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What is Brutalist Architecture?
The term “brutalism,” or “New Brutalism,” was first coined in 1950 by Swedish architect Hans Asplund to describe a brick home in Uppsala designed by Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm. The Edman and Lennart home, the Villa Göth, became known as the first brutalist structure. Following this watershed moment, the style quickly rose to prominence after Bauhaus-inspired modernism faded throughout most of Europe following World War II.
History of Brutalism
The first published reference to the term would come in 1953, when Alison Smithson described her and Peter Smithson’s design for “Soho House.” Specifically, Smithson would state that the building’s structure would be “exposed entirely, without interior finishes whenever applicable.” In this statement, the Smithson’s would lay the material foundations for Brutalism’s practical applications.
In the 1950s and 1960s, both Europe and the United States were experiencing population booms in urban centers and were tasked with designing large-scale, institutional buildings like hospitals, schools, churches, and apartment complexes, which were desperately needed to meet the changing demands of the time. The catch, however, was that these governments would have to be measured in their spending on building materials.
As far as building materials went, Brutalism was a cheap alternative to the modernism of the 1920s to 1940s, and Europe sorely needed a cost-cutting design alternative to embrace. Cash-strapped from war expenses, much of Europe was in need of an affordable design style that could be deployed to address various institutional and municipal concerns. Namely, Europe sought a design that could cheaply house and serve a growing population, and in many ways Brutalism served as this alternative. For instance, the mid-century modern styles that were in vogue during the 1920s and 1930s, relied on more expensive materials like glass and metals. Conversely, Brutalist architects would operate almost exclusively with concrete and brick, which were far more ubiquitous and inexpensive to find and produce.
While the Villa Göth was considered the first example of Brutalist Architecture, Le Corbusier would be the architect to influence the style most, even if he is not outrightly considered a Brutalist architect. Le Corbusier would effectively serve as a guide and mentor to this influential period, and that began with his design for the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, France in 1952.
The Unité d’Habitation de Marseille was a high-density residential complex meant to house large numbers of people in the urban center of Marseille. Imposing in nature, and built exclusively with concrete and brick, the Unite d’Habitation would serve as a launching pad for the Brutalist architects that followed. Nevertheless, the prolific architect would dedicate the remaining years of his life “in concrete,” designing famous architectures considered to be influential to the style from 1954-1964.
While Le Corbusier would popularize concrete and help ‘cement’ Brutalism in France and Continental Europe, Peter and Alison Smithson would forcefully introduce the style to England in the 1950s. Their design for Smithdon High School (1952) would come to represent the first Brutalist structure in the country. The Smithsons would go on to design at least three more Brutalist buildings, but none were as popular as their Robin Hood Gardens (1972). Often referred to as “streets in the sky,” an obvious reference to its aerial concrete walkways, the Robin Hood Gardens became synonymous with Brutalism’s practical approach when dealing with problems of the commons, specifically social housing.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Brutalism became ubiquitous throughout most of the developed world, especially in dense urban areas. Architects like Paul Rudolph would bring the style to the United States with his monolithic, concrete designs, namely the imposing Yale Art and Architecture Building (1963). Australian architect John Andrews would popularize the style in both Australia, with the Cameron Offices (1972), and Canada, with the University of Toronto Scarborough, Humanities and Science Wings, (1964). All of these buildings were designed from a need for large-scale, cheap institutional buildings that could serve as educational and commercial hubs.
By the 1980s, Brutalism would see its use in considerable decline. With the desire to design more sustainable buildings, architects largely abandoned the style. Nevertheless, Brutalist buildings will forever stand as monuments to a more practical time; a time that focused on building structures to deal with burgeoning populations in need of housing, schools, and hospitals. Most importantly, they will stand forever since they are literally composed from the most reliable and strong material in the world: concrete.
10 Examples of Famous Brutalist Architecture
Villa Göth (Edman and Holm, 1950)
Widely considered to be the source of the term “brutalism,” the Villa Göth was designed in 1950 for Elis Göth. Architects Bengt Endman and Lennart Holm would rely on a simple use of brick and concrete for the majority of the structure. The home will not win any innovation awards for its design, as it’s a basic, rectangular three-storied structure with an incredibly muted facade. However, it is precisely in its simplicity and utilitarianism that Villa Göth occupies such an important place in the historical discussion of Brutalism.
The interior of the home also accentuates this simplicity. Upon entering, you will notice the building materials on full display. For example, the poured-concrete, which offers the building it’s structural integrity, is on blatant display throughout most of the interior’s ceiling. Moreover, the same bricks one would find on the exterior walls are also found on interior walls; further problematizing the accepted dichotomy between internal and external building materials. With the Villa Göth, traditional binaries of exterior and interior were abandoned, and that is what laid the foundation for the coming decades of Brutalism.
Unité d’Habitation de Marseille (Le Corbusier, 1952)
While in many ways Le Corbusier can be considered more of a proto-Brutalist architect, as he has far more designs in previous Modernist styles than any other forms, his contribution to Brutalism’s popularity cannot be overstated. The launching point for this popularity was his Unité d’Habitation de Marseille, which was originally conceived in 1920 - much earlier than any concept for brutalist architecture. Forever dedicated to the growing problems of the commons in France, Corbu would successfully design a modern housing project, which would try to address overpopulation and lack of housing in urban centers.
