Sunday, March 22, 2015

Brutalism with a Human Face. Case Studies of the Interior Architecture of Five NSW public buildings.

Michael Bogle

The interior architecture of five selected NSW Brutalist civic-scale buildings from 1963-1978 is addressed through an analysis of interior planning, internal scale, lighting and materiality to identify and isolate the sensual elements in interior architecture the scholar Reyner Banham interprets as Brutalism’s “emotive” imagery. Working with the definitions established by Banham’s Brutalist essays and his interpretations of the Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson practice, the early definitions of Brutalism are used to differentiate between the Smithson-associated Brutalist variant of interior architecture and the interior work found in the five NSW Brutalist case studies. The interior architecture of the five selected NSW Brutalist civic buildings significantly expanded the “emotive imagery” Reyner Banham identified as characteristic of the first wave of Brutalist buildings initiated by the Smithsons’ early practice. These NSW case studies examples illustrate attempts to “bridge” through inventive interior architecture an identified gap “between the traditional ideal of beauty and the Brutalist image” raised by Anthony Vidier. These interiors demonstrate the evocation of sensual responses was a first order concern for the designers. Designing emotive “human associations” of rhythmic procession, light, texture, acoustics and interior ambience in this Brutalist interior architecture signals the architects’ desire to directly engage with the intimate “sense memories” of their audiences.


The interiors of the five selected NSW Brutalist civic buildings from 1963 to 1978 reveal an inventive interior architecture exploring and expanding the “emotive imagery” Reyner Banham first identified as characteristic of Brutalist buildings in the mid-20th century. “What moves a new brutalist,” he writes, “is the thing itself, in its totality, with all its overtones of human association.” “… [An] image is what affects the emotions….”.[1] While at odds with the general perceptions of NSW Brutalist off-form concrete and brick buildings, the case study buildings demonstrate an interior architecture of emotion” and sensuality intended to activate the sense memories of the buildings’ audiences.

Using the discussion and criteria established by the central figure of Rayner Badham in his interpretation of Brutalism, five case studies of NSW Brutalist interior architecture analyse the design architect’s desire to engage with the intimate sensual elements of interior architecture:

1. Ken Woolley’s 1963 Lidcombe Hospital recreation hall and chapel for the NSW Government Architect;
2. Michael Dysart and Peter Webber’s 1965 Robb College, University of New England for the NSW Government Architect;
3. Stafford, Moor and Farrington’s 1967 Teaching Block (Building E7), Macquarie University for the NSW Government Architect;
4. David Turner’s (Stage 1) 1971 William Balmain Teachers College for the NSW Government Architect (now UTS, Ku-ring-gai); concluding with an independent commission,
5. Joseland, Gilling and Associates’ 1978 Masonic Centre (Stage 1) for the Freemasons NSW & ACT.

These selected examples of NSW Brutalist interior architecture and the early photographic imagery of the commissions demonstrate that enhanced sensual experiences were holistic design considerations for these interiors. “An image,” Banham wrote, “is what affects the emotions, that structure in its fullest sense is the relationship of parts…”.[2] Imaginatively handled in these five commissions, an integrated palette of materials and their evocative qualities of sound, sight and touch illustrate that the pursuit of enhanced emotive experiences were integrated architectural considerations in the design development of the interior architecture of these buildings.

NSW pre-Brutalist Precursors

Prior to Ken Woolley’s 1963 Lidcombe Hospital recreation hall and chapel, there are a number of civic-scale NSW pre-Brutalist precursors in the early decades of the 20th century presenting innovations in concrete construction, concrete finishes and interior lighting providing synergies for later Brutalist interior architecture design and construction. These technical advances are the refinement of on-site and off-site precast concrete units for large-scale building elements; mechanical and/or hand-formed finishes; experiments with aggregates and the development of fenestration strategies suitable for concrete architecture.[3]

Amongst these influential early pre-Brutalist developments were the architect Kevin Curtin’s 1955 use of factory-manufactured precast hollow concrete beam infill panels set into parabolic concrete arches for St Bernard’s Catholic Church, Botany. This is a commission where Curtin applied smooth-rendered interior finishes contrasting with exterior finishes of coat of black cement with an aggregate of marble chips. This was a NSW innovation in material finishes that received significant notice in the architectural press.[4]  This was soon followed by H.P. Oser and Associates 1957 experiment with precast wall panels with aggregates in terra-cotta chips in white cement for the North Shore Hebrew Congregation, Lindfield.[5]

Ken Woolley’s pre-Brutalist building experiment with concrete finishes, the 1959 Chapel for St Margarets Hospital, Surry Hills for the NSW Government Architect was also an early exploration of surface finishes (see Figure 9). It used tilt-slab, precast concrete panels with white quartz decorative aggregate that drew on the earlier experiments of Kevin Curtin and H.P. Oser. The circular chapel’s 36-panel concrete circumference was finished with quartz aggregate introduced into white cement.[6]

Loder & Dunphy’s church architecture for the 1959 Methodist Church, Caringbah and the 1959 Gosford Presbyterian Church also embraced the enthusiasm for precast concrete construction to produce a series of vaulted churches with unusual lighting effects from ground-to-roof fenestration typically restricted to the north side of the sanctuary. This provided dramatic single-direction lighting effects for the warm timber hues of the alpine ash interior cladding of the south side of the auditoriums.[7] Loder & Dunphy’s interior architecture of asymmetrical fenestration, timber cladding, dramatic lighting effects, concrete finishes and architect-designed sanctuary furniture was used for many of their church commissions.[8]

A number of pre-Brutalist NSW-wide civic-scale design experiments by Curtin, Oser, Woolley and the church designs of Loder & Dunphy explored dimensionality, the materiality of timber and aggregate finishes, colour and sculptural form in this early pre-Brutalist concrete construction period. By 1963, a major summary article in Constructional Review was able to survey nationwide precast effects in colour and texture including Perth, WA’s Rural & Industries Bank, with an exposed aggregate of white quartz, red granite, glass and green marble.[9] Some of these pre-Brutalist experiments were to become integrated architectural considerations in the design of the interior architecture of the Brutalist buildings under study.


