What is Brutalism and what is not

Alexander Adams has reviewed a number of books on architecture in the Soviet block (aka the Second World) and the Third World. It’s in the Critic, one of those Save Western Civilization mags whose writers are generously paid to keep thinking in conservative clichés. However, what caught my eye first was the summary of Adams’ piece in Arts and Letters Daily:

The apotheosis of Brutalism, that megalomaniacal overreach beloved of architects and dictators, was in 1920s Moscow.

This is factually wrong, I believe. Brutalism did not yet exist in the 1920s, and the term does not mean “megalomaniacal and broadly block-like.” Some early Soviet architects did come up with insane plans, indeed – the apotheosis of insanity in paper architecture, one could argue, was in the 1920s. In practice, next to nothing came out of those plans.

Moreover, those fantasies had little to do with Brutalism as we know it. Look at the design proposals for the infamous Palace of the Soviets: only one, by the British-American architect Hector Hamilton, resembles somewhat a Brutalist structure.

Speaking of sane, non-paper architecture, Moscow did see some Constructivist and Rationalist buildings appear in the 1920s and in the early 1930s. Were they precursors to Brutalist architecture? Perhaps – but the scope of urban construction in Russia was rather limited in the 1920s and the 1930s compared both with the 1900-1917 period and with the post-war decades.

The “apotheosis of Brutalism” in the USSR was the mass residential construction that started in the late 1950s. Cheap, “rationally designed” housing for workers only became available to millions in the Khruschev period. Because of that, Soviet Brutalism was historically associated with the (limited) post-Stalinist humanization of the regime. Its greatest flaw was probably the quality of the materials and workmanship rather than the design. See my posts, for instance: Cheryomuski; INION; Vilnius.

Back to the roots now. Here’s the definition of Brutalism by the team at Tate:

Brutalism is an architectural style of the 1950s and 1960s characterised by simple, block-like forms and raw concrete construction…

Sounds good as a working definition. Reading further helps contextualize the birth of the word:

The term was coined by the British architectural critic Reyner Banham to describe the approach to building particularly associated with the architects Peter and Alison Smithson in the 1950s and 1960s.

Of course the use of “Brutalism” (“New Brutalism” as Banham had it) is not restricted to the Smithsons’ output. The genesis of the word explains how it could be used more liberally:

The term originates from the use, by the pioneer modern architect and painter Le Corbusier, of ‘beton brut’ – raw concrete in French. Banham gave the French word a punning twist to express the general horror with which this concrete architecture was greeted in Britain.

It’s béton actually, from Latin bitumen. For Banham’s 1955 article, also see “Khruschev and British Brutalism.”

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