BRUTALISM [draft discussion paper developed for NSW AIA Heritage Committee, Advisor Anne Higham, December 2011]
I. Introduction. What was Brutalism?
Most authorities agree that the word or phrase “Brutalism” or “New Brutalism” was coined in the office of the British architects Alison and Peter Smithson in the mid-1950s. The Smithsons clearly state that the term was invented as an ironic retort to the London-based the Architectural Review’s penchant for introducing new buildings as romantic expressions of a “New Monumentalism” or the “New Empiricism” and so on.
“Coined on sight of a newspaper paragraph heading which called […] the Marseilles Unite ‘Brutalism in architecture’ that was for us, ‘New’, both because we came after le Corbusier, and in response to the going literary style of the Architectural Review which, at the start of the 1950s was running articles on the New Monumentality, the New Empiricism, the New Sentimentality and so on.
It is […] this respect for materials, a realisation of the affinity which can be established between building and man, which was at the root of our way of seeing and thinking about things that we called ‘New Brutalism’. [i]
In an essay on Brutalism by Reyner Banham that appeared in the Architectural Review in 1955, he draws the obvious references to Le Corbusier’s Marseilles Unite, a singular building described in architectural circles as ‘le beton brut’ or raw concrete.
Writing from the perspective of the mid-20th century, Banham argues “The New Brutalism […] became a programme, a banner, while retaining some rather restricted sense as a descriptive label. […]”. In his view, “The New Brutalism eludes precise description, while remaining a living force in contemporary British architecture.”[ii] He is, of course, referring to the post-war confidence that architectural design could accurately address the United Kingdom’s social and cultural ills.
While confessing that the description of “Brutalism” might be illusive, Banham does offer an outline of its principal design attributes. Drawing on the built examples available to him in 1955, he identifies several elements that remained consistent in the decades that followed. These issues are later explored in his 1966 book The New Brutalism.[iii]
Banham’s discussion suggests at least four characteristics of Brutalist architecture programmes:
1. Formal, axial plans (a formal legibility of plan);
2. An emphasis on basic structure (a clear exhibition of structure);
3. Candidly expressed materials and finishes (materials “as found” or “off-form”);
4. Predominantly concrete, but integrating glass, brick and timber,[iv]
Banham has more difficulty addressing the political element of Brutalism. He is forced to introduce the “Image Making” qualities of Brutalism as a “visual expression of an idea” as well as a philosophical stance. He does not, however, develop the “visual expression of an idea” further. The highly politicised Smithson practice was the foremost proponent of British Brutalism when Banham was developing his original 1955 essay. Consequently, his discussion responds exclusively to their work.
A highly polemic practice, Alison and Peter Smithson believed in “… an urbanism in which functionally compatible buildings, like the components of a tea set, would acquire a kind of neutrality and family likeness with the space between them becoming the collective of the spaces that each of the buildings carries with it”.[v] Architecture could address social and cultural problems and solve them with design. “It is […] this respect for materials,” Alison Smithson writes, “a realisation of the affinity which can be established between building and man, which was at the root of our way of seeing and thinking about things that we called ‘New Brutalism’.”[vi]
By 1955, Banham had written convincingly that British Brutalism had a formal design methodology as well as a political and social agenda. Later scholars were then forced to respond to the agenda that his Architectural Review essay had established in 1955.
Returning to the topic some ten years later, Banham’s view had become more measured. “The fundamental air of Brutalism at all times has been to find a structural, spatial, organisational and material concept that is ‘necessary’ in this metaphysical sense to some particular building, and then express it with complete honesty in a form that will be unique and memorable...”.[vii] “Brutalism, then,” he concludes, “is a tough-minded reforming movement within the framework of modern architectural thought, not a revolutionary attempt to overthrow it.” Banham had also adjusted his definitions of Brutalist architecture:
1. The building displays Brutalism of form, that is, “ruthless honesty in expressing the functional spaces and their interrelationships;
2. Formal symmetry is abandoned;
3. Compositions are often driven by the topography of the sites;
4. Interior architecture compositions shaped by internal circulation patterns, rather than formalism.
II. Defining British Brutalism
In the conventional reference works, most scholars offer variations on Banham’s initial 1955 definition of “Brutalism” and following the conventions of architectural criticism, they are required to acknowledge, address and synthesize his treatment of the movement. The selected definitions are arranged chronologically to illustrate the shifts in the perception of the movement.
