Based on my estimates, about three times a year the 1950-60s architectural movement and style referred to as “Brutalism” re-enters public discourse and the cycle starts again: liberals think it too authoritarian in aesthetic, conservatives think it inferior to Classical (European) styles, and most everyone else just regards it ugly—and Brutalist apologists feebly attempt a politically ecumenical defense. Here’s my version of the triannual defense.
Brutalism, etymologically coming from the French “Béton brut” (or raw concrete), is a style with post-war British origins that is most commonly associated with minimalism, low-cost housing, and utilitarian or socialist ethics. It’s cheap, easy, and quick to build, which makes it easily translatable to a socialist-influenced ideology.
One of former president Donald Trump’s last executive orders, the Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture, loosely defines the style: “‘Brutalist’ means the style of architecture that grew out of the early 20th-century modernist movement that is characterized by a massive and block-like appearance with a rigid geometric style and large-scale use of exposed poured concrete.” This order, not coincidentally, was the latest catalyst of the Brutalism discourse. It limited the choices for the design of new federal buildings decidedly against Brutalism, favoring Classical styles.
The most prevalent criticism of Brutalism, especially in the twenty-first century, is that the style itself stifles creativity and inevitably results in ugly, homogenous, blockish buildings. While in the heyday of the Brutalist style there was a general utilitarian ideological backing (no matter which side of the Cold War), and thus many low-cost apartment buildings made use of it, this speaks only to one method of its realization. For governments or businesses that needed a quick, easy, and cheap building to provide low-cost housing, the Brutalist style was often most convenient.
But it wasn’t and isn’t always used this way, even if that’s what it’s known for. A quick browse of photographer Christopher Herwig’s relatively famous book Soviet Bus Stops shows the artistic (and usually colorful) freedoms the style allows. Boston City Hall, America’s most famous Brutalist building, couldn’t look more different from The Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco—and whether or not both buildings are visually appealing is beside the point. Together, they demonstrate, alongside buildings like Geisel Library in La Jolla, California, that the “in-house” Brutalist style doesn’t inherently impede creativity.
Of course, it should probably go without mentioning that less creative residential Brutalist buildings, the infamous concrete “eye-sores,” shouldn’t be derided simply because of their aesthetic. There is a reason so many residential buildings, especially low-income apartment buildings, stick with the style: it works for their purpose in providing cheap and effective housing.
Thanks to Trump’s executive order, it currently seems unlikely to see any new federal Brutalist buildings in the immediate future, but Biden’s administration may find aspects of the architectural style useful. Many columnist, analysts, and reporters see Biden as a classical representative of American institutionalism; that is, Biden tends to believe in and support the basic social institutions in American society. American Brutalism arguably peaked with American institutionalism in the 60s and then waned in the decades after, coinciding with Watergate, the Kent State shootings, and the Vietnam War. In the words of Architect magazine, “[Brutalist buildings] were authoritatively civic in the time of Kennedy-era optimism and the Great Society, before U.S. attitudes toward the public realm changed so dramatically that it has become hard to evaluate the aesthetics on their original terms. What was once regarded as positively monumental is now seen as bureaucratic, overbearing.” An institutionalist like Biden might find a return to the style inspiring in certain ways, perhaps to revive public approval of American institutions.
And, quite frankly, Brutalism just deserves some sympathy. In Hollywood, Brutalism is a staple in the dystopian worlds of The Hunger Games (2012), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). In other depictions, such as in Resident Evil: Afterlife (2012), where the architecture provides much of the setting for the zombie apocalypse action, it operates as a signal of the corpse of the Soviet Union, which made the style an essential symbol of communism following the Khrushchev era. For Americans, such media representation feeds into the myth of Brutalism’s authoritarian aesthetic, whereas in actuality the style was considered avant-garde in the West shortly before the Soviets adopted it. With this representation, it’s no wonder so many share a negative inclination toward Brutalist buildings.
So next time your city wants to tear down a Brutalist building, perhaps I can persuade you to actually consider signing that petition to protect it.