Although stark and ominous in design, brutalist architecture doesn’t get its name from any idea of brutishness that the building might imbue. Rather, its name comes from the French béton brut, meaning raw concrete. However, that name suits the design perfectly, as brutalist buildings are almost always built with raw concrete, and their façades are left unadorned.
Popular in the 50s through the 70s, brutalist architecture has made a massive comeback. The buildings are not just for the proletariat anymore, they have also become a status symbol for the wealthy elite. They are difficult to renovate and thus eschew an atmosphere of overbearing permanence. Their rigid construction looks dystopian and geared towards function more than form, and through this, these buildings are beautiful in their own right. Here are 8 examples of the most inspiring brutalism.
1. The Geisel Library, La Jolla
Designed by architect William Pereira and built in 1970, the Geisel Library in La Jolla, California, is named after one of San Diego’s most famous residents: Dr. Seuss. Or, to be more precise, Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel. While brutalist architecture doesn’t seem to be something you would associate with the man who brought us “Green Eggs and Ham,” there was much more to Dr. Seuss than his whimsical illustrations. Nevertheless, the building is host to a vast collection of Dr. Seuss’ works, including a large bronze statue of the Cat in the Hat, which exists in contrast to its surroundings.
This example of brutalist architecture is designed with representation in mind. The concrete piers symbolize hands holding books, which are in turn symbolized by the floors.
2. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town
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Located in Cape Town, South Africa, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) was repurposed from concrete grain silos built in 1921. Connecting what was once two buildings, the structure uses geodesic, convex windows to accent the brutalist concrete of the main building. Although the building exterior is a standard example of brutalist architecture, the genius of the design really shines through when one takes a look from the inside. Conceived as a public, not-for-profit enterprise, the building is a result of a public/private collaboration between German businessman Jochen Zeitz and the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront upon which the building stands.
Designed by English architect Thomas Heatherwick, the building preserves and uses the original silos, which are central to creating the iconic effect found within the walls. In all, the original silos consisted of 42 densely-packed cylinders carved out to create a unique design. The Zeitz Museum is the largest museum in the world wholly dedicated to contemporary African art.
3. The Mäusebunker, Berlin
Officially, the Central Animal Laboratories of the Free Universities of Berlin, nicknamed the “Mouse Bunker,” this iconic example of brutalist architecture designed by Gerd and Magdalena Hänska, was completed in 1981 for the purpose of live animal experiments.
With its exposed pipes resembling the guns on a beached battleship, this building’s sinister design (and purpose) was not well received in its day but has found renewed respect from many who appreciate brutalist architecture.
The outer shell is made from prefabricated concrete slabs, and triangular windows run along the façade. Built to resemble a fortress, the sloping design gives it an aura of defensiveness which led to the building getting its nickname.
No longer used for its intended purpose, the Mouse Bunker was slated for demolition but was saved by a petition. The building did find use as a location in Denis Villeneuve’s film Blade Runner 2049 (2017).
4. Embassy of Russia, Havana
Like a massive concrete sword thrust into the ground, the Embassy of Russia in Havana, Cuba towers ominously over the surrounding embassies. It represents the powerful relations the Soviet Union and, subsequently, the Russian Federation has with its communist ally.
Designed by architect Aleksandr Rochegov, and with construction taking ten years, the building was finished in 1987. While many might argue that the building is solely constructivist in design, there is no denying that the architectural features inherent in constructivism form a significant overlap with brutalist architecture.
Originally designed to convey a sense of Soviet power, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the fall of the Soviet Union meant that this building would serve as the Embassy of the Russian Federation.
5. Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, Dhaka
The Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban or National Parliament House serves as the house of parliament in Bangladesh. The complex, covering 200 acres, is one of the largest parliamentary complexes in the world. Its central building is staggering in its size, serving functionally as well as being a monument to democracy in the country.
The concentric design allows for the parliament chamber to be located directly in the center of the building and represents the heart of democracy in Bangladesh. Eight peripheral blocks rise to 110 feet, while the central octagonal block rises to 155 feet. The exterior design is simple, with the walls punctuated by deeply recessed porticoes and massive geometric shapes that serve as windows. The artificial lighting within the building is designed so that it does not interfere with the natural light entering the building.
Construction started in October 1964 but was not completed until 1982, as Bangladesh had to deal with the turbulent issue of breaking away from Pakistan. The designer, Louis Khan, sadly did not live to see the final unveiling of his work.
6. Kirche Zur Heiligsten Dreifaltigkeit, Vienna
The Kirche Zur Heiligsten Dreifaltigkeit, or Church of the Most Holy Trinity in English, is better known as the “Wotruba Church” after its visionary designer Fritz Wotruba. This example of brutalist architecture stands in Vienna, Austria.
The structure is designed around a core of 152 concrete blocks of various sizes connected in a seemingly haphazard way. Simple, undecorated glass panels fill the gaps in the structure, allowing light to enter, making the building seem brighter from the inside than the exterior would have one believe. There is no apparent front to the building, and the shafts of light that enter cross paths with one another, creating a pattern of light that changes throughout the day.
The designer, Fritz Wotruba, was a sculptor and artist who enlisted the help of architect Fritz Gerhard Mayer to realize the structure. It was built between 1974 and 1976. Sadly, Wotruba died in 1975 and was thus unable to see the fruition of his work.
7. Paradero Hotel, Todos Santos
Designed by Yashar Yektajo and Ruben Valdez, the Paradero Hotel is a brutalist masterpiece in the middle of the desert of Baja California Sur. In Todos Santos, Mexico, this building’s design mimics the natural forms of the surrounding landscape and was intended to seem as if its walls were shaped by the desert winds rather than by pen and paper.
Rather than the structure having a single, grandiose focal point, it is a series of small revelations spread over several acres, inviting visitors to explore the spaces and the lush oasis in which it sits. Finished in 2021, this example of brutalist architecture is a new addition to the growing list of brutalist buildings around the world.
8. Monumento Buzludzha, Bulgaria
Completed in 1981, The Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party, or more commonly referred to as the Buzludzha Monument, commemorates the beginning of the country’s socialist movement in 1891 when a group of people met on Buzludzha Peak and set in motion the events that would lead to the formation of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party. Today, the building stands on the spot where they met.
Designed by architect Georgi Stoilov, this example of brutalist architecture also exhibits elements of futurism in its disc-shaped form. Its inside is decorated with Soviet-style mosaics that have since fallen into disrepair. The building fell prey to vandalism and the elements after the collapse of communism but is now under the curatorship of the Buzludzha Project, which aims to preserve the building and turn it into an interpretation center for Bulgarian culture.
Over the past few years, Brutalist architecture has become en vogue again. In a sense, the architecture is an honest statement in that it does not seek to cover up the construction materials. Instead, it uses them as the art itself. It is thus a powerful fusion of form and function that are inseparable.
Originally conceived as a cheap solution to Europe’s need to rebuild after World War II and to provide affordable housing to the masses, it was seen as an aesthetic blight on the urban landscape. Architects challenged this notion, however, and turned the designs into powerful statements that use clever forms to create a sense of depth and beauty that doesn’t rely on decorative features. Through decades of harsh criticism, brutalism survived and has now, due to its prevalence on social media, become chic, a trend that seems set to continue for some time.