This building represents a microhistory for the reason Brutalism became so popular in postwar Europe. Initially, Corbu had wanted to use reinforced steel beams for the structure, but as it was deemed too expensive and in light supplies following overuse during the war, the Radiant City would end up being composed primarily in béton-brut, or rough-cast concrete.
To further address the new demographic realities of postwar France, Corbu would ensure that the housing complex would be a truly mixed-use structure. With 337 apartments, the Marseille building could potentially house thousands of citizens. Additionally, bookshops and other shopping areas would be designed into the unit to address the everyday needs of the residents. Needless to say, the design represented a true watershed moment in the history of Brutalist Architecture, and would change the architectural landscape forever.
Smithdon Highschool (Peter and Alison Smithson, 1952)
Peter and Alison Smithson’s contribution to Brutalism stands truly on its own. While Villa Göth may have represented the first brutalist structure, and Le Corbusier employed proto-Brutalist design techniques, the construction of Smithdon Highschool ushered in the formal and academic use of the term “Brutalism.”
Located in Norfolk, England, Smithdon Highschool, or as it was referred to at the time of its construction, the Hunstanton School, was completed in 1952. Like many Brutalist buildings of the 1950s and 1960s, the intention of the design was to make a cheap, easy to use building for institutional purposes. The structure primarily consists of concrete, but unlike some of the other Brutalist buildings in our list, also has a fair amount of glass. The rest of the structure would be made from pre-welded steel, while the foundation, roofs, and floors were made from concrete.
While relying slightly more on non-Brutalist building materials, such as glass, Smithdon Highschool is still a great example of postwar English Brutalism. For example, the raw materials used in construction were largely left unchanged, unpainted, and unstained. Natural finishes were left on all building materials, and the only changes to be found were on the bricks on the building’s facade - which were lightly painted yellow, but this too was for a practical reason: to reduce their porosity.
Litchfield Towers (Deeter and Richtey, 1963)
The “Towers,” as they are often referred to by residents on Campus, are found in the University of Pittsburgh. Designed by architecture firm Deeter and Richtie in 1963, the Litchfield Towers serve as the main residences for students at the university. Made up of three separate concrete towers (A, B, and C), the Towers all have different capacities and together can house almost 2,000 students. Standing at 22 stories, Tower B remains the largest tower.
All of the towers were built on a three-story base, which would allow space for a large mess hall, or cafeteria, which could feed 14,000 students at a time, and also include a parking garage on its base level.
With its cylindrical design, the design for the Litchfield Towers benefits from its use of concrete. The imposing towers include very narrow windows on every level for student dormitories. From a design standpoint, the Brutalist design style is present from the striking-yet-sterile presence the Towers convey.
Habitat 67 (Moshe Safdie, 1967)
Perhaps the most unique looking building on this list, Habitat 67 looks more like a model of a jenga game than a housing complex. The unique look to the structure makes it one of the most recognizable buildings not only in Montreal, but in all of Canada as well. The original idea of Habitat 67 was to take aspects of suburban dwelling, such as gardens and privacy, and introduce them to the fast-growing design fabric of the modern housing project.
Built in 1967, Habitat 67 would rely heavily on typical Brutalist building materials.The complex itself consists of unevenly-stacked prefabricated-concrete boxes sitting atop one another. Although each concrete box is identical in size and interior space (354 boxes in total), the buildings themselves have various heights throughout the complex. At its highest point, Habitat 67 reaches up to 12 stories. In all, this system of jenga-styled boxes once created 158 apartments, but have since been reduced with the joining of certain conjoined apartments.
Boston City Hall (Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles, 1968)
By the mid-1960s, perceptions were changing in the design world on what it meant to design a municipal building, such as city halls and courthouses. City planners wanted their public buildings to have a modern look and feel. Standing as a testament to that change in architectural discourse, Boston City Hall ticks all of the boxes for the Brutalist style.
The building materials for Boston City Hall are primarily cast-in-place and precast concrete. The base of the building is made up of dark brick, which ultimately gives the structure a cold and sterile feel. The use of both materials was also intended to reflect the dual purpose of the building: civic and bureaucratic.
The use of brick is significant for two reasons. First, the offices present in the base of Boston City Hall are municipal in nature, and encourages pedestrian traffic and public engagement to this more open level. Second, brick was an obvious reference to Boston’s architectural history and how the city embraced brick-paved streets and brick-dominated structures since its inception.
The use of concrete comes to represent something entirely. Concrete dominates the top of the structure, which is home to the bureaucratic arms of the local government. Offices are marked by their narrow and uniformed windows, which further denote a bureaucratic separation between a city and its people.
While no modern building is likely as controversial to Boston’s history, Boston City Hall has largely been at the center of countless public debates. Often considered “the most ugly building in Boston,” mayors have attempted for decades to give City Hall, and the surrounding plaza, a more welcoming feel. In fact, as recent as 2017, Mayor Walsh decided to install LED lights to the structure and plaza in an effort to beautify the design.
