Monumental monoliths, material honesty and exposed concrete (French: béton brut) – these are the characteristics of Brutalist architecture. Inspired by Le Corbusier’s postwar housing estates, such as Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, the British-born rebellion against Modernism spread across cityscapes around the world from the mid-1950s to the 1970s. Its unapologetic rawness polarises to this day. Showing their age, many of the buildings face demolition or regeneration as luxury housing. At the same time, Brutalism is finally getting the attention and rehabilitation it deserves, as a new, global following comes to appreciate the spare elegance and social thinking behind the rough appearance.
In his seminal essay in the December 1955 issue of British journal Architectural Review, influential architectural critic Reyner Banham introduced the “New Brutalism” movement to the wider public. Discussing the works of its key exponents, young English husband-and-wife architects Allison and Peter Smithson, Banham didn’t beat about the bush: “What characterises the New Brutalism is precisely its brutality, its je-ne-m’en-foutisme, its bloody-mindedness.”
Despite its deliberate shock-appeal and hard, anti-beauty stance, Brutalism was essentially optimistic and forward-looking.