On Brutalism

L'architecture, c'est,avec des matériaux bruts, établir des rapports émouvants.

 Alison and Peter Smithson, Robin Hood Gardens, 1972

Alison and Peter Smithson, Robin Hood Gardens, 1972

It is not by coincidence that Reyner Banaham, the first critic to theorize Brutalism, headed with the previous quote from Le Corbusier's Vers une Architecture his essay "The New Brutalism" published in Architectural Review in December 1955.

In the absence of a founding manifesto, Banham attempts to codify and define the common characteristics of this incipient movement. On one hand, the New Brutalism named after its relationship to Jean Dubuffet's Art Brut. On the other hand, as a return to an honest use of materials "as found". The clearest example is the use of concrete -béton brut- by Le Corbusier, in whom a generation of architects still project themselves.

But prior to this "conceptualization" as a movement, the New Brutalism emerges from a new generation of English architects, led by Alison and Peter Smithson, as a reaction to the exhausted Modern Movement, already transformed in a mechanical repetition of patterns, no more than a mere stylistic exercise. It is precisely Alison Smithson who, in 1953, describing the project for a house in Soho, consciously refers to it as the first exponent of the New Brutalism.

 Alison and Peter Smithson plans for Soho House, 1953

Alison and Peter Smithson plans for Soho House, 1953

The exhibition "Parallel of Life and Art" organized by both at the I.C.A. in London and their school building in Hunstanton completed in 1954, will be the two foundational episodes of this new movement. A movement that no longer will be just a description of a way of doing, but that soon become its own action program. Long before their most pejorative and severe connotations emerged, many critics started to complain of its deliberate disregard for traditional concepts of beauty and their cult of ugliness.

The Hunstanton school, which soon received the appellative of Brutalist for its exposed structure to the exterior, was really daring for being made of what it appeared to be made of: to value the materials for their qualities inherent "as found". This two facts besides its strength to propose an apprehensible image in its entirety and a certain indifference -je m'enfoutisme- towards detail, as Banham already pointed out, conform the precise summary of what would be the new brutalism's common characteristics. However, in order to complete the whole picture of this architectural phenomena, something related to the scale should be added.

 Alison and Peter Smithson, Hunstanton School, 1954

Alison and Peter Smithson, Hunstanton School, 1954

Although it has often been reduced to its more formal aspects, it was embraced by almost a whole generation of socially committed architects to a radical architecture, whose power surpasses the strength of its imaginary, and which extended until the 70s. But also, whose potential was soon noticed by totalitarian power and used as the best way to express its authority.

Beyond its purely formal aspects, it is worth tracing its influence in the present architecture. One of the bests examples is Rem Koolhaas. In his architecture -though twisted- many of the premises of the Brutalist program survive.

On one hand, the ability to evoke through the image the total understanding of the project. Although the image no longer clearly shows the function, so it doesn't allow an immediate and direct reading of the program, but instead it brings the building to an object condition -Zeebrugge, Porto's Casa da Música-. Through different means, its image ends up working on a similar way to the Brutalists.

On the other hand, the structure, straight forward exposed -CCTV in Beijing, Seattle Library-, is indispensable to understand each project from its genesis. In Koolhaas architecture the structure still plays the same main role that it does for brutalists, though in a more sophisticated way.

 Rem Koolhaas, CCTV Beijing, 2012

Rem Koolhaas, CCTV Beijing, 2012

Finally, and probably its most interesting feature, it is the relationship with materials. His use of materials as a collage, without hiding their condition, but giving a twist so to use them in an unconventional and unexpected way. In other words, re-signifying their values and their conditions. The materials cease to be what they appear to be -Villa dall'Ava; Kuntshall-. Without makeup, Koolhaas does the opposite journey but in the same direction to the one initiated by brutalists: to value the materials for their inherent qualities, but this time to show a character -a meaning- not necessarily consistent with the one expected.

Text by Valerio Canals

References:

Banham, Reyner: The New Brutalism. Architectural Review 118.December 1955

Banham, Reyner: The New Brutalism. Architectural Press 1966

Atlas of Brutalism. Edited by Phaidon 2018