The architectural Brutalist style enjoyed a brief heyday from the mid 1950’s to the late 1970’s across the globe, but particularly in the UK and the Soviet aligned countries of Eastern Europe. Frequently employed in state sponsored buildings: social housing, libraries, universities, and hospitals, Brutalist architecture become immensely unfashionable from the 1980’s onward, the subject of widespread scorn and derision due to its associations with totalitarianism (both Fascist and Communist), urban decay and perceived ugliness, which led to many notable examples of the style falling prey to the wrecking ball and demolition.
Brutalism derives its name from Béton brut (raw concrete), the material most frequently used in construction, however it cannot be denied that it was also brutal in the purest sense: hard, raw, severe, and monumental. Brutalist architecture is always serious, austere and intellectually rigorous, it is never twee, whimsical or ironic. Brutalism aims for the sublime, not the merely beautiful. Unrelentingly experimental and modernist Brutalism makes no concessions to good taste or common sense or timid sensibilities. Brutalism is a defiant middle finger raised against God, Nature and the small-minded.
As happens with most styles when they are on the verge of completely disappearing from the landscape, Brutalism has undergone somewhat of a resurgence in the last decade, with writers, photographers, artists and architects intent on rehabilitating its reputation. Below I have selected examples of Brutalist architecture, starting with the Atlantic Wall bunkers built by the Nazi’s during WWII, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille, London social housing projects, war memorials and buildings in the former Yugoslavia, up to the present day collages of Neil Montier and Nicholas Moulin. Hopefully they capture one essence of Brutalism, as noted by the critic Jonathan Mendes, a sheer joylessness that thrills.
I am bored with symmetry, logic, systems, and rationales
Please don’t bother yourself to explain the why where or how,
Whatever happened to losing ourselves in some threatening city?
The thrill of taking a wrong turning and sensing the shadows shift-
Shape into lives that only in this moment have any relation to our own:
Becoming unmoored from our painstakingly constructed personas,
Thinking acting dying in the vertigo inducing deep instance.
Please don’t tell me where I am going or where you have been,
The only maps I read fringe the expanse of blank space with monsters:
I have always searched for a location with ill defined co-ordinates,
A place where the boundaries are frangible or porous,
Here I can stage the break out, the break in, the break through,
A clue to the exit, entrance, waiting room or maybe terminus,
It’s been said before but I will say it again: existence is elsewhere;
In the recessed wardrobe in some forgotten attic spare room;
Down a rabbit hole in a field or through a silvered looking glass;
At the opening of the hidden eye or the tingle at the base of the spine;
A broken lift stuck between floors high up in some sink estate;
In the pressure on the solar plexus, in the hollow nexus of flesh;
Or a graffitied toilet cubicle in some abstract hotel of the future;
The cellar of a church scrawled with incantations, exorcisms and veves;
In an abandoned concrete bunker on a desolate stretch of shoreline;
Beneath an island of black sand and volcanic glass in a complex of caves;
Or the receding house in the borderlands shifting in the distance;
Somewhere or there if you say the right words at the appointed time
You could find yourself in some subterranean underworld or Wonderland,
To re-encounter all the savageries of childhood games and innocence,
Meet the chthonic deities, secret rulers, invisible masters, sovereigns
Of all they survey in these latter days of the Fourth Decadency.
I have heard a rumour that they are hiring, press-ganging, shanghaiing,
Suitable personages, help is always wanted, space can sure be found
For lieutenants and officers of a studious and introspective disposition;
Rehabbing Ingénues resting in between a succession of difficult roles;
Be-bop gynaecologists smoking before inserting a fist into localized wombs;
Free-styling surgeons coming hard and fast as they make the cut into flesh,
But remember that incision is always first, anaesthesia only ever after:
For Sisters of the Immaculate Silk Stocking and Perpetual Pain
Raptly murmuring well sorry but you to me are just a pigeon;
Purveyors of all kinds of reprocessed filth and high spin deviation;
Hard noise volatilized followers of sinister charismatic cult leaders;
Aberrationist lexicographers in league with heretical cartographers;
Natty dogs with polka dot ties telepathically communicating weather reports;
Architects and designers specializing in the style of the Neo-New Brutalism
Or are actively working towards the Retro-Chaldean-Rococo-Monstrosity;
Procurers of contraband urine analysis and recondite pharmacopeia;
Contortionist courtesans of a pan-dimensional renown and fame;
Deep cover agents that have forgotten that they are in fact agents
Subverting the suburban norms that they ostensibly embody.