Le Corbusier’s images of North American grain elevators published in the original Vers Une Architecture of 1923 underpin the architect’s emphasis on the importance of engineering for the designer. [10] The grain elevators prefacing his discussion of “mass” presented no surprise to Australian architects of the era who observed a NSW programme of ca. 200 elevators underway in the 1920s.[11]  As the central figure in the development of “Beton Brut”, the Le Corbusier‘s designs in concrete are expansive: the proposals feature monumental expressions and great mass; they employ graphic play of forms and spaces; the materiality is rough, almost savage; and the architectural design features play with light, texture and colour.[12] An Illustrated excerpt (referencing the ethos of grain elevators) from the first English language translation of Le Corbusier’s book appeared in the Sydney publication The Home in October 1928.[13]

Figure 1. Barellan elevator, Barellan NSW. 1923. Constructed for the Grain Elevators Board of NSW. Author photo, 2010.

Despite the ambitious NSW grain elevator construction programme, structural concrete remained an unfamiliar material for many design architects in the early decades of the 20th century inhibiting the formal NSW design development of this material. The engineering profession’s experience and guidance proved critical to architects in the design and fabrication of the interior architecture of long-span high-volume interior space, the placement and sizing of fenestration for lighting, concrete materials handling (construction, forming, curing and the use of aggregate materials in concrete design) and the exploration of finishes.

Banham, Brutalism and Interior Architecture

Writing in the Architectural Review from the perspective of the 1950s and 1960s, Reyner Banham became the primary translator of the Brutalist design approach largely represented by the practice of Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson. Banham argues for a British genesis of the movement: “The New Brutalism […] became a programme, a banner, while retaining some rather restricted sense as a descriptive label. […]”. In 1955 he admitted, “The New Brutalism eludes precise description, while remaining a living force in contemporary British architecture.”[14]  Although confessing the description of “Brutalism” is elusive, he ventured an outline of its principal attributes. Drawing on the examples available to him in 1955, he identifies several elements that remained consistent in the decades that followed.

In his initial discussion Banham argues, “The form [of the building] should be an immediately apprehensible visual entity” and concludes with at least three characteristics of Brutalist building programmes.[15]  They are:

1. Memorability of image;
2. Clear exhibition of structure;
3. Valuation of materials “as found”. [16]

Although there is no specific interior architecture vocabulary employed in Banham’s earliest definitions of Brutalism, one may assume the terms such as “memorability” and “as found” imply some form of sensual response to the interior spaces. These issues are expanded and adjusted in Banham’s illustrated 1966 volume The New Brutalism and re-appear in summary as:

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.[17]

In his return to the topic in the mid-1960s, Banham used more emphatic phrasing. “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...”.[18] “Brutalism, then,” he concludes, “is a tough-minded reforming movement within the framework of modern architectural thought, not a revolutionary attempt to overthrow it.” Of course, the highly politicised (reforming) Alison and Peter Smithson practice was the foremost proponent of British Brutalism while Banham was developing his essays. Consequently, his discussion chiefly responds to their voluminous publications and built work.

During this same period, Banham also provided an entry on Brutalism for the Encyclopaedia of Modern Architecture. Now tasked for precision in a reference volume, he further sharpened his definitions of Brutalist architecture proposing refined characteristics and integrating a precise element of interior architecture for the first time with a clarification that “Interior architecture compositions are also shaped by the topography of internal circulation”.[19] In summary, his Encyclopaedia entry defines as follows:

1. Buildings display Brutalism of form, “ruthless honesty in expressing the functional spaces and their interrelationships”;
2. There was an abandonment of symmetry;
3. Compositions often driven by the topography of the sites;
4. Interior architecture compositions are also shaped by the topography of internal circulation.

The Smithsons and Interior Architecture

Following Banham’s earlier lead, October’s “New Brutalism” issue of 2011 and Alex Kitnick’s introduction also locates the Smithsons at the centre of the British movement and provides supplements supporting Banham’s early discussions, notably the Smithsons’ stress on the use of materials, their embrace of mass production and the diminution of handicraft in building and finishing.

As Banham had earlier discussed at some length, the Smithsons were a highly polemic practice, Alison and Peter Smithson proposed a transforming “… 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”.[20] “It is […] 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’.”[21] The urban architecture of the “New Brutalism”, however, left little room for expressive interior architecture. As Anthony Vidier writes in his essay, “Another Brick in the Wall, “In topological terms, formal properties [of the Smithson’s architecture] could be described independently of size and shape…”.[22] The Smithsons’ interiors were primarily “shelter”.

In discussing a house project in Soho in 1953, the Smithsons reveal something of their reductive interior architecture design approach. “It was decided to have no finishes internally, the building being a combination of shelter and environment. Bare concrete, brickwork and wood.” This approach is described by Alex Kitnick in his introduction to the October Brutalism issue as a “warehouse aesthetic”. [23] The Smithson’s economic specification for the architectural documentation stated, “It is our intention in this building to have the structure exposed entirely, without internal finishes wherever practicable. The construction should aim at a high standard of basic construction as in a small warehouse.”[24]. By “no finishes”, one assumes “no worked or applied finishes”.

Figure 2. Detail, slipform finish from regional sands. Barellan elevator, Barellan NSW. 1923 for the Grain Elevators Board of NSW. Author photo, 2010.