“Brutalism.” Encyclopaedia of 20th Century Architecture. 2004.
Bernard Boyle, the classical architecture scholar states “Brutalism, narrowly defined, was the term used to describe the theory, ideas and practice of a small number of young architects in Great Britain from 1950 to 1960. […] Brutalism came to describe an international approach to architecture that reflected social ideas, industrial and vernacular means and humane goals.”[viii]
Reflecting Banham’s earlier work, Boyle considers “… the influence of Brutalism lay far less in the aesthetic concerns demonstrated in its built works than in the ethical concerns in its challenge to accepted views.” […] The aesthetic aspect of Brutalism, assuming that the test of social worth had been met, follows directly from material character itself, if truthful, socially worthy by definition.”
He asserts that the first British-built Brutalist work was the 1954 Hunstanton Secondary School, Norfolk England (Peter and Alison Smithson), followed by works such as Terrace Housing, Hampstead, 1956 (Howell, Howell and Amis); Langham House Development, Ham Common, 1958 (Sterling and Gowan); the Architecture School extension, Cambridge, 1959 (Wilson and Hardy); Park Hill Development, Sheffield, 1961 (Sheffield City Architect); Engineering School Laboratories, Leicester, 1963 (Stirling and Gowan) and others.
Boyle’s defined Brutalist works, not specifically identified as concrete, are visually identified by
1. Unfinished, natural-coloured surfaces;
2. Seemingly awkward arrangement of parts;
3. Revealed mechanical functions.
Despite Boyle’s three principles, it is clear that “rough finish” or off-form work does not automatically constitute a Brutalist building. Boyle uses the example of Louis Kahn’s Yale University Art and Architecture Building, designed in concrete in a classical form and providing both smooth and coarse surface finishes.
“Brutalism.” “Bannister Fletcher.” A History of Architecture. 1996.
The anonymous author of the Architectural Press’s 20th edition of the landmark Bannister Fletcher volume recruits Brutalism under the British banner of “The New Humanism”. The essayist identifies public housing projects such as Alton West, Roehampton, 1954 (John Killick and Colin Lucas); Park Hill, Sheffield, 1955 (Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith) as early examples. “Here is the New Brutalism in full flight,” the author writes, “blocks articulated according to theory, rather than site conditions. Each third level of these linked blocks that rise as high as fourteen storeys, carries on one of its sides a “street in the air” which provides access to the flats […] in general terms, the life of a city street.”[ix]
|NSW variants of “Streets in the Sky”. Harry Seidler. Model, Rosebery Housing Commission Flats, 1967. State Library of Victoria, Image No: a23145.|
Taking up the themes identified by Banham including “visual expression of ideas” and the Brutalist philosophical stance, this savagely critical essay suggests that while Brutalism’s motives were lofty, the outcomes were debased. Some have attributed the reaction against modernism in architecture to the highly public failures of the Brutalist public housing programme.[x] In the essayist’s view:
1. The design and construction was driven by cost concerns;
2. Housing units were designed as social “problem solvers”;
3. “Tower blocks and slabs were the local government’s preferred weapon in the urban housing war, cheapness and meagre site requirements being advantages…”.[xi]
“The New Humanism” essay also identifies James Sterling as an early adopter, notably the housing commission flats, Ham Common, 1958, Ham and Alison and Peter Smithson’s Smythdon Secondary School, Hunstanton, Norfolk, 1949-1954.