In the presence of the sublime and the grotesque our eyes will dilate
As we experience the miserable miracle beyond all artificial paradises;
But it is the only destination worth setting out for so let’s carry on
Without lodestones or compass, no navigation aid beyond still beating hearts.
I have previously highlighted the influence of the Surrealists and Pop Artists upon J.G. Ballard, one of the few modern writers whose name is now an adjective; the word Ballardian conjures up visions of dystopian modernity, denuded man-made landscapes, the all-consuming nature of mass media, entropy, psychological withdrawal and anomie.
This most visual of writers has been a source of inspiration to artists in his turn, either directly referencing his work or by touching upon Ballardian themes.
I have taken liberties with this selection of ‘Ballardian’ imagery. Obviously Rousseau pre-dates The Drowned World and Warhol is directly stated by Ballard as an influence in The Atrocity Exhibition, but in some sense they seem to me Ballardian. The unconscious forms its own connections, there are no accidents and there are no coincidences.
The triumvirate of Utopian Neoclassical architects, Étienne-Louis Boullée, Jean-Jacques Lequeu and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux would have an major influence on Modern architecture in the 20th Century, as well as being hailed by the Surrealists as precursors, particularly Ledoux, who held notably progressive and egalitarian ideals for his time.
The Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans was conceived by Ledoux as the first phrase in the construction of an ideal city near the forest of Chaux. Ledoux thought that luxury shouldn’t just be confined to the nobility, it should also be used in the building of a workshop or a barn. The grandiose buildings were laid out in a circle, houses for workers were palatial and the forges had Doric columns. Unfortunately, but not altogether surprisingly Ledoux had to abandon work on the Royal Saltworks in 1778 before its final completion.
This didn’t deter Ledoux from envisaging ever more audacious and grandiose projects for his ideal city though. All public buildings such as the Pacifere (Temple of Concilation), the Oikema (House of Pleasure) were based on the theory of pure forms; pyramid, cube, sphere, cylinder. Statues would be erected for the sake of their effect on perspective or the casting of shadows.
In 1784 Ledoux was selected to design the Théâtre de Besançon. Among his radical and innovative designs was the introduction of seating for all patrons, (a right previously reserved for the nobility), and the screening of musicians in the orchestra pit.
In my post on the enigmatic French architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu I mentioned two other Utopian revolutionary Neoclassical architects whose visions remained largely on paper, Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicholas Ledoux. As both architects produced interesting work in their own right and help situate Lequeu in the correct historical, intellectual and aesthetic context I felt follow up posts were necessary, starting with the originator of visionary architecture, Étienne-Louis Boullée.
Born in 1728, Boullée reacted against the frivolous decadence of the Rococo by returning to Classical forms (hence Neoclassicism), removing all unnecessary ornamentation and developing an abstract geometric style. Boullée stated that regularity, symmetry and variety were the golden rules of architecture. Another defining feature of Boullée’s projected work was it monumentalism, designed to invoke the sublime.
Boullée’s most famous work is the Cenotaph for Newton, a gargantuan monument consisting of a sphere taller than the Great Pyramid, to the idol of the Enlightenment. He also planned other Cenotaphs and tombs.
Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film The Belly of an Architect centers on an American architect staging an exhibition in Rome on Boullée. At one point a character remarks that Boullée’s work seems like a vision of Hell and I have to agree, though Boullée remains something of a hero of the Age of Reason.
Below are images of planned projects, including the Cenotaph for Newton, and two pieces of music from The Belly of an Architect.