The Smithsons’ “no finishes” was to become an commonplace descriptor of Britain’s postwar “ferroconcrete fortresses”, as Owen Hatherly identifies in a “politicised critique” on Brutalist architecture and urbanism, Militant Modernism. [25] His chapter, “The Brutishness of British Modernism” describes Britain as  “the first country in the world to industrialise, [thereby] fetishing hardness, dynamism, scale and rough edges”.[26] Hatherly insists that British Brutalist architecture “centres on the street” to create a “new urbanism” for the working classes; the interior was little more than a mass housing “package”.[27] His observation correlates with the Smithson’s lack of attention to interior architecture.[28] The Brutalism defined by the Smithsons displays little interest in sensual enhancements of the elements of interior architecture, preferring to design civic-scale architecture directed toward the urban community, the street and the elemental provision of shelter for a war-scarred Britain.

Australian Brutalism

Locally, urbanism, social reform and the Smithsons’ well-known “streets in the sky” were lower-order concerns as the British Brutalist design approach wound its way through Australian institutional architecture for schools, government precincts and other public institutions.

Beginning as early as 1960, a survey of major Australian civic Brutalist buildings illustrates this architectural approach was embraced by Commonwealth, state and territory governments who commissioned Brutalist works through their respective government architects, public works departments or construction ministries.[29]  The Brutalist approach became what Professor Philip Goad calls a “state sanctioned style”.[30] His 2014 paper “Bringing it all back home” reminds the reader of the Brutalist lineage for Australian architects’ experience in the British milieu of commercial and civic practice in the 1950s and 1960s. He identifies a number of NSW architects with placements in the London County Council and British architectural firms active in Brutalist postwar housing, particularly amongst the architects who took up positions in the NSW Government Architects Office.[31] Amongst these travellers was Ken Woolley (NSW Government architect’s office ca.1954-1963) who took a position in the London practice Chamberlin Powell & Bon in 1956-1957 as they were completing their designs for the Brutalist “Golden Lane” housing competition and initiating their studies for the celebrated Brutalist Barbican Estate, London.[32]

Australian publications were also surveying British Brutalism in the trade press, notably in the pages of Constructional Review published (first issue 1927) by the Cement & Concrete Association of Australia; the Association also organized conferences, lectures and seminars promoting concrete construction. The Master Builders’ Federation journal, Building, Lighting, Engineering, also covered European projects and gave prominence to Australian commercial-scale concrete design and construction. The Smithsons and Brutalism philosophy in Britain would have been equally familiar to contemporary Australian architects in the 1950s and 1960s through Rayner Banham’s critical writing in the Architectural Review and his books, Guide to Modern Architecture (1962) and the New Brutalism (1966) from their publishing house, the Architectural Press. Banham was well known in Australian architectural circles and gave the opening address for the 1962 RAIA convention in Sydney and chairing several discussion sessions during the conference.[33]

In a nation-wide assessment of Australian Brutalism, the 2012 Encyclopaedia of Australian Architecture entry prepared by Professor Geoffrey London also confirms the importance of the Smithsons’ ethical framework and accepts the core of Banham’s definition of Brutalist architecture as constituting buildings in concrete with axial plans, as-found finishes and clarity of structure with the whole expressed with honesty.[35] Banham’s “Brutalism [as] a tough-minded reforming movement within the framework of modern architectural thought” is not considered.[36]

London begins his Encyclopaedia discussion of Australian Brutalism by citing the Victorian work of Graeme Gunn (Plumbers and Gasfitters Union building, 1970), Kevin Borland and Daryl Jackson’s Harold Holt Swimming Centre (1969) before introducing some of the West Australia’s earlier Brutalist works notably, the Hale School Memorial Hall, Perth by Marshall Clifton and Tony Brand (1961) and the Bentley campus of the Curtin University of Technology (1970). [37] Although London chose not to directly reference Brutalist works in Tasmania, South Australia, NSW and Queensland, his discussion of the 1961 Hale School Memorial Hall, Perth positions it as one of the earlier formal Brutalist civic-scale buildings in Australia suggesting a potential 1961 birth date for Australian Brutalism.[38]

The NSW Government’s enthusiasm for concrete construction had little association with the lofty aesthetics and ethics of Banham and the Smithsons. Commenting on opening of the Brutalist Hornsby Technical College of 1968, a spokesperson for the NSW Government Architect said stated plainly that the “as found” off-form finishes 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.[39]

As an alternative to the British social programme architecture initiated by the Smithsons’ work, Goad suggests that the wave of émigré architects from Europe (a surge in European immigration beginning in NSW in the 1930s) also introduced “unadorned materials (invariably off-form concrete), figurative elements, and expressive structure” into the vocabulary of Australian Brutalism. [40] But with the exception of an internal position for the Berlin-trained Anatol Kagan and external commissions to the émigré Harry Seidler for a 1967 “Streets in the Sky” Housing Commission complex in Rosebery, émigrés rarely found design architect positions in the NSW Government Architect’s Office where Brutalism thrived, perhaps through their difficulties in NSW architectural registration.[41]

Unadorned Materials?

While Banham and the Smithsons consistently reference “unadorned materials”, descriptive passages in the Australian professional literature of NSW Brutalist buildings identify and demonstrate the considerable attention given to emotive interior architecture. This enthusiastic exploration of the sensual elements of interior architecture illustrates that interiors were a first-order concern in the development of NSW Brutalism. There are generous descriptions of carefully worked concrete finishes, timber and tile cladding, dramatic lighting, colour and architect-designed furniture in NSW Brutalist buildings. To explore this contradiction between the “unadorned” aesthetic defined by Badham and the “enhanced” interior architecture of NSW Brutalist, five civic-scale building commissions (1963 to 1978) are selected for interior architecture case studies.

These buildings were selected as exemplars of the extensive detailing of NSW Brutalist interior architecture through processional planning, the design of interior scale, the design management of natural and artificial light and the exploration of materiality. The buildings are documented with photographs taken during the early years of the buildings’ lives and many of them have been heavily modified since opening.

