A brief history of Brutalism in modern architecture

By: The OpenLearn team (Programme and web teams)

  • Duration 5 mins
  • Updated Monday 26th November 2001
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Heritage
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Trellick Tower Creative commons image Ben.Harper under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

A Human Modernism


Brutalism was a movement in architecture which flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. Pioneered in continental Europe by Le Corbusier, its main protagonists in Britain were the husband and wife team of Peter and Alison Smithson.

The Smithsons were determined to preserve the best aspects of the heroic Modernism of Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe and other early pioneers, and to save British Modernism from what they considered a creeping whimsiness.

The term itself (often credited to the critic Reynar Banham) is perhaps unfortunate- suggesting as it does a type of building which is ugly and unfriendly, and its association with much of Britain's welfare state architecture has not helped the movement's reputation, at least in the eyes of the public.

After the Second World War, British Modernists were increasingly sought after by the authorities who wanted to rebuild a physically shattered country and enact social change through the construction of a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

But the architecture of the early welfare state avoided the stringent Modernism advocated by the pre-war pioneers in CIAM, opting instead to ape the gentle style of Sweden's long established social architecture.

The apotheosis of this 'humanist' Modernism came in 1951, with the Festival of Britain, centred on the South Bank in London. The architecture of the Festival was consciously 'modern', but some of the buildings attracted criticism for their supposed frivolity, and were accused of parodying the heroic Modernism of the pre-war years.

Truth to Materials

For Peter and Alison Smithson, this gentle populism and watered-down design was not what Modernism was all about. They demanded a return to a more rigid, formal architecture and put their ideas to work with their Secondary School in Hunstanton, Norfolk, completed in 1954.

At Hunstanton, the Smithsons made a virtue of the construction process of the building: structural and service elements were left exposed and the austere steel and glass frame gave the building a skeletal appearance.

This "truth to materials" approach was anti-aesthetic, but, the Smithsons believed, more honest and true to Modernism's basic principles. Reynar Banham dubbed the school 'the New Brutalism', a movement which aimed, in his words, to "make the whole conception of the building plain and comprehensible. No mystery, no romanticism, no obscurities about function and circulation."

In France, Le Corbusier was also experimenting with new ways of using the Modernists' favourite material, concrete. His "breton brut" (literally, "raw concrete") technique characterised his Unite d'Habitation in Marseilles: a giant housing block with shops and other amenities built into its internal streets (a version of which was built at the Alton West Estate in Roehampton). The concrete exterior here is bush-hammered to create a pebbled effect.

Other versions of this technique involve exposing the shuttering from which the concrete was poured. Le Corbusier further experimented with the Brutalist approach in his Monastery of Saint Marie de la Tourette, near Lyons.

Brutal, As In Ugly

But whereas raw concrete in the hands of Le Corbusier (aided by the sunshine of France) became something beautiful and almost spiritual, in Britain, Brutalist buildings often seemed tough, hard, and uncompromising.

The Smithsons' Robin Hood Gardens housing estate, Park Hill Estate in Sheffield, Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower, the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, and Basil Spence's tower blocks in Glasgow's Gorbals, are all large-scale celebrations of the sculptural qualities of concrete.

But the honesty in the Brutalist treatment of materials means that these buildings are often considered to be simply ugly, and what's more, have not proved immune to the crippling social problems which spread in the 1970s in particular.

With many Brutalist buildings, the feeling exists that the needs of expressing an architectural ideal comes before the needs of the human beings who have to use them. By the time the backlash against Modernism was in full swing in the 1970s, Brutalist buildings often bore the brunt of the criticism.

The Modernist Architects

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