Cameron Offices (John Andrews, 1972)
Widely considered one of the most important Brutalist buildings outside Europe and North America, John Andrews’ Cameron Offices were finally completed in 1972 in Belconnen Canberra, Australia. Typical for the style, the Cameron Offices were split into nine (9) wings that were to house government offices for various administrative efforts, such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as well as offices for student accomodation in the nearby University of Canberra.
The look and feel of the Cameron Offices are consistent with other Brutalist structures from the time. As far as building materials are concerned, precast concrete and institu-concrete are used predominantly throughout the structure. Largely column-free, the Cameron Offices sees its column support in the landscaped courtyards found around each wing. Speaking on the architectural significance of the design, Australian architect Jennifer Taylor once said that it was more than just a building, that it was “a varied streetscape of walks, gardens and pavilions. Its triumph lies in the interlocking unity of its concept and the diversity within it.”
Robin Hood Gardens (Peter and Alison Smithson, 1972)
Likely the most iconic structure on this list, from an architectural history perspective, was the Robin Hood Gardens. Coining the term “streets in the sky,” the Robin Hood Garden represented Peter and Alison Smithson’s most influential work. An attempt at taking what Le Corbusier would bring to urban housing developments with the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, and ultimately turning it on its head.
Known for its expansive aerial walkways in massive concrete blocks, Robin Hood Gardens would not only serve as a synthesis for the Brutalist architecture which preceded it, but also redefine what it meant to live in an urban housing development. In the most significant departure from traditional Modernist design, the Smithsons would not develop Robin Hood Gardens on the rectilinear grid, which had been the case to account mainly for vehicle traffic. Instead, the pedestrian would be the actor the Smithsons wanted to account for, so the overall layout of the housing complex would be designed around the various pathways the pedestrian could use on their walks.
From both the Habitat 67 and Robin Hood Garden examples, the trend within Brutalist design was to seamlessly unite the outside with the interior. It also meant that living in a postwar housing complex did not need to be bleak, and when properly designed, could allot you the same luxuries from more affluent compatriots who could afford a single-family home.
Buffalo City Court Building (Pfohl, Roberts, and Biggie, 1974)
The Buffalo City Court Building was designed by Architecture firm Pfohl, Roberts, and Biggie and was completed in 1974. The building serves as the judicial nerve center for the city of Buffalo. It is home to the 8th Judicial district Housing Court; Small and Commercial Claims Court; Criminal Court; and houses some members of the New York Supreme Court for the County of Erie.
The design stays true to the Brutalist style with extremely narrow windows and a façade made up of Precast concrete. The design decisions made by Pfohl, Roberts, and Biggie were quite commonplace for the time. For example, narrow windows are prevalent throughout much of Brutalist architecture. The idea behind narrow windows is to limit the outside world from distracting the civil institution housed therein - in this case a municipal legislative building. Needless to say, these long narrow breaks in the building facades were incredibly common for Brutalist structures to have.
Western City Gate/Genex Tower (Mihajlo Mitrović, 1979)
Located in Belgrade, Serbia, Western City Gate/Genex Tower is one of the most popular Brutalist structures in former-Yugoslavia. Originally designed as a “gate” welcoming visitors from the airport into the city, Western City Gate is a very sleek take on Brutalism.
Made up of 36 stories, Western City Gate consists of two concrete high-rise towers connected by a two-story bridge and revolving restaurant on top. The two towers are split between commercial and residential. The first tower (26 stories) was formerly used by the now-defunct Genex company as their organizational headquarters, while the second tower (30 stories) was and is still occupied by thousands of Belgradian residents.
In recent decades, calls to preserve countless Brutalist structures throughout the world have been met with mixed results. In 2012, for example, the French Ministry of Culture designated the Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation de Marseille a historic monument, and in 2013, UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site.
Similarly, the Cameron Offices received partial protection in 2004. The Minister for the Environment and Heritage of Australia determined that only Wings 3, 4, 5, and the adjoining bridge would receive heritage protection, while the remaining wings were listed for demolition. Contrastingly, the Robin Hood Gardens would not be so lucky. The “crown jewel” of Alison and Peter Smithson’s architecture would not receive any protection, and after much protest, the entire complex was slated for demolition in 2017.
Unfairly, Brutalism was eventually linked to a growth in crime within low-income housing projects throughout the United States and Europe. Structural inequity, such as class exploitation and institutionalized racism, were far more likely culprits to the failures of subsidized social housing than the minimalist design choices made therein. Additionally, the building materials used in many of the Brutalist structures also made wide-spread protections difficult because they were not considered “sustainable” to a new architecture dedicated to energy-efficient buildings. As a result, Brutalism would quickly fall out of style by the 1980s.
Ultimately, the history of Brutalism is known throughout the world for its singular dedication to an affordable and utilitarian design style. Architects employing the style throughout the 1950s-1970s were asked to develop the urban fabric of the postwar welfare state. Whether these buildings were used for social housing, hospitals, or courthouses, Brutalist design will forever be synonymous with issues of the commons.