Processional Planning

The five NSW Brutalist case study buildings under investigation are civic structures requiring high capacity public spaces. The design emphasis for interior planning frequently centres on processional entrances and reception areas that provide an orientation for internal communication of the interior architecture scheme. The dynamism of this processional topography is a major feature in the 1967 Stafford, Moor and Farrington-designed Macquarie University Building E7; David Turner’s 1971 Stage 1 multi-purpose building for the William Balmain Teachers College (Now UTS-Ku-ring-gai, Stage 1) and the Joseland, Gilling and Associates 1978 Masonic Centre (Stage 1), Sydney.[42]

After the processional entrance of these three buildings, one immediately encounters a traditional Brutalist homage to Le Corbusier (see Figures 4, 5, 7) in the interiors of Macquarie University’s 1967 Building E7, the 1971 UTS Ku-ring-gai Stage 1 and the 1978 Masonic Centre (Stage 1) through their common use of large-scale internal site-formed cantilevered concrete stairs with cast concrete balustrades, ramp-like concrete structures (often concealing traditional tread-and-riser stairs) and in the case of the Masonic Centre (Stage 1) , a self-supporting spiral stair that dramatically rises to several levels within the entry foyer. These cantilevered stairs and ramps in each commission immediately introduce large-scale sculptural effects and provide opportunities for the play of light and deep shadow earlier evoked in Le Corbusier’s Vers Une Architecture.

David Turner’s UTS Ku-ring-gai Stage 1’s interior architecture is an example of a clustered organisation plan with dynamic circulation and processional patterns. The Constructional Review criticised Turner’s processional planning in a review article on UTS Ku-ring-gai Stage 1, observing the processional “planning is based on activity zones which […] divided the building into a series of wings separated by small courts spanned sometimes by bridges […]. Internally and externally,” they wrote, “variety in form and treatment is not lacking.”[43]

Macquarie University’s 1967 Building E7 interior architecture is planned on a grid formed from internal volumes linked by a roofed courtyard enclosing an internal stair ascending to two levels. Colonnaded internal passages surrounding this courtyard (Figure 4) lead to classrooms and laboratories. The formal processional character of the inner passages and the grand scale of the interiors have encouraged its ceremonial use by the university.

The Joseland, Gilling and Associates 1978 Masonic Centre (Stage 1) was also a building (now much modified) with grand scale foyers of two-storey and three-storey internal volume linked by the considerable scale of the Masonic Centre’s auditorium (The Grand Temple) and associated meeting rooms. The processional organisation extends no further into the building.

Alternatively, the ground plans of Ken Woolley’s 1963 Lidcombe Hospital recreation hall and Michael Dysart and Peter Webber’s 1965 Robb College, University of New England are large-span interior spaces that are immediately legible without no more than a functional spatial processional pathway with the principal entrance leading to the central spaces.

Figure 3. Macquarie University Building E7 (former teaching block), southern elevation. (Staff wing, left) Constructional Review (May 1967) 14. Reprinted by permission of Cement Concrete and Aggregates.


The large span Brutalist interiors made possible with the strength of reinforced concrete produced Piranesi-dimensioned Brutalist interiors with bold, exaggerated internal volumes. In Australia, wide-span European concrete work was regularly discussed and illustrated in the Sydney-based journal Building and the Constructional Review as early as 1930. European 20th century innovative concrete-formed interior architecture drew on the concepts developed by bridge technology engineers such as Eugene Freyssinet received considerable local attention.[44] Max Berg’s celebrated 1911 concrete constructed Centennial Hall, Breslau, Poland, for example, was being shown and described in the Australian trade journal Building in 1932.[45] The Australian Cement Company, Melbourne in the mid-1930s, also used Berg’s celebrated hall in full-page advertisements insuring Australian architects could observe the potential of reinforced concrete.[46]

Figure 4. Internal courtyard, Macquarie University Building E7 (former teaching block), North Ryde. NSW Government Architects Office, Stafford, Moor and Farrington, design architects. Constructional Review (May 1967): 14. Reprinted by permission of Cement Concrete & Aggregates Australia.

In Macquarie University’s Building E7, Stafford, Moor and Farrington harnessed the strength of concrete construction for their roofed courtyard (see Figure 4) with its span of 22 metres. Their internal courtyard encloses a Le Corbusier-derived cantilevered internal stair ascending to two levels as well as colonnaded internal passages leading to classrooms and laboratories. The grand scale of the interior courtyard features a shared alignment with the processional surroundings of classrooms and laboratories.

Figure 5. Masonic Centre (Stage 1), Ceremonial entrance, Goulburn Street, Sydney. Joseland, Gilling and Associates. Constructional Review (February 1980): 12. Original photo Max Dupain. Reprinted by permission of Cement Concrete & Aggregates Australia.

Alternatively, Joseland, Gilling and Associates’ Masonic Centre narrows the potential entrance span of their Goulburn Street entrance foyer to design an internal foyer space (see Figure 5) rising to three levels inside the slightly recessed entrance. Their Masonic Centre (Stage 1) entrance is equally notable for the monumental-scale concrete columns supplying internal lift-wells for circular-shaped lift-cars. Much of the building’s flamboyant internal volume is used to provide a column-free 24-metre span in the upper level where the interior architecture is centred on the Masonic Centre’s timber-clad auditorium.

Figure 6. Masonic Centre (Stage 1), southeast elevation, Goulburn and Castlereagh Streets, Sydney. Constructional Review (February 1980) 11. Original photo Max Dupain. Reprinted by permission of Cement Concrete & Aggregates Australia.

The initial Stage 1 building for the William Balmain Teachers College, Lindfield (now UTS Ku-ring-gai, Stage 1) was the first civic building on the Ku-ring-gai site and as the principal building, was assigned multiple functions. The building’s entrance height aspires to grandeur (see Figure 5) where a Le Corbusierian ramp-enclosed concrete stair leads to a mezzanine in the fully glazed entrance foyer. The complex planning of the Stage 1 interior architecture has character but forced to serve several functional masters, the fragmented interlocking plan cannot achieve the scale suggested by the building’s exterior (see Figure 8).

