Concrete has never been so on-trend. Prada and Yeezy, the brand of rapper Kanye West, hold their fashion shows at the headquarters of the French Communist Party in Paris, the legendary work of Oscar Niemeyer. We take selfies at Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille. And if we go to the Barbican in London today, it’s more for the building than for the exhibitions. What for some was an architectural nightmare has turned into a successful hashtag. In Switzerland the map CARTE BRUTE by HEARTBRUT reveals the brutalist face of our country in 50 buildings. A meeting with its initiator, Zurich author and photographer Karin Bürki.
What is brutalism?
Karin Bürki: A brutalist building is generally made from exposed, reinforced concrete. Its forms are massive, angular, and its appearance often austere. The origins of the movement are attributed to Le Corbusier for his postwar structures, such as the Unité d’habitation in Marseille (1947-1952). But it was the British Peter and Alison Smithson who, in the 1950s, defined the term in reference to the material left unfinished.
Born from the ruins of the postwar years, brutalism upholds an egalitarian ethic. Concrete allowed for rapid and inexpensive reconstruction, offering a much needed solution to the demands for large-scale (social) housing that arose with the expanding cities. Architects around the world were seizing on this field of experimentation and the trend prevailed between the 1950s and 1980s. Then disenchantment followed. Brutalism’s ugliness was decried, and even condemned as inhuman. Today, young creatives are once again enthusiastic about these works they tend to come across online.
Indeed, #brutalism is a hit on social media. According to critic Alice Rawsthorn its digital success is due in part to its pixelated texture. You are also very active on Instagram with your account @heartbrut. How would you explain its appeal?
KB : Brutalism and photography go hand in hand. The images are very geometric and expressive and at the same time easy on the eye. These are all qualities that are very popular on social media. The buildings’ heightend materiality probably also exerts an “exotic” fascination on a generation that grew up in a dematerialised digital culture. When I first started posting pictures of brutalist architecture on my Instagram account, I was struck by the wide range of people who were interested in it. Brutalism appears to hit a nerve across all age groups and profiles. In real life, concrete buildings polarise opinion, but online the exact opposite is happening. Ironically, on Instagram, brutalism is a great common denominator!
In 2018, you published “Brutalist Beauties No 1”, a limited postcard edition featuring buildings from London and Zurich. In your new map, CARTE BRUTE, you present 50 objects across Switzerland. When capturing these, were you able to observe a specifically Swiss brutalist style?
KB: Yes. In my opinion, it distinguishes itself by a certain pragmatism and meticulous execution, resulting in a style that is more neat than raw. Swiss architects tended to explore the nobility of concrete rather than its roughness, creating a synthesis between technical and purely rationalist expression and artistic ambition. That said, the spectrum is wide and extends from the stark box to the grand architectural gesture.
What do you think is THE brutalist destination in this country?
KB: Without hesitation: Basel and its surroundings. It is the perfect place to discover the richness of our brutalist heritage. There are as many historic buildings to explore as there are recent ones: Saint-Anthony church, designed by Karl Moser in 1927, was the very first church built in reinforced concrete in Switzerland. I also highly recommend a visit to “Maurerhalle” by Hermann Baur (1961), arguably the most beautiful concrete origami on the planet. Lovers of contemporary architecture head to Helsinki Dreispitz residential tower (2014) by Herzog and de Meuron in Münchenstein. Take a trip to Greater Basel area to admire the famous Goetheanum (1928) in Dornach and Neumatt school (1962) in Aesch.
And your favourite?
KB: La Tulipe, in Geneva. I think of it as a crystal that fell to earth. It is also a world apart from the masculine asceticism that characterises most brutalist structures in this country. It is a rare and radical celestial body in the Swiss cosmos.
Who are the contemporary figures of brutalism to follow in Switzerland?
KB: If we’re talking about expressive architecture, inspired by the “all-over-rough” texture of brutalism, I would cite Herzog and de Meuron of course, but also Buchner Bründler, Gus Wüstemann, or Valerio Olgiati.