (640 meters squared) to the west and the Darwin Theatre of 3,390 square feet (315 meters squared) with flexible seating to the east. Like many civic projects of the era, its rectilinear volume is framed by a deep cantilever, supported by expressed concrete pilotis that define the perimeter. The elevation facing the market place is marked by a single-story glazed projecting volume with a distinctive projecting corner that now houses the tourist information centre. A pedestrian cut-through leads from the plaza to the courtyard of the Darwin Theatre and box office. It is uncertain if the Assembly Rooms will suffer the same fate as its ancestor. Following a fire in 2014, the venue was closed. Derby City Council has proposed to demolish and replace it.