Figure 7.Entrance, UTS Ku-ring-gai Stage 1 (former William Balmain Teachers College, Lindfield) NSW Government Architect, David Turner, design architect. Constructional Review (November 1971): 55. Reprinted with permission of Cement Concrete & Aggregates Australia.

Figure 8. UTS Ku-ring-gai Stage 1, exterior detail (former William Balmain Teachers College, Lindfield) NSW Government Architect, David Turner, design architect. Constructional Review (November 1971): 54. Reprinted with permission of Cement Concrete & Aggregates Australia.


Light and lighting provide some of Brutalism’s greatest problems in interior architecture. Developing planning with the Le Corbusier’s “rue interieure” concepts so much emulated by the Smithsons in their “streets in the sky” can produce what a University of Melbourne-published 1969 edition of Cross-Section described as “the New Gloom”. The massive spans afforded by concrete construction are a challenge for fenestration and scale. The hues and reflectance of concrete and the manganese-coloured bricks favoured in NSW Brutalism are also a limiting issue for interior architecture. Dependent on the concrete mix, aggregate and finish used, the typical colour of concrete has a low light reflectance and combining this poor reflectance rating with a roughed concrete surface, reflectance is further reduced. For the exterior of an Australian Brutalist building, this can be desirable but for interior architecture, it often proves an intractable problem.[47]

In keeping with their early 1950s Brutalist stance of “modernism without rhetoric”, the Smithson’s responded to direct questions about natural lighting in their buildings by commenting with mocking irony on their proposed domestic commission in Soho in 1953, “The air and sunlight of the attics in the daytime suggests that living quarters should be up top, with the bathroom in the cool dim basement.”[48] Their interior architecture, of course, managed light, but in their early writings they failed to engage directly with the technical and theoretical issues of lighting. Some years later, as their practice evolved, they began making careful site studies of light and climate in the 1970s.[49]

Stafford, Moor and Farrington’s Macquarie University Building E7 was critiqued by Melbourne University’s Cross-Section’s editorial staff writing of the light effects in brick and concrete Brutalist interiors, noting that previously “one important aspect of the modern movement has been an obsession with a “white light” effect in interiors. […]  Whether it is by intention or accident a new sort of light appears to be emerging in modern architecture displacing the modern movement’s white light. This “New Gloom” […] goes hand in hand with brick and concrete in a natural condition…”[50]

Figure 9. Fenestration programme. St Margaret’s Hospital Chapel, Darlinghurst, 1959. NSW Government Architect, Ken Woolley Design Architect. Constructional Review (April 1959): 37. Reprinted with permission of Cement Concrete & Aggregates Australia.

Ken Woolley’s 1950s precast circular concrete chapel for St Margaret’s Hospital, Darlinghurst had suggested some pre-Brutalist design solutions for addressing the “new gloom” of Brutalist interior architecture by demonstrating how natural light can be introduced through floor-to-ceiling glazing that has little effect on structural integrity (Figure 9). Woolley’s 1959 fenestration is set into the vertical intersections of 36 precast panels forming an outer diameter of 15.8 metres for Chapel structure’s drum.[51]

Figure 10. Recreation hall and chapel, southwest elevation. Lidcombe State Hospital, 1962. NSW Government Architect, Ken Woolley, design architect. Original photographer unknown. State Library of NSW, Government Printing Office 2-23210.

Figure 11. Recreation hall and chapel, interior, Lidcombe State Hospital, Lidcombe, 1962. NSW Government Architect, Ken Woolley, design architect. Original photograph Max Dupain. Architecture in Australia, (September 1965): 87.

The architect’s earlier light-handling innovation reverberates in his 1962 Brutalist commission for the Recreation hall and chapel, Lidcombe State Hospital (Figure 11) where capturing and distributing natural light presented design challenges for the auditorium.  In this Brutalist brick and concrete Recreation Hall and Chapel, Ken Woolley continued his development of light effects with narrow vertical fenestration set into elevations of concrete-capped pleated brick walls supported from off-form concrete bases supporting the brick walls.[52]

When viewed from the rear of the hall, the pleated brick walls of the interior architecture conceal the vertical fenestration that casts light toward the stage. An altar backed by a white-painted masonry wall terminates the internal vista with a “trompe l’oeil” light source flooding from several angles (figure 11). Typical of much NSW Brutalist interior architecture, the dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, the dark brickwork and the internal tallowwood timber cladding and floor are pre-eminent features. Similar fenestration concepts were used on a larger scale for Michael Dysart and Peter Webber’s 1965 Robb College, University of New England, Armidale.

Figure 12. Robb College dining hall, exterior details, University of New England, Armidale, 1965. NSW Government Architect, Michael Dysart and Peter Webber, design architects. Original photo Max Dupain. Photo courtesy Michael Dysart.

New England basalt and concrete are the primary materials of Michael Dysart and Peter Webber’s 1965 Robb College, University of New England Armidale. The building is a residential college of the University and the two-storey Robb College dining block is the social and architectural centre of a pinwheel cluster of four residential college buildings.[53] Internally, the dining hall is the core of the building with a second level providing rooms for administration. The roof slab is formed from boarded off-form vaulted concrete slabs supported by native basalt walls (Figure 12) laid as random rubble. The exterior overhang of the vaulting is generous, throwing deep shadow over the walls and the shallow Roman-arched fenestration. The intense reflected sunlight of this region fans across the internal vaulting to cast strong shadows. Like the earlier Woolley Recreation Hall and Chapel, the textural effects of raking sunlight evoke a strong romantic element of the power of the sun, illuminating the internal roughcast textures and natural materials.

Figure 13. Robb College dining hall, University of New England, Armidale, 1965. NSW Government Architect, Michael Dysart and Peter Webber, design architects. Photo courtesy Michael Dysart.

