Often confused with the concrete mega-structures of the '60s and '70s that are utterly devoid of urban scale and context -- housing projects, convention centers, parking garages -- Brutalism, as a style and ideology, originally posited something altogether different. Conceived in... [more]
Often confused with the concrete mega-structures of the '60s and '70s that are utterly devoid of urban scale and context -- housing projects, convention centers, parking garages -- Brutalism, as a style and ideology, originally posited something altogether different.
Conceived in the early 1950s by a group of English architects -- notably Peter and Alison Smithson, the maverick husband and wife team -- Brutalism was a direct response to the polite respectability of post-war British architecture. Influenced by Swedish Modernism, the English architectural establishment encouraged a humanist approach in which an informal, domestic architecture was mediated by "the people's" detailing -- shallow-pitched roofs, squarish wood-framed windows, and other almost folk craft tendencies -- in order to lend a picturesque quality to the built landscape. Reacting against this surrender of design ingenuity, the Smithsons turned to a more anthropological assessment of popular culture. They teamed up with photographer Nigel Henderson, whose photographs of the slums and citizens of East London gave a more accurate and acute grounding to an architectural project motivated by a rigorous, honest approach to needs and users.
The desire for a direct confrontation with urban reality led to an interest in truth to materials and an obsessive concern for the expressive articulation of mechanical and structural elements. A kind of utilitarianism, reminiscent of nineteenth-century industrial buildings, appeared in the Smithson team's work and later in the seminal projects of James Stirling. Materials were rendered in their given states to the point of near dullness. The Smithsons' "Soho" house of 1952 was designed, as noted by Kenneth Frampton, to be built in brick, with exposed concrete lintels and an unplastered interior.
Yet, for all the attention paid to a pared-down -- though certainly not minimalist -- aesthetic, the Smithsons' socio-anthropological interests helped open the Brutalist project to a wider framework. With the interest in photography came the Smithsons' obsession with advertising and the detritus of popular culture. For the seminal 1956 "This is Tomorrow" exhibition staged in London, the Smithsons designed a utility shed -- that staple feature of the English backyard -- about which Reyner Banham, a leading English critic and the Smithsons' partner-in-crime, remarked, "one could not help feeling that this particular garden shed with its rusted bicycle wheels, a battered trumpet and other homely junk, had been excavated after an atomic holocaust." Yet within the flotsam and jetsam of discarded rubbish, the Smithsons tellingly placed a television set. The sign was obvious: the almost liberating spirit of consumerism embraced as an intrinsic part of an industrial society. Brutalism became an ethos that tried to reconcile, perhaps vainly, the sympathy for old-fashioned working class solidarity and an open appeal to the headiness of conspicuous consumption.