"Brutalism.” Le Grand Atlas de L’Architecture Mondial, 1984
A French dictionary in translation as the World Atlas of Architecture treats Brutalism as a European expression with particular emphasis, of course, on Le Corbusier. The social dimensions of the British movement are notably absent and European Brutalism is seen as a style rather than a movement. As such, the definitions of the style are precise:
1. Monumental expressions;
2. Great mass;
3. Graphic play of forms and spaces;
4. Rough, almost savage texture [“breton brut”];
5. Play with light from this texture and the sculptural forms available;
6. Imaginative use of light and colour.
III. What was “Brutalism” in Australia?
The entry on Brutalism in the recently published Encyclopaedia of Australian Architecture was prepared by the University of West Australia’s Professor Geoffrey London.[xii] While acknowledging the Smithson’s ethical framework, London’s entry accepts Banham’s definition of Brutalist architecture as constituting buildings in concrete and/or exposed masonry.
London begins his discussion of Australian Brutalism by citing the work of Graeme Gunn (Plumbers and Gasfitters Union building, 1970), Kevin Borland and Daryl Jackson’s Harold Holt Swimming Centre (1969) before introducing West Australian Brutalist works such as the Hale School Memorial Hall, Perth by Marshall Clifton and Tony Brand (1961) and the Bentley campus of the Curtin University of Technology (1970).
London also makes reference to Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Briggs’ High Court (1980) and National Gallery (1982) building as well as Enrico Taglietti’s St Anthony’s Church, Marsfield (1965) and the work of Harry Seidler.
Considering the selection of Brutalist buildings presented by London, the 1961 Hale School Memorial Hall, Perth illustrated in Figure 1 is one of the earliest civic or commercial scale Brutalist buildings in Australia. Although the raw concrete has now been painted, the Memorial Hall presents all of the elements that Banham summarised in 1955.
1. Formal, axial plans (a formal legibility of plan);
2. An emphasis on basic structure (a clear exhibition of structure);
3. Candidly expressed materials and finishes (materials “as found”);
4. Predominantly concrete, but integration of glass, brick, timber,[xiii]
IV. What was Brutalism in New South Wales?
The basic palette of NSW Brutalism is concrete and there were a number of innovations in concrete construction in the 1950s in New South Wales that complemented Brutalist design and construction; this was primarily the refinement of on-site and off-site precast concrete units for large-scale building elements.[xiv] These innovations included:
- Precast parabolic arches with hollow concrete beam infill (Catholic Church, Botany, 1955);
- Precast brises-soleil over louvres (Exhibition Pavilion, France, Sydney Showgrounds, Trenchard, Smith, Maisey and Morgan, 1956);
- Lift-slab construction (Hotel International, Potts Point, Kenneth Morgan and Associates, 1957);
- Precast wall panels with aggregates in terra-cotta chips in white cement and concrete brises-soleil (North Shore Hebrew Congregation, H.P. Oser and Associates, 957);
- Massive scale on-site off-form concrete vaulting and finishes (Sydney Opera House interiors, Jorn Utzon, 1957-1973);
- Tilt-slab, precast concrete panels with white quartz decorative aggregate (St Margarets Hospital Chapel, NSW Government Architects, 1959).
These technical innovations provided architects with proven processes that could be directly observed. As a consequence, large-scale Brutalist structures began to appear in New South Wales in the 1960s.
Banham’s working definitions for Brutalism, however, require some adjustment for Australian architecture. While Brutalism in NSW displays Banham’s characteristics such as formal, axial plans; the emphasis on basic expressed structure; “as found” materials and finishes (off-form concrete and other textures) and predominant use of concrete, NSW architects introduced a number of singular innovations.
Scale is one of the key features of commercial Brutalist buildings. For the observer accustomed to steel structure, glass curtain walls and finished masonry facades, NSW Brutalist commercial or civic buildings are generally large-scale buildings that consistently use outsized and frankly expressed building elements. Amongst the earliest NSW commercial-scale buildings to feature the candour of large-scale expressed building elements are the RSL Club, Granville (Frank R. Fox and Associates, 1964), Goldstein Hall, UNSW (NSW Government Architect, 1965) and Randwick Girls High School (NSW Government Architect, 1966).
