Last year, the Washington Post reported that “the hottest trend in Web design is making intentionally ugly, difficult sites”, an approach which they called “web brutalism”. Since 2014, the site Brutalist Websites has been collecting examples. But is this what Brutalism, a twentieth-century architectural movement, was really about? In this article, we’re going to take a look at the history of Brutalism, examine the principles behind the movement’s architectural designs, and see how those compare. To round up, we’ll set out 5 key lessons that Brutalism could offer to today’s designers.
The Beginnings of Brutalism
Contrary to what we might think, the term “Brutalism” doesn’t actually come from the English adjective “brutal”. Rather, it derives from the French term “béton brut”, meaning “raw concrete”. The Brutalist label is applied to the work of a number of architects working in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s – amongst the most prominent were British couple Alison and Peter Smithson, Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, and Miles Warren from New Zealand, who created the “Christchurch School” of Brutalism.
Secondary Modern, Hunstanton, England, 1954, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson
Histories of Brutalism tend to begin with Smithdon Secondary Modern in Hunstanton, England, which was designed by the Smithsons and completed in 1954. Ironically, given the materials that would soon be associated with the “Brutalist” label, this high school campus was in fact built from brick and glass rather than concrete. However, its geometrical, repeating forms, and its honest use of those building materials, marked the start of what Rayner Banham described in 1955 as the “New Brutalism”.
Secondary Modern, Hunstanton, England, 1954 – Interior
Around the same time over in continental Europe, Le Corbusier was building the famous Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, France. In fact, it was completed in 1952, a little earlier than the Smithsons’ Hunstanton project. The Unité was grand and ambitious, housing 337 separate apartments within a single structure. Le Corbusier went on to build a number of similar residences, including an Unité in Berlin.
Drawing of the original Unité d’Habitation block in Marseille, France
So, why did this approach to architecture emerge in the late 1940s and early 1950s? Above all, we should note the social and political conditions of the time. Europe had just emerged from the most destructive war in history, with widespread devastation to housing stock, commercial buildings, and civic halls. In these circumstances, there was an attraction to architecture that could be designed and executed quickly and efficiently, with a minimum of unnecessary decoration. Brutalist structures could also rise high, minimising costs and maximising capacity.
Added to this, there must have been a widespread desire to make a fresh start aesthetically after the destruction of war. Brutalism left behind the perceived stuffiness of the beaux-arts, the uptightness of modernism, and the comfortableness of art deco styles. The movement’s preoccupation with concrete also reflects a period when energy conservation was not yet at issue. Although the manufacture of concrete is highly energy-intensive, these costs were insignificant given an abundance of cheap coal, coupled with the arrival of nuclear power in the mid-1950s.
Characteristics and Critics
Aside from the movement’s primary material, concrete, there are a number of other features that distinguish Brutalist architectural designs.
Brutalist buildings often include repeating shapes or patterns, used in a modular or grid-based way. Rectilinear examples of these patterns are evident in the Hunstanton and Marseille buildings pictured above. However, a number of Brutalist structures incorporate curved lines and more complex patterns. Take, for example, Preston Bus Station, which was recently listed following a long campaign against its feared demolition.
Preston Bus Station, England
Ever since Brutalist buildings were first introduced to the urban skyline, this kind of uncompromising geometric repetition has attracted passionate criticism – even anger – from those who find the style ugly and offensive. The phrase “concrete monstrosity” is still heard frequently here in Britain. However, it’s worth noticing that, while many think of Brutalist buildings as little more than “concrete boxes”, beyond their shared concrete construction, Brutalism spans quite a wide range of styles and shapes.
Honesty about their materials
Another feature of Brutalist buildings is that they tend to bring their construction materials to the surface, rather than attempting to conceal or beautify them. Look closely at the concrete surfaces of many Brutalist buildings, and you will see the unique patterns left by the grain of the wood frames used to mould each concrete block.
Chapel, College House, Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo taken in 2009, prior to earthquake damage. Photo © Andrew Wilshere
In this photo of the chapel at College House, Christchurch, New Zealand, the materials used are all visible: there is no plasterwork concealing the blockwork walls; there is no ceiling covering up the exposed wooden roof structure; and the exposed concrete blocks retain parallel lines from their wooden moulds.
