BRUTALISM: THE EVOLUTION OF RAW CONCRETE

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

The word Brutalist originated from a French word ‘beton brut’which means ‘rough concrete’, often used by Le Corbusier to define his material of choice. It is generally said, “trends are circular and what’s old becomes new again.” (Jessica Stewart) There is no other form of architecture which explains this better than brutalism. In the early 1950’s Brutalism emerged hand in hand with other forms of modern design. Later in the 1960’s brutalist structures became excessively massive. A few exceptional demonstrations took place in the 1970’s. Brutalist buildings engaged with numerous advanced techniques and postmodern methods. By the end of the 1970’s Brutalism was knocked down as a symbol of substandard taste due to the global economic calamity. From the mid 20’s the form regained its popularity with a recommenced regard. Brutalism is an offset of Modernism that makes full use of the innovative prospective of reinforced concrete. For several people “brutalism is modernism”. The two movements are defined quite differently in how they approach style. For a Brutalist building, the main characteristic is it being raw and simplistic whereas Modern Architecture was based on new and innovative techniques, mainly pertaining to the usage of glass, steel and reinforced concrete. It is an architectural movement whose revival focuses only on aesthetics but there is a moral depth to Brutalism that is generally left unseen in narratives. In the post-war era, raw concrete was an inexpensive and useful material. This material was used by numerous architects and was embraced by the public. But now, this material is globally disrespected and despised. People often dislike brutalist buildings because according to them it depicted sadness and fear due to its massive scale. In modern times, observers of brutalism point towards its degrading and disparaging qualities but, there is a certain sophistication in the design language. The beauty of the brutalist buildings lies in its simplicity and regular geometric patterns. There is a considerable amount of optimism imparted to the buildings. Many brutalist constructions have been destroyed and new homogenous, individualistic forms are being built in their place. It was a formulation of architecture which was both substantial and social. Brutalism was not proposed to be a style but was supposed to be an impression of an environment among architects of ethical seriousness. In the earlier days’ architects adored the harsh look of buildings made of raw concrete. However, brutalism was defined as ‘ugly’ and ‘outdated’ and because of this the moral ideology of brutalism has been lost and needs to be reclaimed. However, people tend to appreciate the ancient structures that were constructed using concrete. The usage of raw concrete for building purposes is necessary as it is sustainable, it can be recycled and reused and can withstand severe environmental conditions. A number of architects and designers are now using raw concrete to build structures due to its low-cost consumption.


The revival of Brutalism marked an important stage in the evolution of concrete and its necessity. In the 1950’s and 60’s many public buildings in the United Kingdom were structured and designed in the British Style. The authorities of Britain were required to rebuild the destroyed building after the Second World War as quickly as possible and with a narrow budget. They wanted to recreate the buildings in such a way so that they looked contemporary and progressive in nature and that could create excitement among the people after the post-war depression. The only answer to this problem was New Brutalism which was introduced by Le Corbusier. Brutalism unquestionably had an honest outlook which demanded that form followed function. Brutalist approach was all about flaunting the materials which were used in the construction of the building, concrete being the main material. The pointed angles and rough surfaces were a few main features of Brutalism. Architectural styles kept changing due to the upcoming advancements in technology. Changes in construction technology, mostly visible in concrete, meant that the massive structures could be built easily and smoothly at a relatively less cost compared to other traditional methods of construction. Le Corbusier was known to be the most influential and criticised architect of the previous century who was the key force behind the usage of raw concrete. The Unite D’ Habitation was the first brutalist project by Le Corbusier in 1952. It was a seventeen-storey high building which included many facilities like apartments, a few clubs, retail shops and a common meeting room and is still in demand among the middle-class. Brutalist architecture is highly industrial in design. The ascent of the urban building that the theory of New Brutalism accelerated is clearly visible in the large-scale residential projects it produced. Brutalist Architecture required to have high quality of workmanship as it is an excessively industrialized construction technique based on well organised utilisation of resources.