The lure of exaggerated scale in civic building continued with the Brutalist-inspired planning (W. Abraham) of the Macquarie University campus. The Macquarie University Library (NSW Government Architect, 1967), the original Teaching Block (Stafford, Moore and Farrington, 1967) and the Macquarie University Student Union Building (Ancher, Mortlock, Murray and Woolley, 1970) are notable Brutalist expressions. Assisted by the load-bearing capabilities of reinforced concrete, these buildings also present opportunities for monumental interior spaces. NSW educational institutions, often on greenfield sites, offered unique opportunities for monumental works. The Hornsby Technical College, Hornsby (1968); The William Balmain Teachers College, Ku-ring-gai (now UTS) (1971) and the Bankstown Technical College, Bankstown (1972) are stand-alone examples of the style and scale of Brutalism.[xv]
Unlike Britain’s northern hemisphere where natural light in a commercial or civic building is welcome, Australian sunlight is an important element to manage and control. Several years before the Brutalist style appeared, a number of NSW buildings incorporated the concrete brise-soleil popularised by Le Corbusier. In 1956, the French Exhibition Pavilion (Trenchard, Smith, Maisey and Morgan) at the Sydney Showground featured a façade-covering brise-soleil over the front elevation. This was closely followed by a concrete brise-soleil design for the Amalgamated Printing Trades Employees Union (Harry Seidler, 1957) and H.P. Oser’s concrete brise-soleil for the North Shore Hebrew Congregation of the same year.
Other Brutalist light control measures include the precast “sun visors” of the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board building (McConnel, Smith and Johnson, 1966), the narrow lancet-like windows and partly cantilevered entrance porch roof of the Readers Digest Building (John James and Associates, 1967), the excavated site and deeply recessed horizontal windows of the Associated Chambers of Manufactures of Australia Building (Enrico Taglietti, 1968), the panoply of louvres and “sunvisors” of the William Balmain Teachers College (now UTS) (NSW Government Architect, 1971), and the exaggerated projecting eaves and restrictive glazing of the windows of the Dixon Library, University of New England (NSW Government Architect, 1973).
Landscape architecture is a prominent feature of a number of Brutalist commissions when greenfield sites allowed planning to retain, foster or re-introduce native plantings. The work of Harry Howard and Bruce Mackenzie has proven particularly amendable to Brutalist buildings and sites. The practices of Howard and Mackenzie actively promoted the use of indigenous vegetation and the virtues of acclimated plantings.
Mackenzie was involved in the William Balmain Teachers College, Ku-ring-gai (from 1966) (now the UTS Ku-ring-gai campus); the Warringah Shire Council Civic Centre and Library (Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Briggs, 1973) and the Readers Digest Building roof garden (John James and Associates, 1967) and other notable commissions.
Harry Howard and Associates was responsible for the landscaping of the Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Briggs High Court Building and the adjacent National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.[xvi] Later landscape additions at the National Gallery of Australia are by others.
The regional variant of New South Wales Brutalism expression in commercial-scale building incorporates all of the elements of the British Brutalist architecture and makes significant additions to the style and methodology of Brutalism. NSW Brutalism, however, does not embrace the well-intentioned humanism of the original Smithson practice. In any event, the Smithson’s philosophy of architecture and social engagement was discredited by the 1970s.
[The Smithsons’] Robin Hood Gardens [housing commission] went down in history as an utter failure. It was horrifically vandalised by its residents and it spelled the end of the designers’ international status as star architects. The Smithsons’ greatest mistake may have been their exaggerated and possibly naïve confidence in the capacity of architecture to provide a solution to social problems.[xvii]
The inventive management of natural light is one of regional Brutalism’s more prominent features. Fenestration patterns, scale, “sun-visors”, sunshades and brises-soleil are only a few of the imaginative treatments developed by NSW architects for controlling Australian sunlight. As a consequence of this sometimes over-managed natural light control, however, Brutalist buildings have a reputation for low light levels, which have had to be managed by extensive internal lighting programmes.
