7 Facts You Need to Know About Brutalism

Here are 7 facts on the most controversial architectural movement called Brutalism.

Mar 24, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art
facts about brutalism


Brutalist architecture emerged in post-war Europe as a form of solution to the post-war destruction and the lack of livable residential areas. Cheap, spacious, and easy to construct—brutalist buildings were made from raw concrete with little to no decoration. However, over the following decades, both residents and urbanists noticed the concerning side effects of the new style. Today, Brutalism remains one of the most polarizing topics in the history of architecture, dividing people into fans and haters. Read on to learn more about Brutalist architecture and make your choice.


1. Brutalism Emerged Out Of Post-War Necessity 

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Milton Keynes residential area under construction, 1969. Source: Milton Keynes Living Archive


The architectural style of Brutalism originated in 1950s Europe. Unlike many other styles, it emerged not out of a quest for a new aesthetic expression, but as a post-World War II necessity. After years of bombing, a significant portion of residential buildings was either damaged or completely destroyed, creating a pressing need for affordable and accessible housing that was easy to build.


Concrete, the principal building material of Brutalism, was cheap to produce and easy to construct into architectural elements. Brutalism put function before form and relied on juxtaposing itself with the old-timey elitist architecture covered in decorative elements. Focusing on brutalist architecture was also an anti-nostalgic gesture of minimizing class differences and offering equal opportunities for the vast majority of citizens.


However, labeling Brutalism as a movement entirely devoid of aestheticism would be a big mistake. Brutalist architecture followed the aesthetic of the new era and a new time, offering minimalist and functional designs. The architects put their expressive gestures not into excessive decoration but into precise lines and intersecting planes. Inspired by new ideas, Brutalist architects designed not only buildings but entire cities with ecosystems made to cater to all kinds of needs. One of the most successful examples of Brutalist urbanism is Milton Keynes, a settlement in Buckinghamshire, England. During the 1960s, a small village was completely redesigned as a modern city with a commercial center instead of an old town, pedestrian paths instead of roads, and concrete and glass structures instead of the traditional brick ones.


2. Brutalism Employs Light as a Separate Architectural Element

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Geisel Library in San Diego, California, designed by William Pereira, constructed in 1968-70. Source: UC San Diego Library

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Despite the seeming monolith greyness of Brutalist architecture, its structure is much more complex and consists not only of concrete but of light as another crucial building material. Part of the aesthetic appeal of Brutalism lies within the play of ethereal light soaking through heavy concrete structures and interlocking planes.


One of the most brilliant examples of American Brutalism is the Geisel Library, built for San Diego University. The architect William Pereira added Futurist influence to the concrete structure, turning it into a shining spaceship. Pereira balanced the complexity of planes and levels with rows of long horizontal windows which allowed light to cut through the heavy grey mass.


The flexibility of concrete structures allowed architects to tailor their buildings according to the needs of particular regions and climates. For instance, many Brutalist buildings designed for Great Britain try to make the most out of limited sunlight, while in Kazakhstan, Brutalist designs deliberately block excessive heat and light.


3. The Greatest Names of Brutalism

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Unité d’habitation (Marseille), designed by Le Corbusier, photo by Gili Merin. Source: ArchDaily


One of the most famous architects associated with Brutalism was the legendary Le Corbusier. Although he worked in a variety of sub-styles under the umbrella of Modernist architecture, his involvement with Brutalism was one of the most significant periods of his career. In the 1920s, Le Corbusier formulated his Five Points of Modern Architecture, a set of core components that would construct the ideal modern building. These components included lightweight facades, pillars at the base, long ribbon-like windows, rooftop gardens, and flexible design of living spaces. These principles are reflected in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation (Residential Unit) which was constructed in Marseille in 1952. The building also explored the ideas of communal living, with shared spaces designed for reading, dining, and shopping at the building’s core.


Another key hero of Brutalist architecture was Israeli-Canadian Moshe Safdie. Safdie became famous with his first project Habitat 67, developed out of his university thesis. The residential building constructed of pre-made concrete blocks stacked on top of each other offered 164 apartments connected via terraces, gardens, and secret pathways, imitating natural environments. Today, Habitat 67 is still functioning, with apartments remaining among the most sought-after properties in the world.


