While it would be easy to write off as a trendy resurgence or – dare I say it – vintage revival, brutalist architecture is genuinely back in vogue, perhaps in large part because concrete is cheap [ it’s one of the most widely consumed materials, after water ] . Then again, maybe the resurrection of one of the 20th century’s most controversial architectural movements is thanks to brutalism’s practically synonymous relationship with adjectives like raw and modern, functional, and unpretentious. Namely, everything we minimally-conscious aspire to.
These dramatic, yet simple, often fortress-like structures reveal the basic nature of their construction in their textures and castings. Though known mainly for their hued concrete greys [ honestly, one of my favorite materials ] building materials also include brick, glass, steel, and rough-hewn stone.
A common theme in brutalist architecture is the structure’s identifiable link to its function. One of my favorite examples is Trellick Tower in London. London has an enormous number of brutalist buildings scattered all over its boroughs, and Trellick – designed by architect Ernő Goldfinger back in the 60’s – soars over most of them at a rocketing 322 feet in the royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. You can see precisely the use of each space from its exterior alone: the partitioning between balconies signifying the underlying delineation of livable rooms; the plant at the top of the tower grouping the hot water and boiler tanks [ though now defunct ] , external walkways with open-access corridors. Admittedly, in the case of some council housing estates this originally led to rampant drug crime, rough sleepers, and other unseemly acts. But despite its grimy past – or perhaps because of it – Trellick is something of a cult landmark. Residences today range from £250,000 for a one-bedroom flat to £480,000 for a fully refurbished three-bedroom apartment.
I lived in London for several years [ and Cambridge and Essex ] and the quantity of brutalist buildings there gave many parts of these cities a hard edge. But I always liked that about London, especially. There’s less frilly white stonework than you see in, say, Paris, throughout much of central London. Instead, there are boxy, socialist utopian ideological flats, university buildings, and office blocks streaked with water and dotted with moss and lichens thanks to the damp, cloudy climate. I think I like it because it’s cold and dark, all despite that totalitarian feel many associate with the movement that began in the 50’s. Grey and black are my favorite colors after all, and exploring London’s urban decay was one of my favorite pastimes as a poor university student. I have all the photos to prove it.
I plan to go back there some day. To London, I mean. But in the meantime, I’ll enjoy glimpses of austere, raw concrete locally.
Far flung from that dystopian underclass, many of the rougher, windswept, forgotten aspects of the traditional brutalist style have been refined in newer constructions, with concrete façades softened to create smooth, stone-like surfaces, or patterned pre-cast elements. It’s a modern, sleek take on the soulless jungle so many despised. And why not? Concrete is “down-to-earth, honest, unpretentious, egalitarian, and creates buildings rooted in place”. Many imitate the terroir in which they were built, binding local rock to concrete in solid reflections of what is local – rather than un-uniquely international. When they’re created with intention and respect, brutalist buildings can become treasured in ways glass and steel rarely are. They are earthy, soulful and – very often – quite old. They are simple, functional, minimal structures where a shadow packs just as much impact on a textured surface as solid visual lines.
Say what you will about brutalist architecture, no one can argue these buildings don’t look fantastic in photographs. Sure, they’re austere but still, you can’t help acknowledging that striking sense of glamour in stark simplicity.