This chapel is the most striking part of a complete Brutalist campus at College House, which was completed in 1964. The architects, Warren and Mahoney, describe the chapel as “one of the most memorable spaces the practice has produced, a seemingly effortless display of scale, materials and treatment of light, all achieved within a unique and dramatic formal composition.”
Sadly the campus suffered structural damage in the Christchurch earthquake of 2011. The main block has since been demolished and rebuilt, and is cosmetically identical to the original structure, but is now structurally stronger and able to withstand future earthquakes. The chapel, however, has been out of use since 2011; the College is fundraising for its repair.
Brutalist buildings tend to be associated with some kind of social or communitarian vision. Residential structures like Le Corbusier’s Unités embody a social egalitarianism, expressed not only through the uniformity of space and layout between apartments, but also in the shared spaces the building incorporated, and even in the similarity of all the Unité structures he designed around Europe.
This social vision has also been a factor in the poor reputation of Brutalist housing in countries like Britain, where tower blocks soon became associated with poverty, crime, and social division. They tend to be better regarded in less economically unequal societies, such as Germany: Berlin’s Unité d’Habitation is indeed a desirable place to live, sought after by affluent families.
University of Illinois, Chicago
Brutalist structures are particularly evident on university campuses. In the postwar years, universities across the United States and Europe were in a period of expansion, and Brutalism offered cost efficiency as well as an opportunity to make a progressive social and cultural statement.
Integrity of function
Brutalist buildings tend to prioritize clear core functions. The absence of arbitrary decoration – something that Brutalism inherited from the earlier Bauhaus School – allows Brutalist designs to focus on the building’s lived purpose.
The costs of failing to respect the integrity of Brutalist designs has been tragically evident in the recent Grenfell Tower fire in London. Partly to improve insulation, but also to “improve” the outward appearance of the tower for the wealthier neighborhoods nearby, cladding was retrofitted in order to soften its harsh edges, brighten its grays, and conceal its honest textures.
Grenfell Tower, West London, following a fire on 14 June 2017
Sadly these modifications seem to have compromised the integrity of the original building design: the cladding seems to have allowed fire to engulf the structure from the outside. Had the original structure not been modified, the blaze may have been contained for much longer within the apartment where it started. A program is now underway to remove similar cladding from tower blocks across the country.
Brutalism declined in popularity after the 1970s, and indeed for decades there was so little affection for concrete that many serviceable buildings were demolished for purely ideological reasons. Particularly following the fall of communism, Brutalist residences came to represent an outdated Statism; and, combined with the widespread unpopularity of identikit low-grade residential tower blocks across Europe, the Brutalist movement itself seemed to be destined for the scrapheap.
However, over the past decade or so, affection for Brutalism has been on the rise. In some cases, campaigns against demolition have generated greater public awareness that there are many high-quality Brutalist structures out there. There is even a Facebook group, The Brutalism Appreciation Society, which currently boasts over 53,000 members. A number of mainstream books on Brutalism have also been published in the past decade (see “Further reading” below).
Another, unexpected, source of Brutalist renaissance is in web design. Last year, the Washington Post reported that “the hottest trend in Web design is making intentionally ugly, difficult sites”, an approach which they called “web brutalism”. Brutalist Websites also collects sites that fit this description, stating that “in its ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy, Brutalism can be seen as a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism, and frivolity of today's web design”.
Are these sites really “Brutalist”?
The arrival of Brutalism in web design raises a number of questions. First, do these sites have any meaningful affinity with Brutalism in architecture? We identified some key Brutalist features earlier in this article: repetitive, geometrical patterns; honesty about materials; social vision; and integrity of function. Certainly, some of the websites listed on Brutalist Websites have little about them that meet these criteria; in many cases, the aesthetic would better be described as postmodern, minimalist or grunge.
Allan Yu’s site: brutal, perhaps; grunge, maybe; but is it Brutalist?
Willem Van Lancker’s site: more Minimalist than Brutalist?
