Brutalism’s elemental appeal
The term ‘Brutalism’ or ‘New Brutalism’ was coined in the mid-1950s in the office of British architects Alison and Peter Smithson. The Smithsons claim the expression was invented as an ironic retort to the UK Architectural Review’s journalistic phrase-making with terms such as ‘New Monumentalism’, ‘New Empiricism’ and the like.
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”. They were certain that architecture could address social and cultural problems and solve them with design.
Writing in the 1950s, Reyner Banham said that “The New Brutalism eludes precise description, while remaining a living force in contemporary British architecture.” With obligatory Le Corbusier references, Banham then offered an outline of Brutalism’s principal design attributes. Drawing on the built examples in 1955, Banham identifies several elements that were to remain constant in later decades, and in particular, four defining 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,
Was it different in Australia?
The Encyclopaedia of Australian Architecture acknowledges the Smithson’s ethical framework and accepts Banham’s working definition for Australian Brutalist Brutalist work. Marshall Clifton and Tony Brand’s 1961 Hale School Memorial Hall in Perth is cited as one of the Australia’s earliest civic or commercial-scale Brutalist buildings. Although the raw concrete has now been painted, the Memorial Hall has the elements that Banham described in 1955.
The New South Wales approach
When formal Brutalist architecture began to appear in New South Wales in the 1960s, they were expressions of new concrete building methodologies and styles, rather than Smithson-inspired philosophical expressions. In 1968, a spokesperson for the NSW Department of Public Works stated that “The natural finishes of [Brutalist] 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.” While largely theoretically bereft, a number of singular innovations were introduced by New South Wales architects.
Unlike Britain’s northern hemisphere where natural light is welcomed, Australian sunlight is an important element to control. Examples of innovative New South Wales’ 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 strip windows of the Associated Chambers of Manufactures of Australia building (Enrico Taglietti, 1968);
· the panoply of louvres and ‘sun visors’ of the William Balmain Teachers College (now the UTS campus, Ku-ring-gai) (NSW Government Architect, 1971); and
· the exaggerated projecting eaves and reductive glazing of the windows of the Dixon Library, University of New England (NSW Government Architect, 1973).
Brutalist commercial and civic buildings are generally large-scale buildings that consistently use outsized and frankly expressed building elements. Among the earliest Brutalist buildings in New South Wales to candidly express these exaggerated building elements are Goldstein Hall residential college, at the University of NSW (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 by the late Walter Abraham at 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 works. Assisted by the load-bearing capabilities of reinforced concrete, these buildings also provided opportunities for monumental interior spaces.
In many of the New South Wales Brutalist buildings, the interior architecture often include large-scale ceremonial spaces. Design emphasis is often placed on processional entrances and often cavernous, internal reception areas. This interior architecture can be found in many of the Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Briggs (EMTB) 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, Richard Dinham, design architect, 1978) and other many works.
In New South Wales, landscape design features in a number of Brutalist commissions, especially when greenfield sites allowed planning to retain or re-introduce native plantings. Bruce Rickard, Alan Correy, Bruce Mackenzie and others advocated the use of indigenous vegetation in their landscape architecture. Citing only a few designers and landscape commissions, Mackenzie developed the William Balmain Teachers College, Ku-ring-gai programme; Richard Clough developed the Macquarie University scheme; and Harry Howard and Associates was responsible for the initial landscaping of EMTB’s High Court Building and the adjacent National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
The regional variant of New South Wales Brutalism in commercial-scale building incorporates all of the physical elements of the British Brutalist architecture but makes significant additions to the style and methodology of Brutalism in light control, plan development, interior architecture and landscape. When a thorough history of Australian Brutalism is written, the role of the engineer in the 1950s innovations in concrete such as precast parabolic arches, the brise-soleil, lift-slab construction and the massive scale on-site off-form concrete vaulting and finishes of the Sydney Opera House interiors must be considered as part of its legacy.
Reproduced from Michael Bogle. "Beauty of the Beast." Architecture Bulletin, AIA NSW. March/April 2012, pp.10-11. (Illustrated).
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.
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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.
· Hale School Memorial Hall, Perth. 1961 Marshall Clifton and Tony Brand
· Goldstein Hall residential college, UNSW. 1965, NSW Government Architect
· Randwick Girls High School. 1966, NSW Government Architect
· Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board building. 1966, McConnel, Smith and Johnson
· Macquarie University Library. 1967, NSW Government Architect
· Readers Digest Building. 1967, John James and Associates
· Hornsby Technical College. 1968, NSW Department of Public Works
· Associated Chambers of Manufactures of Australia building. 1968, Enrico Taglietti
· William Balmain Teachers College (now UTS campus, Ku-ring-gai. 1971, NSW Government Architect
· Macquarie University Student Union Building. 1970, Ancher, Mortlock, Murray and Woolley
· Sydney Opera House interiors. 1973, Joern Utzon, Peter Hall
· Dixon Library, University of New England. 1973, NSW Government Architect
· Warringah Shire Council Civic Centre and Library. 1973, Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Briggs
· Masonic Centre. 1978, Joseland, Gilling and Associates with T.W. Hodgson and Sons
· Sydney Police Centre. 1978, NSW Government Architect
· National Gallery of Australia (1982) and National Gallery, Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Briggs
 “On Brutalism.” Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson. Without Rhetoric. An Architectural Aesthetic 1955-1972, Latimer New Dimensions, 1973, p.2, p.6.
 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. See also Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson. Without Rhetoric. An Architectural Aesthetic 1955-1972, Latimer New Dimensions, 1973, p.6. “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’.”
 Reyner Banham. “The New Brutalism.” Architectural Review, December, 1955, pps.355-361.
 Reyner Banham. “The New Brutalism.” Architectural Review, December, 1955, p.357. These issues are expanded in his 1966 book The New Brutalism. Architectural Press, 1966.
 Geoffrey London. “Brutalism.” The Encyclopaedia of Australian Architecture, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p.110.
 The notable exceptions were the dense Pythagorean maxims of Colin Madigan of Edwards, Madigan, Torzillo and Briggs and the informal “Manifesto of Natural Materialism” developed by some of the architects in the NSW Government Architect’s office. For “Natural Materialism”, see Michael Bogle’s interview with Michael Dysart. 14 June 2011 (NSW AIA files).
 “Technical College.” Constructional Review, March, 1968, pps.14-17. The Government Architect’s office in the Dept of Public Works was the primary proponent of Brutalism in NSW.
 Harry Howard. “Landscaping of the High Court of Australia and the Australian National Gallery.” Landscape Australia. 3/82, August, 1982, pps.208-215.
 “[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. “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.