At Macquarie University, natural light for the building’s core is managed with a glazed atrium in Stafford, Moor and Farrington’s Building E7 while the internal colonnades that surround the space alternate in light and shadow throughout the day. The play of light enlivens the space during clear days but during overcast periods, like so many Brutalist buildings, the deep shadows and light-absorbing surfaces need supplemental lighting. The surrounding classrooms and laboratories around the inner courtyard are fenestrated with large windows to the south while to the north; the glazing area is reduced to a minimum.

David Turner’s UTS Ku-ring-gai Stage 1 building introduces internal lighting through a series of internal light shafts, courtyards and terraces overlooking the bushland setting. Direct sunlight is modulated by precast visors (“sunshields”), precast louvres and deep overhangs concentrated on the north, south and western elevations. The building’s controlled views and vistas were further complimented by the architect’s original use of green carpeting that provided green-tinted reflected internal light to complement the celebrated landscape architecture of Bruce McKenzie and Associates.

With the interior architecture case study buildings, the managing of light in the Joseland, Gilling and Associates’ Masonic Centre (Stage 1) was the more extreme. Disadvantaged by a dense urban siting and client requirements, the extreme overhang of the building’s upper levels (see Figure 6) and the small footprint of the podium forced the practice into an intensive artificial lighting programme. The Masonic Temple uses a range of lighting fixtures such as wall-mounted and floor-mounted up-lights that enhance textures, provide marked effects of light and shade as well as reflected ambient light. Their strong raking light throws the variable textural effects of the roughcast and bush-hammered concrete surfaces into sharp relief providing marked theatrical effects.


The Smithsons wrote of their 1953 house commission in Soho that the composition was “bare concrete, brickwork and wood” but while off-form or as-found concrete remained at the centre of Smithson-inspired Brutalism design, a palette of supplemental materials emerged in NSW interior architecture to ameliorate the colour, textures and acoustical criticisms often levelled at the starkness of concrete-construction interiors. These materials included an extensive use of timber, conventional brick in a range of colours and textures, floor treatments and a variety of surface finishes.[54] 

In these NSW commissions, timber was often employed in decorative timberwork, roof trusses or internal cladding for the management of acoustic problems, particularly reverberation issues. The natural colours and textures of timber also helped counter some of the commonplace complaints about the “coolness” of Brutalist interior architecture. Extensive applications of rough-sawn and/or finished timbers in their natural state appeared in Woolley’s flooring and the elaborate tallowwood truss system for the roof plan of the 1963 Lidcombe Hospital recreation hall. Timber was also used for wall cladding, parquetry flooring and interior door detailing of the 1965 Robb College dining hall. Michael Dysart also designed the complementary tallowwood timber furniture for the dining hall and the Commons areas. The Masonic Centre auditorium (initially described as a banquet hall) was generously clad with light-hued timber panelling that enhances the hall’s acoustical performance.

Structurally, textured brick was favoured for concrete infill work (often purple-tinted manganese-enriched dark brick) for these works. Brick infill was an important structural and decorative element for UTS Ku-ring-gai Stage 1, Macquarie University’s Building E7 while the Recreation hall and chapel, Lidcombe State Hospital was primarily brick construction with concrete detailing. Stone had some alternative applications. The Masonic Centre used decorative detailing of imported travertine marble for stairs and a door portal detailing (Figure 14) while regionally quarried basalt was the main construction material for the Robb College dining hall.

Robb Hall used locally quarried basalt for the supporting random rubble-laid walls. Internally, the walls were left unfinished with only the contrasting mortar pointing relieving the sombreness of this dark grey stone. Michael Dysart and others has spoken of a discussion described as a “Manifesto of Natural Materialism” thriving within the NSW Government Architect’s Office in the early 1960s. Although Dysart has suggested that the manifesto was somewhat whimsical, he insists “there was an element of seriousness in the jest and in my case, that materials should be true to their nature and reflect the language of construction reality.”[55]

Figure 14. Masonic Centre (Stage 1), detail of entrance showing the variety of concrete finishes and travertine stair and portal, Castlereagh Street, Sydney, Joseland, Gilling and Associates. Author photo, 2014.

This expanded palette of materials in these NSW Brutalist studies enhanced and humanised the interior architecture of concrete. Within the concrete material, however, there is also a wide range of aggregates, mixing methods, colours and finishes for the architect to explore. Within the Australian periodical literature on concrete there has been an extensive discussion of concrete finishes for these NSW architects to draw upon. Features on finishes appeared in Australia’s Constructional Review as early as 1940. A 1941 feature sponsored by a Tasmanian cement manufacturer illustrated rough-sawn timber off-form finishes, thoughtfully suggesting “The rough, coarse, rugged texture [is] suitable for a building of large scale and normally viewed from a distance…”.[56]

Fifteen years later, C.P. Sorensen from the Commonwealth Experimental Building Station argued in the Constructional Review that concrete finishes “provide a rich range of colours and textures not available in any other material”.[57]  Citing British and American sources in his report for the Commonwealth Experimental Building Station, he illustrates tooled finishes exposing crushed brick aggregate and scraped finishes. He concludes, “Excellent finishes may [also] be obtained off-the-form”.

