Symbolic Architecture and Brutalism

While not always the primary focus, architecture is a form of art. Objects built with a specific function in mind, such as providing shelter, are often designed with utilitarian goals: a building might be sturdy, accessible, energy efficient, cost-effective, or all of these things. As a tool in today’s world, an earthenware jug is quite basic. It is a receptacle constructed to hold or transport whatever is stored inside. Initially inconspicuous, even an undecorated jug is still a work of art with much to say about whoever made it. What materials did they have access to? How was it meant to be used? What does the tool say about its artisan’s conception of their relationship to the world around them? The things people build are not isolated objects, but new ways of interacting with and altering their surroundings. Generally, this becomes more apparent the larger and more complex the object.

Symbolism in Architecture

A great place to start in the examination of buildings as art objects is cathedrals. Architecture can be just a roof and walls or a roof and walls that are pleasing to the eye, but often architects seek for their aesthetics to inspire certain thoughts and feelings in those who see them. Typical cathedrals built in the West prior to the Renaissance used what art historians refer to as a basilican plan, a type of vaulted hall supported by several columns. Gothic cathedrals also rely on this same principle, while also adding several elements such as rose windows and flying buttresses.

But cathedrals are not tall merely for the sake of it. Their architects and those who hired them had messages they wanted these immense structures to convey. Large and imposing, cathedrals are meant to project the power and authority of God and by extension the Church. As a traditional meeting place for worshipers, cathedrals were also intended as the meeting point between secular life and the divine. A building can be tall without emphasizing this to those inside it. By designing the interior of a cathedral to accentuate its own height, one is encouraged to view its scale as a physical bridge between Earth and the heavens. Though their messages diverge, religious and secular architecture often employ similar strategies.

Brutalist Architecture: The History of Brutalism

The Origins of Brutalism

Brutalism came about in the wake of WWII as a response to the structural devastation that conflict wrought across Europe. Even with industries pivoting from wartime to civic footings, steel was still in short supply and expensive. Concrete was comparatively cheap, making it the perfect material to suit the moment’s massive infrastructure demands. Buildings and city blocks were rebuilt in this yet unnamed architectural style, and not just in Europe. Popular from the 1950s through to the 80s, Brutalism was also embraced in the United States, Japan, Australia, and other countries.

A stark architectural style, Brutalism is minimalist to the extreme, prioritizing function over form. This utilitarian approach helped reconstruct municipal buildings like government offices and libraries, churches, and social housing quickly and cheaply. Bold geometry is the aesthetic of Brutalist architecture, forgoing any and all ornamentation that is not integral to its structure.

Boston City Hall, Brutalism Architecture – do you notice the classic concrete use?

The style’s name is not a reference to harm, though some claim it is an eyesore, but comes from French phrase béton brut, which translates to raw concrete, a fitting moniker for a style with several detractors who believe such buildings look unfinished or adversarial. Brutalism was coined in 1949 by Swedish architect Hans Asplund in reference to Villa Göth, a private residence whose austere shape inspired the term. Several British architects picked up on Asplund’s Nybrutalism (Swedish for New brutalism), and applied a shortened version of the expression to the new style that was cropping up across the United Kingdom.

Brutalism’s Message

Some have called Brutalism a Modernist style. Broadly speaking, Modernism is label for various artistic modes and methods of thought that came about in the interwar period following WWI. It was a rejection of technology’s unrelenting march and its destructive potential, exemplified most strikingly by chemical warfare and machine guns. Many artists, thinkers, and average citizens found the shifting paradigms of modern society unbearable or nonsensical.

Brutalism in California!

To counter these perceptions and the events giving rise to them, Modernist art sought to depict and sometimes challenge the idiosyncrasies of the age. Many of the architects who planned Brutalist buildings saw their work as addressing the destruction brought on by modern technology and the thinking that came along with it. Their goal was to better the world through low-cost infrastructure that would get people back on their feet, a forward-looking architectural style intended to spur community and prosperity. It was a Utopian vision, one set on reasserting the importance of civil society. Unfortunately, Brutalism alone was not enough to achieve these ideals.

The globe spanning love affair with Brutalism ended in part because of its popularity. Eastern Europeans took to the style in the post-WWII era, and when the Iron Curtain fell and many of them were absorbed into the Soviet Union, Brutalist architecture came to be associated with totalitarian regimes. Another reason for the style’s fall includes the cost of proper maintenance. Raw concrete is a statement, though one that easily weathers and cracks. Many will defend an intact concrete edifice but few will argue that a building splintered on its face is aesthetically pleasing. While there has been some renewed interest in Brutalism over the past few years by individuals and governments, with the latter recognizing some buildings as protected heritage sites to preserve the history they represent, there has been little appetite to create new buildings in the style. At times, the past can give us insights into the present and forecasts of the future, but on occasion a time capsule is just that.

Brutalist architecture on this German ship. Can you spot Brutalist architecture near your home?

Works Cited

“Brutalist architecture – a retrospective”. architectureanddesign.com.au, Architecture & Design, 9 May 2019, http://www.architectureanddesign.com.au/features/list/a-look-at-brutalist-architecture. Accessed 2 April 2020.

Hobson, Jeremy and Jack Mitchell. “In Defense Of Brutalism: One Architect On The Meaning Behind All That Concrete”. wbur.org, Here & Now, 6 Aug. 2018, http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/08/06/brutalism-architecture. Accessed 2 April 2020.

Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective. Fourteenth Edition, Volume II, Boston, Wadsworth, Cenage Learning, 2014, pp. xxx-xxxi.

Stewart, Jessica. “Brutalism: What Is It and Why Is It Making a Comeback?”. mymodernmet.com, My Modern Met, 4 Dec. 2018, mymodernmet.com/brutalist-architecture/. Accessed 2 April 2020

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