Brutalist Architecture

Torre Velasca, 1956-58, BBPR Partnership, Milano,

Brutalist architecture is a style which developed from the Modernist architecture of the early part of the 20thC. The movement, called by critics ‘ New Brutalism’, grew in favour in the mid to late 1950’s. It had all but died out by the mid 70’s.

The term itself originates from the French word for ‘raw’. Le Corbusier used the term  in a letter  to fellow architect and city planner, Josep Lluis Sert,  on the 26th May 1962 when he described his choice of materials as  “béton brut” – raw concrete. He wrote;

“Beton brut was born at the Unite d’Habitation at Marseilles where there were 80 contractors and such a massacre of concrete that one simply could not dream of making useful transitions by means of grouting. I decided: let us leave all that brute. I called it ‘beton brute’ [bare concrete]. The English immediately jumped on the piece and treated me (Ronchamp and Monastery of La Tourette) as ‘Brutal’ – beton brutal – all things considered, the brute is Corbu. They called that ‘the new brutality’. My friends and admirers take me for the brut of the brutal concrete!”

In 1966, in his book ‘ The New Brutalism: Ethic or aesthetic’ Reyner Banham, the British architectural critic, coined the exact phrase “Brutalism” to identify the new style.

Perhaps because of its striking, uncompromising  style, three of our group decided to  explore Brutalist Architecture as built in their  in their home cities. Milan, Liverpool, and Birmingham. The results are shown here.

Like all design styles, there is personal interpretation firstly by the architects and then by the photographers. Whether you love or loathe Brutalism, the rendition of the buildings by  these three photographers, each with a different style, has produced fine  images of the built environment in which they live. Some of these buildings are in the last days of their existence or have gone. Will they be missed? Brutalism brings out the ‘Marmite’* effect in people. There seems to be no middle ground. The suspicion is the majority will be glad to see them go. Catch them while you can.

*Marmite   The British version of the product is a sticky, dark brown food paste with a distinctive, powerful flavour, which is extremely salty. This distinctive taste is reflected in the British company’s marketing slogan: “Love it or hate it.” The product’s name has entered British English as a metaphor for something that is an acquired taste or tends to polarise opinions. (Wikipedia)

Brutalism and ‘Neo-Brutalismo” in Milan.
Matteo Ceschi.
I am a street photographer, but have always been fascinated by the concrete flows that seem to come from above. Brutalist architecture has therefore always exercised a special charm on me. A “neo-pagan”/”Lord of the Rings” charm.The first brutalist building of which I have been aware is the Velasca tower, designed before WW II, built in the fifties during the “Miracolo economico” (the Italian economic boom) and soon became one of the symbols of my city, Milan.Sometimes in Italy brutalist architects chose a less “severe” mood/philosophy than the original English model (see Velasca tower and Casa brutalista by Figini and Pollini). In other instances, the Italian architects followed the guidelines of the brutalist school. Other times, they were extreme by the standards of brutalism (see the incredible Arrighetti church or the late 1980s S.Siro Stadium towers).

The brutalist architecture of the Royal Liverpool University Dental Hospital.
Tony Harratt.

Earlier this year I published a project entitled ‘Documenting Brutalism’ on the ƒ50 website. I have followed up that discourse by joining forces with two of my friends from the ƒ50 Collective, Peter Barton and Matteo Ceschi, looking at Brutalist architecture in other locations, notably Birmingham, England and Milan, Italy.
 
The Brutalist style continues to draw bad publicity but there are those of us who, in a perverse sort of way, really like the structures. The main criticism is the drabness and repetition of the designs. I first became aware of just how drab they can be on a visit to London. I sat on the Southbank of the River Thames for a time pondering what I might do… 
 
A little colour goes a very long way. Although much of my Brutalist architecture is in mono, the urge to work in colour sometimes gets the better of me and it is this urge that is featured here. I couldn’t have chosen a better day to go to The Royal Liverpool University Hospital and Liverpool University Dental Hospital complex, a cold, windy, grey and wet day; perfect for photographing drab buildings. The place was all but deserted giving it the feel of a ghost town. The objective was the same as the London solution: Find a little colour. And that is what I have set out to do.
You’ll find splashes of red, of green and yellow and I have made the images as ‘gritty’ as possible and reduced the intensity of the colour. 
 
Pretty? Well, probably not, but the hour I spent gathering the images was quite magical and exciting. I hope you enjoy viewing them.
 
Footnote: Of course, The Royal Liverpool University Hospital is currently in the midst of a complete rebuild and it is likely that the Brutalist designs currently in place may be demolished.

Brutalism in Birmingham.
Peter Barton.

Love it or hate it Brutalism certainly has made a statement on city skylines around the world. Never more so than in my home city of Birmingham in the industrial Midlands of England. The city is in a permanent state of flux. It has been energetically constructing and re-constructing as it has developed through the ages. Perhaps that can be said of all cities but in Birmingham that churn appears more rapid.

Each generation of Architects in Birmingham  get the exciting prospect of  a ‘wiped canvass’ of a city centre development site on which to  make their mark. Sometimes this leads to the erection of exciting, interesting  buildings. Often, sadly not.

Some of the buildings in my pictures in this series have been erected and dismantled in my lifetime, preparing the city to shrug off its present  incarnation ready to adopt another. As an example the current central library is the third itereation. The previous two very substantial buildings, one a Brutalist masterpiece,  having been demolished.

It will come as no surprise to you to learn  the motto of the City of Birmingham is “Forward”. And it’s currently marching forward into yet another futuristic re-vamp.

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