Compared to the off-form concrete finishes employed by David Turner, Ken Woolley and the Michael Dysart and Peter Webber commission, the raking light programme of the 1978 Masonic Centre (Stage 1) reveals the dramatic chiaroscuro effects employed by the architects for mechanical bush-hammered finishes and/or off-form textures. Bush-hammering is used on the lift shafts and the walls immediately flanking the entrance to differentiate their structural roles. The grand scale and the variety of the Brutalist concrete textures employed at the Castlereagh Street entrance (see Figure 14) are also enhanced by a sawn travertine marble door portal and travertine accents on the treads of the processional stair.[58]


In NSW, the interior architecture of the five selected Brutalist civic buildings demonstrates inventive design that expanded the “emotive imagery” Reyner Banham sought to identify as characteristic of the first wave of Brutalist buildings initiated by the Smithsons’ early practice. “What moves a new brutalist,” he writes, is an emotive image.[59] This is Banham’s “Memorability of image”. [60] Vidier’s commentary on Banham considers that he sought “… to constitute the Brutalist image as one continuous whole from brick to building. Further, [this] also allowed for the bridging of the gap between the traditional ideal of beauty and the Brutalist image…” of raw concrete and as-found finishes.[61]

These five NSW case study examples illustrate attempts to “bridge” this gap between beauty and the familiar image of Brutalism through inventive interior architecture. These interiors demonstrate the evocation of sensual responses was a first order concern for the designers. Designing emotive “human associations” of rhythmic procession, light, texture, acoustics and interior ambience in this Brutalist interior architecture signals the designer’s desire to directly engage with the sensuality or “sense memory” of the audience.

With these spaces, the senses of the body are activated. Movement through the atmosphere of this interior architecture is an acoustically active experience with the concrete surfaces, timber cladding, tiled or timber floors and inner volumes providing an acoustically liveliness. Many of these structures, the Masonic Centre, Macquarie University’s Building E7 and Ken Woolley’s Lidcombe Hospital hall have served (and continue to serve) as performance spaces.

The materiality of off-form or textured-finish concrete with its rough, “almost savage” texture evokes an intense tactile response found in few other materials. Whether the material is touched or not, the sense memory responses of the surfaces are highly emotive and when these concrete textures are juxtaposed with travertine, tallowwood or high-fired brick, the effect is magnified. These carefully planned textural effects are further enhanced by the use of raking natural and/or introduced light programmes

The play of light in Brutalist interior architecture is one of Brutalism’s most imaginative effects. The deep dramatic shadows that often accompany the use of light-absorbing and light-diffusing concrete have provided to be a delight for the celebrated photographer Max Dupain and his fellow black-and-white photographers. These same sombre shadows provide an extra dimension for the play of the imagination providing interior “atmosphere” or ambience for the interiors.

These selected examples of NSW Brutalist interior architecture demonstrate that enhanced sensual experiences were holistic considerations for Brutalism. “An image,” Banham wrote, “is what affects the emotions, that structure in its fullest sense is the relationship of parts…”.[62] Imaginatively handled, the palette of materials and their evocative qualities of sound, sight and touch illustrate that integrated emotive experiences were holistic architectural considerations in the design development of these buildings.

ends / March 2015

Many thanks to Kerrie Barron, Information Services Officer, Cement Concrete & Aggregates Australia, Mascot NSW for generous assistance with images from Constructional Review. Gratitude is also expressed for the comments from the anonymous readers of the original manuscript.

[1] Reyner Banham. “The New Brutalism.” The Architectural Review, (December 1955): 358, 361.

[2] Reyner Banham. “The New Brutalism.” 361.

[3] Off-site concrete construction for prefabricated structures has a long history in Australia. Miles Lewis, 200 Years of Concrete in Australia. Concrete Institute of Australia, 1988 is the standard reference.

[4] “Church built from Precast Units.” Constructional Review, 27:11 (March 1955): 18-20. Engineers Crooks, Mitchell and Peacock.

[5] “Concrete Raft Foundation for North Shore Synagogue.” Constructional Review, (July 1957): 18-20, 37. Engineers P.O. Miller and A.K. Milston.

[6] “Striking Circular Chapel and Sisters’ Home.” Building, Lighting, Engineering, (August 1959): 25-27, 53. Engineers Miller, Milston and Ferris.

[7] Methodist Church at Caringbah NSW.” Architecture in Australia (January-March 1959): 94-95. Engineers J.P. Hillett & Partners.

[8] Michael Bogle. “Milo Dunphy.” SL Magazine (Autumn, 2013): 26-29. Loder & Dunphy did a number of NSW churches using this design approach.

[9] “Precast Concrete Wall Panels.” Constructional Review (January 1963): 12-14. (Illustrated survey)

[10] Le Corbusier. Towards a New Architecture. (Frederick Etchells, 1927 trans. Vers Une Architecture, 1923). (Architectural Press, 1927): 16.

[11] An ambitious schedule for 200 elevators (silos) in the NSW rural areas was underway in the 1920s. Grain Elevators Board of NSW. 50 Years of Bulk Grain Handling in NSW (Grain Elevators Board of NSW 1972): 6. This booklet provides a dated inventory of the elevators constructed under this programme.

[12] Le Corbusier. See particularly, “Three Reminders to Architects,” in Towards a New Architecture. (Frederick Etchells translation), Architectural Press (1927): 45-62.

[13] Le Corbusier. “Are our architects obsolete?” (Excerpt fromToward a New Architecture) The Home (1 October 1928) 40, 62

[14] Reyner Banham. “The New Brutalism.” in The Architectural Review, (December 1955): 355-361.

[15] Banham. “The New Brutalism,” 358.

[16] Banham. “The New Brutalism,” 361.

[17] Reyner Banham. The New Brutalism. Ethic or Aesthetic. (Architectural Press, 1966).

[18] Reyner Banham. The New Brutalism. Ethic or Aesthetic, 63.

[19] Reyner Banham. “Brutalism.” Encyclopaedia of Modern Architecture, Gerd Hatje, ed. (Thames and Hudson, 1965): 63-64.

[20] 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): 24.

[21] Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson. Without Rhetoric. An Architectural Aesthetic 1955-1972 (Latimer New Dimensions, 1973): 6. “Respect for materials” came to describe the “As Found” textural qualities of off-form concrete work.

[22] Anthony Vidier, “Another Brick in the Wall.” “New Brutalism.” October. 136 (Spring 2011): 124.

[23] Alex Kitnick. “Introduction.” October. 136. (Spring 2011): 3.

