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Brutalism Is For Photographs, Not For People

Words:

Edd Norval
May 4, 2020

Brutalist architecture isn’t designed to be beautiful. It’s stark edges and vast concrete facades are utilitarian. They’re built to do a job. House people. Lots of them. Or, on occasion, with some flourish, to communicate the idea of political power. Reaching its heyday in the 1960s, Brutalism is back - at least as the most popular subject of architectural photography.

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Post-war Europe and Eastern Europe faced deep austerity after the ravishes of bombings, halts to production and the plethora of other socio-economic factors that inhibited growth in this era. Beyond actual economic and political inertia was an existential sense that became a deep-rooted part of the world’s collective conscience.


Then, along came modernism in the early 60s, a dynamic movement that seemed directly attributable to the world that preceded it. In modernism, the world of art awoke from hibernation and those in the creative industries seemed reinvigorated to begin envisioning the future. Doubling-down on the newfound confidence of this era came the vast monolithic architectural projects that we now recognise as brutalism, a tag not wholly complimentary.


In a familiar parable of politician-backed assurances that what’s being constructed now is a ‘vision of the future’, brutalism’s massive poured concrete structures began to dominate skylines as part of projects that were both bold and able to be rapidly completed to fill needs for housing. The future was coming fast.

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Characterised by their use of concrete and ‘bare’ building materials, brutalist architecture is boxy and boorish, eschewing any decorative flourish or personalising details. The movement's ground zero is Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseille, an apartment block with coloured windows and a structure that is now emblematic of similar residential developments all over Europe.


Branded as socially progressive, a sort of utopian vision where people would return to a more community driven way of living, - where corridors would be meeting places and the outdoor recreational areas and gardens an arena for families to interact. What really arose were cramped environments, favourable to developers who could fit a great deal of people into a small amount of space. Maximum profit.


These ‘cities in the sky’, as they were first thought of, rapidly declined from utopia to dystopia - particularly in the United Kingdom where high-rise housing schemes became hotbeds of crime. Spawning a culture unto itself, these buildings were demolished at a rate which betrayed the idea of their being built being a mistake.

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Thrown up, using the easiest and cheapest possible materials for construction, these buildings weren’t built to last - at least not in the same way as previous brick-housing had been. Overpopulation presented itself as a problem and these large buildings - often in the brutalist style - were touted as the solution. What happened was the opposite. They dismantled communities, ostracizing people in tiny compartments the way office booths do in a workplace. Their structure doesn’t give rise to individualism. It kills it.


Still, the style has seen a renaissance in many popular Instagram accounts and it’s little surprise. All straight edges, the angular facades are highly photogenic, often used as stark contrasts between the natural and built world around them. Particularly popular in former Soviet countries - the architecture of Brutalism has become so fetishized that its return seems a case of when, not if.


Brutalism is the highlighted sentence in the book of architecture’s failure to people. The buildings are often aesthetically pleasing, almost perversely  intriguing. That is, unless you live in them. Cramped conditions and poor materials are a recipe not the components for a dream, but a disaster. In London, the Grenfell Tower, completed only two years after construction began is one such example. Another, in 1968, was the partial collapse of London's Ronan Point - only two months after construction was complete.

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Like Big Brother, or other similar shows which prey on fame-hungry individuals, the overwhelming appreciation of brutalism online is akin to this human safari. We can see their beauty from afar, but must surely struggle to muster any compassion for its creators who used cheap materials, cold design and got the expected results - sometimes at a human cost. The experiment has worked in some places, but its glorious failures in others is enough to scribble out those limited occasions as exceptions to the rule.

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