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.
These days what’s the most we can realistically hope for but some form of ideal dystopia.
Perhaps an isolated bunker in a distant land deep beneath the surface fitted with all the conveniences that seem so essential, naturally.
We could sleep safe and soundly there and dream plastic dreams of our synthetic future as we transform into angelic androids, with our skins like vinyl that hisses and crackles when we touch, superficially smooth yet as we press harder we discover contours and grooves that activate sensations far forgotten within the soul.
We long for a fine and private place but there is none to speak of so we sneak into what passes for a sacred grove, dedicated to some degenerate local deity with one glass eye and undoubtedly an unappeasable taste for tidy hookers and neat gin.
In this dimly lit ersatz arbour made of rusting metal and fake bamboo hemmed in by tarnished mirrors we talk:
of organisms that ceaselessly duplicate;
of the next eagerly anticipated catastrophe;
of death and destruction as the ultimate spectator sport;
of the serenity to be found in surrendering to the spooked spiralling logic of paranoia;
of nightclubbing and nightcrawling;
of nocturnal emissions;
of the vicious inanity of Incubi and Succubi;
of the Latter Days of the Fourth Decadency;
of a corrosive inertia;
of ennui and entrophy;
of containment and contagion;
of chance encounters and happy accidents that lead to inevitable happy endings;
of the cellar door in The Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel;
of protean cult leaders;
of clairvoyant photographers;
of a vanishing star of stage and screen;
of wandering infra dig soldiers lost in the twilighting border zone;
of standing on the threshold of a room;
of skipping a vital slowed down sleazy beat;
of nonsensical impulses and randomly compelling whims;
of waylaid emotion and contaminated intimacy;
of perverse attractions;
of dream homes and heartache;
of love and sleep.
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.