[24] Alison and Peter Smithson. “House in Soho, London.” (Architectural Design (December 1953): 342. In Alex Kitnick and Hal Forster, Eds. “New Brutalism.” October. 136 (Spring 2011): 3-6.

[25] Will Self. “It hits in the gut.” Review of Hatherley’s Militant Modernism and A Guide to the Ruins of Great Britain. London Review of Books (8 March 2012): 23-24. While the Smithsons were a “reforming” practice, Self is critical of Hatherley’s “polemic” position.

[26] Owen Hatherly. Militant Modernism (Zero Books, 2008): 17-18.

[27] Hatherly. Militant Modernism, 31-32.

[28] The Smithson’s 1956 entry for the Sydney Opera House competition provides a sample of their spare design strategy for interior architecture. They specify for the auditoriums that “Seating tiers are faced with white marble; upholstered seats black velvet; grey carpets on the aisles”. Alison Margaret Smithson. “Sydney Opera House.” in The Charged Void. Architecture. Alison and Peter Smithson. (Monacelli Press, 2001): 188-189.

[29] In NSW, alternatively known as “The Government Architect’s Branch”; the Government Architect’s Office”; “Architectural Division of the Public Works Department”; et cetera.

[30] Philip Goad. “Bringing it all back home.” pp.1146-1157 in Michela Rosso, ed. Investigating and Writing Architectural History: Subjects, Methodologies and Frontiers. (Third EAHN International Meeting, Torino, 2014): 1148.

[31] Goad. “Bringing it all back home,” 1148.

[32] The Smithson practice submitted an unsuccessful entry for the Golden Lane competition. Ben Highmore. “Streets in the sky. Alison and Peter Smithson’s Doorstep Philosophy” in Neo-avant-grade and postmodern. Postwar architecture in Britain and Beyond. M. Crinson and C. Zimmerman, Eds. (Yale University Press, 2010): 91.

[33]. Rayner Banham. “Men and Buildings.” Architecture in Australia (September 1962): 59. Banham’s opening address is published in full.

[34] Martin Filler. “The Hard Case of Paul Rudolph.” New York Review of Books (5 February 2015) 34-36. (Review of T.M. Rohan, The Architecture of Paul Rudolph; Chris Mottalini, After You Left, They Took It Apart. Rudolph was a classmate of Harry Seidler at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

[35] Geoffrey London. “Brutalism.” Encyclopaedia of Australian Architecture (Cambridge University Press, 2012): 110.

[36] Banham. “Brutalism.” Encyclopaedia of Modern Architecture, 63-64.

[37] The Victorian architect Daryl Jackson worked for the American Paul Rudolph’s practice in the early 1960s. Keith Dunstan. “The Moving Finger of Daryl Jackson Writes.” Canberra Times, Good Weekend. (28 February 1986) 28.

[38] A domestic-scale Brutalist architecture, colloquially described as “Nuts and Berries” (alternatively, “the Sydney School”) also emerged in NSW in the 1960s.

[39] “Technical College.” Constructional Review, (March 1968): 14-17.

[40] Philip Goad. “Bringing it All Home,” 1150.

[41] Anatol Kagan, the Berlin-trained émigré architect left his Melbourne practice and joined the NSW Department of Public works in 1961, resigning in 1974. Michael Bogle. “Anatol Kagan.” RMIT Design Archives Journal 1:2, (2011): 4-7.

[42] Kitnick adopts the concept of topography to describe legibility of plan. Alex Kitnick. “Introduction.” New Brutalism.” October, v.136 (Spring 2011): 3-6.

[43] “The William Balmain Teachers College.” Constructional Review (November 1971): 53.

[44] “The Legacy of Eugene Freyssinet.” Constructional Review (February 1967): 19-24.

[45] “Adaptability of Reinforced Concrete.” Building (12 May 1932): 69.

[46] Full-page photographs of Max Berg’s Centennial Hall, Breslau (today Wrocław) are illustrated in advertisements by the Australian Cement Ltd company, Melbourne in 1935. Constructional Review (14 October 1935): 26.

[47] Coincidentally, leading to the frequent application of post-construction paint finishes or cladding as NSW Brutalist civic-scale buildings age.

[48] Alison and Peter Smithson. “House in Soho, London,” 11.

[49] Alison and Peter Smithson. See “the Harnessing of Light” chapter in The Charged Void. (Monacelli Press 2001): 426-448.

[50] Cross-Section, Issue 196 (1 February 1969): n.p.

[51] “Striking Circular Chapel and Sisters’ Home.” Building, Lighting, Engineering (August 1959): 25-27, 53.

[52] “Lidcombe State Hospital, Sydney.” Building, Lighting, Engineering (April 1964): 63-64. See also Cross-Section, no 133 (November 1963): n.p.

[53] “Robb College.” Architecture in Australia (September 1965): 88-95.

[54] Alison and Peter Smithson. “House in Soho, London,” 11.

[55] Michael Bogle. “Michael Dysart”, Interview transcript (14 June 2011) NSW Australian Institute of Architects biographical file.

[56] “There is Beauty in Concrete Surfaces.” (Goliath Portland Cement Co. Devonport, Tasmania), Constructional Review (January 1941): 1-2. An earlier illustrated features also appeared in “Finishes for Concrete.” Constructional Review (August 1940): 35-37.

[57] C.P. Sorensen. “Concrete Surface Finishes.” Constructional Review (December 1954): 19-22. A summary of Special Report no.13, Commonwealth Experimental Building Station (1954).

[58] This materiality, juxtaposition and detailing with travertine suggests a familiarity with the work of Louis Kahn, notably the Salk Institute, La Jolla, California of 1959-1965.

[59] Banham. “The New Brutalism,” 358, 361.

[60] Banham. “The New Brutalism,” 361.

[61] Anthony Vidier, “Another Brick in the Wall.” October, v.136 (Spring 2011): 124.

[62] Banham. “The New Brutalism,” 361.

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