Internet: A Retrospective – postmodern, ironic, funny – but not Brutalist
There are a number of sites listed, though, that strive for a kind of honesty in their materials. In essence, a website is a vehicle for communication using text and images. Bloomberg, for example, has stripped back to these basic elements of communication, foregrounding information and eschewing decoration. Their site also uses a combination of black, white and “hyperlink” blue, which evokes the early days of the web, and in this sense uses one of the web’s “raw” materials. Other sites, such as Fuse and Athanor, employ repeating patterns that channel the geometry of Brutalist architecture.
Some unfortunate misconceptions about Brutalism have found their way into some of the sites featured on Brutalist Websites. These include on the one hand an idea that Brutalism is intentionally “ugly”, or at least indifferent to its outward appearance; and on the other hand an idea that Brutalism is either all about concrete-gray, or about a random, anaesthetic use of color. As we can see from the harmonious colored panels used by Le Corbusier in his Unité in Marseille, neither of these things are true.
Why are people making Brutalist websites?
More important than how Brutalist websites relate to Brutalist architecture is perhaps this question: why has this trend in web design emerged at all?
As the introduction to the Brutalist Websites site suggests, the production of “ugly”, jarring, or unpredictable designs may express disillusionment with the growing homogeneity of commercial websites and social media platforms. Such homogeneity has developed, on the whole, for good reasons: providing people with a simple interface that adheres to conventional interaction patterns, enhancing usability.
And, of course, the more widely these conventions are observed, the more difficult it becomes for individual sites to deviate from them, for fear of frustrating users’ expectations and driving away business. It’s fair to say, though, that some of the web’s early richness has gradually been getting lost in a sea of landing pages, hero images, sans-serifs, and calls-to-action. “Web brutalism” is a valid reminder that there is still a world of possibilities out there, if we are bold enough to break free of our UI kits and stock photos.
Importantly, we are also at a political moment where there is widespread suspicion of corporate interests, and particularly of how much data is being collected about us by tech and social media giants like Google and Facebook. Some user groups – particularly younger ones – are wary of the high finish of mainstream commercial sites, fearing that it conceals less attractive inner workings, both ethically and aesthetically. The Brutalist web design trend may also express a desire for greater online transparency from the organisations that demand our personal information – for the underlying structure and motivations of websites to be made visible, just as Brutalist building exposed their own raw materials and social vision.
5 things today’s designers can learn from Brutalism
1. The user’s needs come first.
Although the user experience of living in blocks of flats was widely derided at the time, we should recognise that these structures sought to improve lives. In late 1940s Britain, whole communities at the bottom of society were subsisting in overcrowded slums. From the affluence of our 21st-century perspective, we mainly interpret Brutalism in aesthetic terms; but 70 years ago, its motivation was more ethical than aesthetic, bringing with it a vision of the good life, and a way to serve the interests of society’s forgotten.
2. People like beautiful things.
Designing something that fulfils a function, but does not add color and joy to the experience, will inevitably divide opinion and drive away a lot of users. Humans have a hardwired attraction to curves and bright colors, and, as we saw in the examples above, many Brutalist buildings successfully incorporate both. Moreover, it was mainly low-end Brutalist structures – “concrete boxes” – that gave the movement a bad name, by failing to include these humanizing touches.
3. Simplicity often equals efficiency.
Brutalist buildings met the need to rapidly and inexpensively rebuild after a devastating world war. Its principles of simplicity and functionality apply readily to web design and development. For example, a website formed of a single scrollable webpage with anchors is likely to be cheaper and easier to maintain and redesign than an elaborate multi-page site, and may even have usability benefits.
4. Strive to produce designs of integrity.
A great strength of the Brutalist movement was its production of thought-through, holistic structures that were designed to meet specified core needs. They didn’t simply cover the basics, like plumbing, heating, and sewage, but also shaped blocks to foster community through shared spaces, both inside and outside the building structure.
5. If you’re going to build it, you have to maintain it.
One of the reasons that Brutalist buildings acquired a bad reputation, particularly in temperate climates, was the inadequacy of their upkeep. Tower blocks became weather-beaten and rust-stained, only adding to their interpretation as symbols of social decay. It’s not enough for us simply to design something: we have to invest in maintaining that design, ensuring it remains functional, up-to-date, and fit for purpose.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at some of the history of the Brutalist movement, and how it relates both to web brutalism and to our practices as designers today. What do you make of the Brutalist trend in web design? And do you love or hate Brutalist buildings? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
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