Concrete’s role in architecture and its past being a long one stretches from the ancient period to the present. The most important aspect of the history of concrete is its fall in the 1970s. The so called ‘white architecture’, by Le Corbusier began in the early 1930s with the usage of raw concrete. Raw concrete, a disorderly accumulation of solidified, uncoloured gravel, reciprocates only as it talks to its mould. “Concrete doesn’t lie. It captures, registers then exposes the minutia of detail and texture of the interior of its form, offering for Modernist Architecture the requisite uncovered ‘nakedness’ and therefore moral ‘honesty’ to represent the inhibitions of the movement.” (Pina Petricone, Pg 13) Some people might argue that concrete is the most commonly used material after water. It is said to be omnipresent in the urban landscape as a particular. It has been embraced as a grey, heavy, artificial, inexpressive and a light absorbing material. Till today, it is generally misunderstood and despised due to the brutalist buildings of the 1960s and 70s. Concrete can be used as a smog-eating mechanism due to the de-polluting nano-coatings it is covered in. These nano-coatings trap the pollutants and decompose them. Concrete appears to be a stereotype of modernity as the architecture it gave rise to. There is no other movement which explains this better than New Brutalism, initiated by the Smithsons. Reyner Banham’s ‘New Brutalism was a reversal of the picturesque, rational architecture right after the second World War, which was identified by its unconcealed loyalty to the noticeably honest outlook of the materials and construction and well briefed with numerous types of designs and ideas that spanned over into the domain of contemporary art. For the Alison and Peter Smithson, New Brutalism could be switched with what they called ‘the warehouse aesthetic’ which focused on the rough nature of materials. Hunstanton and the townhouse in SoHo can be used as examples of architecture through which New Brutalism can be defined. The emphasis is basically on the structure and the reason for Hunstanton to be in public focus is the fact that it is unique amongst Modern Architecture. Most of the modern buildings seem to be whitewashed even when they are constructed using steel or concrete. Hunstanton occurs to be built using brick, glass, concrete and steel and is clearly visible and evident, looking at the structure. Reyner Banham criticises the Scandinavian structures of modern architecture as bare superficial ‘aesthetic’ whereas Brutalism is governed be a rigid philosophical ‘ethic’. But these two terms could be easily reversed. The lifestyle of the Scandinavian designers’ points towards an architecture which is ethical. The Scandinavians’ attempt at a pleasing streetscape and the detailing of humans in drawings appears to be less of an aesthetic than evolving out of humanist concepts of linking everything like blocks and towers to the human scale. Meanwhile, Brutalism is seen more as an aesthetic in which the clarity of the form dominates the idea of bare function. Therefore, Brutalism can be both ‘aesthetic’ or ‘ethic’.


Concrete is known for its strength, persistence and environment friendly characteristics. It is a symbol of modernisation and advancement, but it is popularly known as an imprecise material as it leads to inconsiderate and unexciting structures. “A sample of concrete when it appears in the architect’s office can look interesting and charming, but quite scary when you see it on a massive scale.” (Piers Gogh) Whilst the practical characteristics of the material have been exploited under the planning intelligence, which is welcomed with common acceptance, the concrete which is known to be used “for show” is considered as though one desired to make the unseen seen. By the end of the 1990s, concrete was partially visible after being smashed in the 1970s. Designers and architects became aware of the new building possibilities. Tadao Ando, a contemporary Japanese designer is known to play with dark and light and to separate the indoor from the outdoor. His structures depict a perfect exploitation of light, concrete and space. He drew a considerable amount of inspiration from Le Corbusier. The Church of Light is an outstanding example of the smart use of concrete by Tadao Ando. The simplicity and honesty used in this structure is pleasing. The symmetric cross piercing through the concrete wall allows natural light to pass through it and possesses an exceptional character. The concrete adds to the blackness of the space and produces a more submissive and contemplative place to pray. Such a structure is a perfect example of why concrete should be used to create simplistic and extraordinary forms.


