Derived from a descriptive term used by Le Corbusier, béton brut (raw concrete), Brutalist architecture is an offshoot of modernism that trades the spatial poetry of steel and glass for grounded, castle-like structures of exposed concrete.
En vogue from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, Brutalism screamed functionality and immovable strength and was revered for its honesty and relatively low construction costs, all of which made it a favorite of institutional and government clients. The trend found many adherents in England -- the term was coined there in 1953 by English architects Alison and Peter Smithson -- as well as some serious critics, including Prince Charles, who quipped “You have to give it to the Luftwaffle. When it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”
The Egg -- Albany, New York (1978)
The oblong, sculptural, saucer-shaped performance venue appears to rest on a pedestal, when in fact it’s supported by a stem that goes six stories into the ground. Designed by Harrison & Abramovitz, and celebrated in a song by They Might Be Giants, the curious, curved building showcases the flexibility possible with Brutalist forms. Photo courtesy Padriac, Creative Commons.
Preston Bus Station -- Lancashire, England (1969)
More than 50,000 people a day use this stunning bus station, boasted a unique fanned appearance from the curved balconies on each floor of the car park (shaped to prevent autos from hitting against a flat surface). Perhaps demonstrating recent reappraisals of Brutalist buildings, the station just earned listed building status in the UK after being slated for demolition. Photo courtesy Johnnyenglish, Creative Commons.
Robarts Library -- Toronto, Canada (1973)
Another compelling example of the soft side of Brutalism, this collegiate library, nicknamed Fort Book, utilizes triangular forms and contrasting textures (smooth concrete facades set against rough, vertical lines). Its modern forms have a slight medieval cast due to a series of narrow windows. Photo courtesy Joelf, Creative Commons.
Paulistano Athletic Club -- São Paulo, Brazil (1958)
This early statement from Pritzker winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha, a disc-shaped stadium of concrete with a roof suspended from steel cables, was the first in a series of innovative structures from the Brazilian Brutalist, including the Saint Peter Chapel, Forma showroom and Brazilian Sculptural Museum.
Unité d'Habitation -- Marseille, France (1952)
Nicknamed the “Nutter’s House” and “The Radiant City,” this Corbusier design set off the Brutalism trend. A massive set of flats that to this day remains a blueprint for human-centered design and accomplished urban architecture, it ,may appear monolithic, but a wealth of details -- such as stained glass windows in the entrance hall, communal space and spacious two-level apartments -- have not only made it a UNESCO Heritage site, but still a sought-after address to this day. Photo courtesy Ken OHYAMA, Creative Commons.
Habitat 67 -- Montreal, Canada (1967)
Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie’s thesis project at MCGill University ended up being one of the world’s most recognizable Brutalist buildings, an array of stacked, block-like forms on the St. Lawrence that integrate the airiness of suburban dwellings with the realities of dense urban living. By stacking prefabricated concrete “boxes,” Safdie demonstrated a new way to create apartments. Photo courtesy Graham and Sheila, Creative Commons.
St Peter's Seminary -- Cardross, Scotland (1966)
Integrating Corbu’s style with the beauty and ruggedness of the Highlands, this refurbishment of a remote monastery, designed by Izi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan, is widely considered one of Scotland’s most significant modern structures. Tragically, once finished, the inspired fusion of an old manor with concrete blocks has fallen into disrepair, and is a leading candidate for restoration. Photo courtesy Kyz, Creative Commons.
Geisel Library -- San Diego, California (1970)
Architect William Pereira originally envisioned a steel structure for this terraced centerpiece of the UC-San Diego campus, named after the Dr. Seuss author, but the introduction of concrete to save costs allowed for a more structural style to this inverted pyramid. A rumor on campus suggests the third floor is left empty because the notes architect forgot to factor in the weight of the books when he was planning the library. Photo courtesy Ben Garney, Creative Commons.
Banco de Londres y America del Sur -- Buenos Aires, Argentina (1966)
Architect Clorindo Testo used a series of curved, geometric shapes in the concrete facade to filter light into the large interior of this downtown bank. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Palace of Assembly -- Chandigarh, India (1963)
India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, asked Corbusier to create a city focused on the future, an optimistic symbol to follow the bitter partition battles of the recent past. Corbu responded with a brilliant piece of Brutalist design. Photo courtesy Aleksandr Zykov, Creative Commons.