Design & Make

A Brief History of Brutalist Architecture

by Rebecca McCusker June 07, 2019
ReadA Brief History of Brutalist Architecture Photo by Marc Zimmer

The first time I went to Detroit, I wasn’t sure how I felt. The architecture felt imposing and masculine, but I didn’t know how to describe it. Luckily, I was traveling with a group of designers.

“Detroit feels so… brutal,” I remember saying.

“Well you would be right about that,” said my friend Dave, as we sat in his backyard drinking Moscow Mules, “Detroit is a major hub for brutalist architecture.”

I was instantly intrigued.

What is brutalist architecture?

Brutalist architecture came to rise in the 1960s and ‘70s throughout Europe and The United States. At the time, it symbolized a sense of equality because it was a style completely lacking in pretense, romanticism, or decoration. Revered for its honesty in design and cheap production costs, brutalism consists of imposing, monolithic structures that convey strength, hardness, and permanence.

You will often see brutalist architecture on college campuses and government buildings.

An architectural style not exactly loved by the public

Brutalism seems to capture the love and imagination of architects because it pushes the limits of what is acceptable, but that is exactly why the general public has always been hesitant to embrace brutalist architecture. To the public, buildings in the brutalist style are often seen as ugly, hard, and uncompromising.

But the strong personality of brutalism is precisely why architects love it. In fact, I think brutalist architecture is the easiest way to make a perfectly innocuous building look, well, evil.

It’s no wonder brutalism fell out of favor in the 1980s because so many people associated the style with totalitarianism.

And according to My Modern Met, brutalism also fell out of style because many people believed these imposing concrete mammoths aged poorly. “It does not age gracefully but instead crumbles, stains, and decays,” says British author Anthony Daniels, who initially called brutalist architecture “monstrous.”

Is brutalism making a comeback?

Ever since 2015, the conversation around brutalism has flamed back to life. A resurgence of books have been written about the subject, including the Brutalist London Map by Henrietta Billings and Simon Phipps, This Brutal World by Peter Chadwick, SOS Brutalism: A Global Survey by Oliver Esler, et al, and Atlas of Brutalist Architecture, all published since 2016. Brutalism is back! But why?

There’s no doubt that brutalism is an acquired taste, but those who love it are huge fans. After all, does something have to be beautiful to be treasured?

“When they’re treated with care and respect, brutalist buildings can become treasured by a city in a way that glass and steel towers very rarely are,” writes Felix Salmon for The Guardian. He explains: “Great brutalist buildings, it turns out, have soul, in a way that antiseptic glass curtain walls never will. And they have undeniable power, too. Consider Peter Eisenman’s haunting holocaust memorial in Berlin: it would be unthinkable in anything but concrete.”

And so you have it. Whether you love it or hate it, brutalist architecture will always hold a place in the hearts of many architects and enthusiasts. It may not be the most decorative and romantic style out there, but it sure does make a statement.

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