If we were to compare two buildings, one having a glass curtain wall and the other a concrete wall. Today, buildings constructed with glass curtain walls and steel frames is a very common scenario. But glass curtain walls cause serious threats to the residents’ lives as the wall creates ‘light pollution’. It glazes people’s eyes who walk or drive on the streets and as a result many car accidents are caused. The concrete wall on the other hand is regarded as a more natural and eco-friendly building material. Due to increase in population, skyscrapers are being built higher and higher. Nowadays, architects design skyscrapers using steel and glass curtain walls which make the city look modern but often do not realise the limitations it has to it. The glass walls consume high amount for energy for their manufacturing and increase the temperature of the building by four degrees approximately. They trap the heat and prevents it from escaping thus, increasing the internal temperature. This eventually results in more electricity being consumed by air-conditioners. Glass curtain walls are not ecological and waste a considerable amount of energy. Glass buildings constructed in earthquake proven areas need additional care as they are brittle and tend to collapse easily. Concrete structures are generally soundproof, fire resistant, help in keeping the building dry and can withstand extreme environmental conditions. Concrete buildings with a few glass windows blend better with the natural environment. However, an ideal solution would be to use an exterior wall made with concrete and glass curtains. This would be extremely beneficial for the future of architecture.


Concrete is proven to be a sustainable material in architecture and is known to build energy efficient structures which easily adapt to the climatic changes. The increasing levels of global warming and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is familiar to everyone today. The increase in the emission of greenhouse gases has resulted from the burning of fossil fuels. We as designers are responsible and are required to find sustainable ways to reduce global warming by designing structures that have a small carbon footprint. Construction of buildings is damaging the environment in numerous ways as it involves the processing, extricating and transferring of heavy quantities of materials. Heavyweight materials like concrete are difficult to transport but at the same time they have the ability to absorb heat and to produce a comfortable cooling effect which is dependant on the difference between its external climate and internal air climate. Elevated floors, false ceilings and carpets in buildings, specifically offices, efficiently alienate the thermal mass of the concrete building below and above. They limit the ability of concrete to absorb and liberate heat within the engaged space. Such buildings are thermally lightweight in nature.


The Yellow building, a seven-storey building in London is the head office and consists of the design departments of Monsoon Accessorize. The building was designed in such a way that it reduces the energy consumption. The “exposed diagonal concrete structure” (a prominent feature of brutalist architecture) was constructed to provide gravity as well as support to the building. The underside concrete and walls not only improve the aesthetic qualities but also provide thermal mass which blends effectively with the ventilation technique used to heat and cool the building. The in-situ columns which were inclined was a relevant input, because it illustrated that columns can be cast in an uncomplicated style. The construction of the Yellow Building had a plenty of features which particularly relate to the carbon emissions. While the demonstrated energy within the concrete building can be comparatively more during the construction period, the figures eventually become negligible over the years as they are counterbalanced by the advantages of the thermal mass of concrete. The usage of the concrete soffits has approximately conceded two percent saving in the emission of carbon dioxide. The large atrium in the building provides natural lighting and enables natural ventilation. Since, the floor to ceiling heights are high on all the levels, it helps in penetrating the sunlight to all the levels. The Yellow Building has been styled and designed as building that has a long-life span and is equipped with an integrated sustainability. The open areas are flexible in the future when the building wants to improvise a change of utilisation without the need of any physical work to be executed on any of the existing components.