Raw concrete with conventional aggregates has a measurably low light reflectance and off-form concrete textures contribute to light absorption. While the play of deep shadows on internal and external cantilevered stairs, ramps, doorway and walls entrances professional photographers, the lighting ambience in some Brutalist buildings does not meet socially acceptable standards without the introduction of artificial light or in some unfortunate cases, paint or cladding.
To address this low light reflectance of raw concrete, Harry Seidler’s concrete barrel-vaulted Ciba-Geigy office and warehouse (Lane Cove, 1961), while not a Brutalist building, used massive formed concrete “light scoops” to capture sunlight. Open sides of the barrel vaults captured light and reflected it into the interior with surfaces of finely-crushed white quartz incorporated into the formwork.
Many of the NSW Brutalist buildings are civic structures and their interior architecture often requires ceremonial spaces. This usually means that design emphasis is often placed on processional entrances and large-scale reception areas. This form of Brutalist interior architecture can be found in the Brutalist additions to Macquarie University (NSW Government Architect and others), many Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Briggs buildings including the Warringah Shire Council’s Civic Centre (1973), the High Court (1980) and the National Gallery of Australia (1982), Canberra; the Masonic Centre (Joseland, Gilling and Associates with T.W. Hodgson and Sons, 1978); the Sydney Police Centre (NSW Government Architect, 1978) and a number of other works.
Other stylistic interior features include that traditional hommage to Le Corbusier, the site-formed cantilevered concrete stair with cement-cast handrails; lengthy internal ramps rising to a single floor and formed concrete lift wells. The strength of reinforced concrete, pre-tensioned or post-tensioned, has led many designers to an over-use of internal and external cantilevered stairs, ramps and balconies.
The internal fitting and furniture of Brutalist buildings has not been explored but there are a number of examples of architect-designed concrete benches, seating, water features and reception desks (indoor and outdoor).
The Brutalist Palette
In the development of NSW Brutalism, a consistent materials palette was established as the style evolved. This included textured brick (often manganese brick) for infill; stoneware-fired quarry tiles flooring, the use of Pirelli rounded stud elastomeric matting and the extensive use of decorative timberwork or cladding for sound modulation, either rough-sawn and or finished timbers in natural colours.
Externally, copper roofs, flashing and downpipes appeared and in some cases, conventional roof run-off was handled with concrete-formed guttering, spills and water catchment ponds. The Canberra architect, Enrico Taglietti, is particularly inventive in this regard.
The importance of landscape architecture in enhancing the site of Brutalist buildings cannot be understated. In some extreme cases, building sites were scraped free of soil and vegetation and landscape architects like Bruce Mackenzie, Bruce Rickard and Harry Howard were forced to recreate an Australian setting from sites that required remediation and reclamation.
As Banham had discussed in 1965, the economics of British Brutalism had led to commissions that were developed for topographically difficult sites assembled in former industrial areas.[xviii] Remediation was a necessity. The abilities of landscape architects to adapt NSW Brutalist buildings to difficult sites such as the Warringah Civic Centre has produced some of the movement’s best works.
VI. Conclusion [for committee discussion]
Anon. “Technical College.” Constructional Review, March, 1968.
Banham, Reyner. “The New Brutalism.” The Architectural Review, December, 1955, pps.355-361.
Banham, Reyner. The New Brutalism. Ethic or Aesthetic? Architectural Press, 1966.
Bevan, Robert. “A Quandry of Age.” Australian Financial Review, 2 July 2009.
Encyclopaedia of 20th Century Architecture. R.S. Sennet, editor. Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004, v.1.
Encyclopaedia of Modern Architecture. Gerd Hatje, editor. Thames and Hudson, 1965.
Fletcher Bannister. “The New Humanism.” A History of Architecture. 20th edition, Architectural Press, RIBA, 1996.
Grose, James. “Is the Australian National Gallery a significant building?” Architecture Bulletin, 3/1985, pps.8-9.
