All About Brutalism

All About Brutalism

Architecture
By Mateos Glen Hayes March 15, 2022

When it comes to standing out, brutalism excels. Brutalist buildings can be pretty divisive in terms of looks, but one thing no one can deny is that they are pretty distinctive. You won’t forget a large brutalist building when you see it. Despite its general fall in popularity, brutalist architecture remains prominent in the skyline of many cities around the world.

What makes brutalist design style stand out apart from looks is that it has a somewhat utopian past. The brutalist style promised to revolutionize urban life by providing new and innovative housing for the masses. Despite their stark appearance, brutalist buildings were once a symbol of progress and post-WWII optimism in much of the world.

Alas, brutalism began to lose its luster in the 1980s and has only become less popular since then. Nevertheless, it remains an important architectural style that’s worth learning about and studying. It also maintains a cult following for many in the world, and many homeowners have breathed new life into the style with industrial brutalist interior designs and furniture. 

History of Brutalism

Brutalism Is a Young Design Style With a Rich History

Brutalism Is a Young Design Style With a Rich History

When compared to the traditional styles that came before, brutalism is a fairly young architectural style with an intricate history.  

The Name

It is a common assumption that “brutalism” refers to the fact that this aesthetic is often stark or brutal. However, this is not the case as the term is in fact derived from the French term for bare concrete, “beton brut”. This of course refers to the trademark design feature of the style as all brutalist buildings make extensive use of exposed concrete for brutalist interior and exterior designs.

Brutalism began to gain popularity in the 1950s as an offshoot of modernism from which it inherited its symmetry and its reliance on industrialized building methods. The postwar period was one of building booms in many countries as cities scrambled to make up for housing destroyed in the war. 

Rise to Popularity

Virtually every country in Europe desperately needed a way to build housing quickly and cheaply while still giving people the basic essentials such as electricity and running water. Brutalism turned out to be the perfect solution to this problem because it allowed developers to build residential towers at breakneck speed for relatively little cost. This was because these structures used modular designs with prefabricated pieces, allowing them to be quickly assembled.

By the 1970s, brutalism had become ubiquitous in major cities around the world as industrialization fueled exponential urban growth. Soviet Brutalism was probably the most prolific as the Soviet Union suffered the biggest housing shortage of any of the allies after WWII. Virtually every region of the world adopted the building style, and it became a popular choice for the construction of public housing and government buildings.

Massive Brutalist Public Housing Estates Were Constructed Throughout Europe

Massive Brutalist Public Housing Estates Were Constructed Throughout Europe

Many of the leading brutalist designers were prominent visionaries who had a utopian vision and hoped to use brutalist architecture to transform communities for the better. It was hoped that brutalism could be used to preserve the tight-knit communities of smaller townships even in large complexes that housed hundreds of people. 

Mold and Decay

Unfortunately, there were several issues with brutalist architecture that ultimately led to it losing popularity. Many developers sought to drive down costs further by cutting corners, and this led to several brutalist buildings being unsafe. Many of these buildings also decayed at an alarming rate, causing structural issues, mold growth, and other problems that made maintenance difficult.

Because many brutalist buildings were public housing for working-class families, they ended up becoming centers of perpetual unemployment in the post-industrial era. This, combined with the lack of maintenance, made many brutalist buildings into crumbly concrete obelisks that were associated with crime and urban decay. Many of the large brutalist housing estates were built over former woodlands as well and thus weren’t seen as eco-friendly.  The fact that brutalism became very popular with authoritarian states such as the Soviet Union didn’t help things either.  

What Makes a Building Brutalist? 

Brutalist Buildings Have a Striking Aesthetic

Brutalist Buildings Have a Striking Aesthetic

Brutalist buildings are easy to recognize thanks to their unique design features. 

Modern Materials

Broadly speaking, brutalist architecture makes heavy use of industrial materials that are easy to produce in large quantities. This translates to lots of concrete, glass, steel, and exposed brick. They can also use natural stone, although this is less common.  

Utilitarian Symmetry 

Utilitarianism abounds in brutalist design. The goal of a brutalist building is to serve the function it was designed for and as such, most brutalist buildings tend to have blocky and symmetrical constructions. In this sense, they are the polar opposite of the fluid forms that define neo-futurism, and instead completely reject that aesthetic in favor of something more traditionally rectangular. 

However, this by no means implies that brutalist designers did not try to experiment. In fact, many brutalist buildings have striking and unusual designs despite their very angular shape. A good example of brutalist architecture in this regard is the Trellick Tower in London which was made up of one large residential block and a small tower alongside it designed to house the elevators, making for an unconventional appearance.

Trellick Tower Is a Great Example of Experimental Design in Brutalism

Trellick Tower Is a Great Example of Experimental Design in Brutalism

It is also not always the case that brutalism meant “dark”, as many such buildings were designed with large windows to let in the most sunlight possible. 

No Ornamentation 

This is another defining part of what makes a building brutalist. Because it is meant to be utilitarian, brutalist architecture is very light on the decorative elements. This is probably one of the more divisive traits of brutalism since it results in bare gray buildings that have little to no decor inside or out.

However, brutalist buildings did incorporate certain decorative elements, although these usually served a purpose. For example, many brutalist interiors have coffered ceilings where the ceiling is full of inset rectangular concrete panels, usually for lights. Some brutalist buildings also have exposed brick to enhance their appearance.

Coffering is a Common Decorative Feature In Brutalist Design

Coffering is a Common Decorative Feature In Brutalist Design

How to Make a Brutalist House

It is possible to build or buy your own brutalist-style house, but this is a costly endeavor. Standalone brutalist houses tend to be a lot more expensive than a single apartment in a brutalist tower. Nevertheless, you can bring brutalism into your home with a few interior design tricks. 

Furniture

Any piece of industrial-style furniture that’s made from metal and concrete will be a perfect fit for your brutalist home design. Concrete coffee tables, concrete dining tables, a concrete worktop, and even concrete shelves can help embody the brutalist aesthetic — bonus points if you can find concrete furniture that uses steel for table legs, trim, or whatnot.

Industrial Interiors Use a Lot of Brutalist Motives

Industrial Interiors Use a Lot of Brutalist Motives

Art

Another way of creating a brutalist home design is to use themed art. This can be anything from a beautiful picture of a brutalist structure to a concrete sculpture. It’s up to you to decide how much brutalist art you want to add; but in general, you should aim for a balance. Avoid overdoing it; but definitely don’t shy away from adding artwork to reflect the design style you are trying to go for. 

Incorporate Industrial Style 

You can also add brutalist interior design decor elements. What that means is having elements like exposed piping, concrete floors, exposed concrete pillars, and even exposed brick walls. Utilitarian lighting with cast iron construction is another good addition for adding texture to a brutalist house design.

If you can, try to find a few vintage fixtures such as an old high school locker, a boxy 1960s radio, and other classic HiFi equipment. These elements tend to be more angular in their design, and the worn aesthetic really complements the brutalist aesthetic while adding a dash of faded color.

MG

Written by
Mateos Glen Hayes

Written by Mateos Glen Hayes

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