Concrete will never disappear from building technology. It is one of the very few materials that is left for the future and should be used to full-capacity and imagination. It is one of the very few sustainable materials. Concrete can be repolished and restored if it is properly maintained and last for hundreds of years. The building techniques which were prominent in the exterior use during the Brutalist period have now been abandoned and has restricted architects to use limited and contemporary methods. In order to use the material efficiently it is necessary to understand it from a structural point of view. Concrete is considered to be colossal, omnipresent and consistent. It provides an architect with an invariable and unfinished amount of supplies. Scale and proportion are what brought Brutalism back to life. Concrete helps in designing tall buildings with low construction costs as they do not use fancy materials like glass curtain walls or aluminium cladding. Due to increase in population and land scarcity, buildings are growing vertically rather than horizontally. The revival is mainly taking place due to the simplicity and honesty of raw concrete and because of social media mainly Instagram. There are several posts with a hashtag of brutalism in it. The SOS Brutalism campaign is a worldwide attempt to save the “concrete monsters”. It was a universal survey and is extremely valuable as a number of brutalist buildings are being preserved. Concrete provides a natural vernacular aesthetic to a building. A major advantage of concrete is that it can be recycled in a very short span of time and is easily reusable. Architects are moving towards sustainable solutions and are aspiring to construct skyscrapers due to the increase in population. There is no other material that is more sustainable than concrete and hence architects should use this material to reduce construction costs and help in making the environment eco-friendly. Brutalist Architecture is the best example to explain the brilliant use of raw concrete in building massive structures. “A structure may be said to be integral and unified when the parts it contains are not to be separated or displaced, but their every line joins and matches.” (Leon Alberta Battista, Pg 115) Concrete enables the structure to look symmetrical and also forms plain facades on the exterior without any uneven joints and matches which makes it look unique and extraordinary.


Therefore, looking at the increasing rate of wastage of materials concrete results in being one of the most endurable and reasonable materials for construction. It solves multiple purposes and provides tensile strength which no other material can provide. It is important to note that it helps in reducing the carbon footprint which eventually help in reducing the rising global warming levels. “Beauty is subjective and my taste changes quite frequently, but within art and design I love minimalism, simplicity and spaciousness.” (Joe Clark)In my opinion, concrete not only provides strength and resistance but also provides the simplicity and honesty to the structure which not only looks refined but also alluring and fascinating.


REFERENCES


WEBSITE

Nyawara, Brenda. “Church of the Light by Tadao Ando.” Archute, 19 Jan. 2018, www.archute.com/church-of-the-light/.

“Home.” BRUTALISM, brutalism.online/brutalism.

Payne, Tom Oliver. “This Is Why Brutalist Architecture Is More Important Now Than Ever Before.” Architectural Digest, Architectural Digest, 12 Dec. 2017, www.architecturaldigest.com/story/london-brutalist-architecture.

“The Rise and Fall of Brutalist Architecture – Voices of East Anglia.” Voices of East Anglia, 1 Sept. 2013, www.voicesofeastanglia.com/2011/08/the-rise-and-fall-of-brutalist-architecture.html.

“Sustainable Concrete.” For Construction Pros, www.forconstructionpros.com/business/article/10365273/sustainable-concrete.

BOOKS

Cohen, Jean-Louis. The Future of Architecture, since 1889: a Worldwide History. Phaidon Press Limited, 2017.

Gaventa, Sarah. Concrete Design Sarah Gaventa. Blue Circle, London, 2006.

Grindrod, John. How to Love Brutalism. Batsford., 2018

Petricone, Pina. Concrete Ideas: Material to Shape a City. Thames & Hudson, 2012.

Roth, Manuela. Concrete: Architecture & Design. Braun, 2012.

Smith, Korydon H. Introducing Architectural Theory: Debating a Discipline. Routledge, 2012.

Wigginton, Michael. Glass in Architecture. Phaidon, 2004.

Wright, Frank Lloyd, and Bruce Brooks. Pfeiffer. The Essential Frank Lloyd Wright: Critical Writings on Architecture. Princeton University Press, 2010.

ARTICLES

Altun, Didem. “Brutalism Now: Rethinking Brutalism in Contemporary World Architecture.” Arts, vol. 5, no. 2, 2016, p. 3., doi:10.3390/arts5020003.




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