When I’ve discussed Brutalist architecture on photowalks or presentations I often get asked why it’s called this so I thought a quick post with a little explanation along with some pics might be useful.

Simply looking at any building we’d classify as brutalist, the name is inherently fitting as the buildings all look, well, brutal. Usually massive, cold, rigid. The style emerged in the 1950s and is part of the modernist movement (defined by a rational use of materials, the elimination of ornament and decoration, and openness to structural innovation).

rSalk Institute, San Diego, architect - Louis Kahn
Salk Institute, San Diego, architect – Louis Kahn
Regenstein Library, Chicago, architect – Walter Netsch

British architects Alison and Peter Smithson coined the term and were strongly inspired by Le Corbusier’s post-war work, particularly Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, France. It’s thought to be the first and defining piece of architecture of this movement. Many of the brutalist buildings of the era were government, universities, car parks, public housing and other high-rise, densely populated buildings (think River City and Marina Towers in Chicago).

These housing projects were thought of as “streets in the sky”.

river city, bertrand goldberg
River City, Chicago, architect – Bertrand Goldberg

Often we think of these housing projects in a negative light, riddled with crime and associated with communism. Which makes sense given this style was very prevalent in communist countries such as the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. However, in recent years I feel like this style of architecture is gaining a new appreciation and being revitalized. Just recently Chicago’s River City has undergone major renovations and went from condos to apartments. There’s also this raw beauty in the details of this style – sometimes rough, unfinished surfaces full of texture, or smooth with curves, sometimes unusual shapes. You just have to seek out those details.

Then there are those moments when the light softens things up and adds another layer of interest to your shots.

Metropolitan Correctional Center, harry weese
Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago, architect – Harry Weese
55 west wacker, C.F. Murphy Associates
55 West Wacker Drive, Chicago, architect – C.F. Murphy Associates

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the images I’ve shared so far have been in black & white. There’s something about the rawness/coldness of the concrete and the lines and textures of this type of design that just lends itself well to black & white. However, sometimes color adds the right kind of warmth to contrast with these harsher design elements.

toronto city hall, Viljo Revell
Toronto City Hall, architect – Viljo Revell
rubenstein library, walter netsch, university of C/hicago
Rubenstein Library, University of Chicago, architect – Walter Netsch

And for comparison in color and black & white. Because sometimes it looks good both ways 😉



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