Howard, Harry. “Landscaping of the High Court of Australia and the Australian National Gallery.” Landscape Australia. 3/82, August, 1982.
Lewis, Miles. 200 Years of Concrete in Australia. Concrete Institute of Australia, 1988.
Oxford Companion to Architecture, Vol.1. Patrick Goode, ed. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Penguin Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. J. Fleming and H. Howard, editors. 5th ed., 2000.
Rollo, Joe. Concrete Poetry. Concrete Architecture in Australia. Cement, Concrete and Aggregates Australia, 2004.
Scalbert, Irenee. “The Smithsons and the Economist Building Plaza” in Architecture is not made with the Brain. The Labour of Alison and Peter Smithson. Architectural Association, 2005, p,24.
Smithson, A.M. The Charged Void. Architecture. Alison and Peter Smithson. Monacelli Press, NY, 2001.
Smithson, Alison, and Peter Smithson. Without Rhetoric. An Architectural Aesthetic 1955-1972, Latimer New Dimensions, 1973.
van der Heuvel, Dirk. “Recolonising the Modern. Robin Hood Gardens today.” In Architecture is not made with the Brain. The Labour of Alison and Peter Smithson. Architectural Association, 2005.
World Atlas of Architecture. [translation of Le Grand Atlas de L’Architecture Mondial, 1984]. Crescent Books, 1984.
[i] “On Brutalism.” Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson. Without Rhetoric. An Architectural Aesthetic 1955-1972, Latimer New Dimensions, 1973, p.2, p.6.
[v] Irenee Scalbert, “The Smithsons and the Economist Building Plaza” in Architecture is not made with the Brain. The Labour of Alison and Peter Smithson. Architectural Association, 2005, p,24.
[vi] Smithson, Alison, and Peter Smithson. Without Rhetoric. An Architectural Aesthetic 1955-1972, Latimer New Dimensions, 1973, p.6. “Respect for materials” became a popular phrase for the “As Found” textural qualities of off-form concrete work.
[vii] Reyner Banham. “Brutalism.” Encyclopaedia of Modern Architecture. Gerd Hatje, editor. Thames and Hudson, 1965, p.63-64.
[viii] B.M. Boyle. “Brutalism.” Encyclopaedia of 20th Century Architecture. R.S. Sennet, editor. Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004, v.1, pps.180-183.
[ix] Anon. in Bannister Fletcher. “The New Humanism.” A History of Architecture. 20th edition, Architectural Press, RIBA, 1996, pps. 1381-1385. “Streets in the Air” was a phrase used by the Smithson practice.
[x] “Brutalism.” Oxford Companion to Architecture, Vol.1. Patrick Goode, ed. Oxford University Press, 2009, pps.203-204 “Concrete weathers badly in rainy climates and its use in mass housing and large pubic buildings has created some very dismal environments, contributing much to the decline in the reputation of modernism.” Jencks also suggests that these failures doomed the public’s perception of modernism in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977).
[xii] “Brutalism.” Geoffrey London. The Encyclopaedia of Australian Architecture, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p.110.
[xiv] Off-site concrete construction for prefabricated structures has a long history in Australia. The earliest works were developed in the late 19th century for public works such as water and sewerage transport, railway buildings and farm structures such as silos. Miles Lewis’s 200 Years of Concrete in Australia. Concrete Institute of Australia, 1988 is the standard reference.
[xv] A spokesperson for the NSW Government Architect said that the “as found” off-form finish of Hornsby Technical College were selected not because of any fashion for “brut” concrete but because years of school and college maintenance has shown the Government Architect the value of upkeep-free materials.” “Technical College.” Constructional Review, March, 1968, pps.14-17.
[xvi] Harry Howard. “Landscaping of the High Court of Australia and the Australian National Gallery.” Landscape Australia. 3/82, August, 1982, pps.208-215.
[xvii] “Dirk van der Heuvel. “Recolonising the Modern. Robin Hood Gardens today.” In Architecture is not made with the Brain. The Labour of Alison and Peter Smithson. Architectural Association, 2005, pps.32-37.