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 Particularly following the fall of communism, Brutalist residences came to represent an outdated Statism; and, combined with the widespread unpopularity of identikit low-grade residential tower blocks across Europe, the Brutalist movement itself seemed to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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