Why You Either Love or Hate Brutalism
The concrete history of modern architecture’s most polarizing style.
This story is part of Pretty Ugly, a package celebrating design that’s so bad, it’s good.
Love it or hate it: Brutalist architecture is hard to ignore. You’ll find it around the world—from the famed Barbican Centre in London to the Yale Art and Architecture Building in New Haven, Connecticut. These are buildings that command attention, and hark back to a midcentury movement that isn’t remembered for its subtlety.
Indeed, while the term brutalism is derived from the French phrases béton brut (raw concrete) and art brut ("raw art"), the style is championed—and chided—for its massive lines, its undecorated facades, and, yes, its arguably brutal and blunt approach to geometry and form. Brutalist buildings are buildings with presence—they feel massive, and almost foreboding. But with a fresh perspective, they’re buildings that can be loved, as well.
"The word brutalism is often used—particularly by people who say they hate it—to describe buildings that are clearly made out of concrete; and buildings that appear ungainly in some way, or even abrasive," explains architectural historian Tom Wilkinson. He adds, "That is a fairly accurate description of what brutalism is, but it’s not just that."
The Birth of Brutalism
Get the Pro Newsletter
What’s new in the design world? Stay up to date with our essential dispatches for design professionals.
To understand brutalism, Wilkinson says you need to revisit the architecture of the early- to mid-20th century, and the work of renowned Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. To some, Le Corbusier is best known for the modernist villas he designed throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, like Villa Savoye in France, Corbusier Haus in Stuttgart and Villa La Roche-Jeanneret, which now houses the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris. He worked within "purism," a visual language that was at once sculptural and pared down: whitewashed walls, simple lines, and the same absence of decoration for which brutalism is now known.
Elements of Le Corbusier’s purism descended into the Unité d’Habitation, a residential typology that the architect first developed and implemented in a high-density housing complex in Marseille. Built between 1947 and 1952, this was the first, and arguably most famous, Unité—and it is commonly regarded as the starting point for brutalism, both in form and in philosophy. (The typology was later used to create four additional buildings, including ones in Paris and Berlin.)
While brutalism is often criticized for appearing unfinished, that’s part of the appeal. Through their design and construction, brutalist buildings celebrate—and even champion—raw materials and their potential. The Unité d’Habitation is supported by exposed, rough-cast concrete—béton brut—rather than a traditional steel frame. During its construction, concrete was poured into timber molds, which changed the quality of its surface. Concrete is often thought of as dull and drab, but the timber molding process gave the buildings a lifelike vibrance, and a sense of dynamism. "When the light hits the surface from different directions—at different times of the day, and at different times of the year—it gives the concrete a textural interest," Wilkinson says.
It’s important to note that brutalism wasn’t all about concrete, nor was it confined to any particular material at all. And while concrete remained one of the most popular raw materials throughout the movement’s heyday, brutalism was more about the relationship between the materials and their treatment. "One of the key things about brutalism is that it uses materials in an ‘as found’ way," Wilkinson explains.
Here, Wilkinson is referencing the "as found" aesthetic popularized by Alison and Peter Smithson, the midcentury British architects who helped bring brutalism to Britain. The Smithsons came of age at a time of great change in Britain. The postwar baby boom necessitated new schools, and the Smithsons designed and built Smithdon High School in Hunstanton, England, while founding their own practice in the early 1950s.
Their approach was pragmatic, formal and low cost: The campus consisted of long, rectangular volumes with sharp lines and right angles rendered in brick, galvanized steel, and concrete. Young and inventive, the couple avoided pretty paints and other finishings that might conceal or correct what might be seen as imperfections in the sturdy but affordable building materials that the Smithsons preferred to use. Instead, the Smithsons left these materials completely exposed to the naked eye—raw and "as found."
To this day, architects like the Smithsons are remembered for changing the face of postwar Britain with their brutalist designs. They were working to restore a country that had faced widespread destruction during the Blitz, and Wilkinson points out that the massive blocks of rough materials can be understood as a response to the rubble and decay that was once there. This, too, is the key to appreciating brutalist buildings: To stand amongst them is to feel their presence, which reset the urban landscape following World War II. At times, this presence can be overwhelming. "Some people experience them as aggressive and discordant," Wilkinson says. "In fact, it’s meant to be discordant, and perhaps sometimes it’s meant to be aggressive as well."
A Monumental Movement
But brutalism wasn’t contained to Britain and France: Imposing forms rose up around the world throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In Australia and Canada, John Andrews—best known for designing the CN Tower in Toronto—worked in the style to create massive, low-cost buildings like the Cameron Offices in Canberra and the humanities and science wings of the University of Toronto Scarborough, now known as the Andrews Building in his honor. Here, Andrews textured the poured concrete with wood forms like Le Corbusier before him, giving it a sense of grandeur and life that is cherished by visitors from around the world.
Architects continue to draw from brutalism to this day. Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, cofounders of Dublin-based Grafton Architects, designed the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima, Peru, to resemble a concrete cliffside. Inside, students circulate through layered volumes that extend vertically. Concrete staircases appear to float in mid air despite their weight. From the outside, the building’s raw structural plates bow out toward a high-traffic city street like swaths of a gray, angular cloud. It feels at once like a feat of engineering and an organic, geological wonder of the world. Since its debut in 2016, the UTEC building has been widely celebrated, winning McNamara and Farrell the inaugural RIBA International Prize, the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale, and the 2020 Pritzker Prize.
The Future of Brutalist Buildings
Still, the style’s future is unclear: Brutalist architecture is being demolished around the world, and two remaining buildings topped a recent poll of the ugliest buildings in the U.S., with the J. Edgar Hoover Building in D.C. taking home the top spot. Although Boston City Hall was ranked the second ugliest building in the States, and the fourth biggest eyesore in the world, to tear it down would be a waste on a whim. Wilkinson says we’ve seen this before—many Victorian buildings were deemed "extremely ugly" and demolished unceremoniously, before the style came back into favor around the 1960s.
"Architectural style, like fashion, is cyclical," says Utile associate principal Maressa Perreault, who codirected the 2021 conservation management plan for Boston City Hall. While that building continues to face criticism, it’s likely that in time, the expanses of raw concrete will be seen as beautiful once more.
But brutalist buildings are more than a trend. Their presence and power reminds us of the splendor of raw materials, and the pragmatic philosophy that guided a generation of architects. As Perreault stresses, "Threats to the conservation of brutalist buildings like Boston City Hall risk the loss of an entire chapter of our architectural history."
35 Modern Homes That Make the Case for Concrete
This Is Le Corbusier Like You’ve Never Seen
17 Projects That Use "Ugly" Materials in Beautiful Ways
Top photo by Thomas J O'Halloran/US News and World Report Magazine Photograph Collection/PhotoQuest/Getty Images