4. Soviet Union Was Among the Greatest Fans of Brutalism

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The Russian Academy of Sciences headquarters (Moscow), constructed in 1973-90. Source: Afisha Daily


Despite its Western European origins, Brutalist architecture gained the most popularity in the Soviet Union. The idea of prioritizing function before form was a direct reflection of communist ideology and the dream of a new society of equal citizens. Moreover, Brutalism, devoid of any specific cultural elements, was truly international and thus worked in sync with the idea of cohabitation and unity. However, some Soviet Brutalist buildings nonetheless soaked in some local influences, either in the shape of functional elements like windows or doors or through settling in the natural environment around them.


Today, the legacy of Soviet Brutalism can still be found in Eastern Europe and Baltic countries. Some governments see these architectural works as important pieces of cultural heritage, while others look at them as remnants of the tragic past of oppression.


5. Brutalism is Both Famous and Infamous

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Habitat 67 (Montreal), designed by Moshe Safdie, 1967. Source: Safdie Architects


The history of Brutalism and its reception is rooted in paradox. Originally created as a means to cater to public needs, it was hated by people but adored by overly intellectual art critics who equated raw concrete environments for humans to natural habitats for animals. However, some urban development experts believe Brutalist environments to be cold, hostile, and alienating, affecting the inhabitants’ mental health. Some experts link the lack of color, texture, and natural forms in concrete structures to the rise of mental disorders, specifically depression.


In the 1980s, some architecture experts connected the rise of Brutalist architecture to the soaring crime rates. As it turned out, poor architectural choices could affect both the mental and physical safety of the public. Tall buildings that housed thousands of people allowed for a certain level of anonymity and isolation. Coupled with cheap rent, it created perfect environments for crime.


Despite being built as a long-term solution for comfortable and functional modern living, Brutalist architecture soon demonstrated its tragic potential. The novelty of the invention wore off, and without the initial enthusiasm, the flaws started to reveal themselves.


6. The Downfall of Brutalist Architecture: the Hulme Crescents

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Hulme Crescents, Aerofilms Ltd, 1971. Source: Google Arts and Culture


Some experts link the lost popularity of Brutalist architecture with the decline and defunding of social welfare programs. Seemingly simple and easy-to-maintain buildings in reality required constant care and attention to remain livable. One of the most notorious examples of Brutalist architecture turning hostile was the Hulme Crescents residential complex built in Manchester, England in 1972. The complex of U-shaped buildings with open hallways, balconies, and gardens for every apartment was supposed to become the largest residential project in Europe. However, severe errors in construction ruined this dream. The apartment layout made the space uncomfortable and isolated, underfloor heating and poor ventilation allowed for a fast spread of rats and cockroaches, while poorly designed infrastructure severed the Crescents from the rest of Manchester.


Several deaths occurred in Hulme Crescents during the first years of its operation, with residents, including children, falling off balconies, bridges, and galleries. Deemed unfit for family living, it was soon converted to an adult-only facility, drastically increasing levels of crime and drug use. Police officers began to refuse to enter the top decks of the Crescents. By the early 1980s, less than a decade after its construction, the complex turned into an unlivable ruin filled with squatters. It was finally demolished in 1992.


7. The Future of Brutalism

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Eco-Brutalist Atelier Villa (Costa-Rica), designed by Formafatal. Source: Architizer


The unsettling example of Hulme Crescents raised concerns about the future of Brutalist architecture and about the possibility of making it less hostile to its inhabitants. One of the concepts introduced was Eco-Brutalism. Presented as a sustainable alternative to traditional Brutalism, it refrained from juxtaposing the realm of human creation to the natural world, instead making peace between the two. Eco-brutalists design concrete structures in a way that would allow plants and greenery to grow freely and claim their place among residential areas and office spaces. The idea behind Eco-Brutalism was to improve both the mental health of the population by connecting them to nature and their physical well-being by purifying the air and re-introducing bees and insects to the area.


Yet, despite all this optimistic thinking, Eco-Brutalist projects received enough criticism from architects and the public. Concrete is one of the least energy-efficient construction materials which barely preserves heat. Moreover, it can contaminate water and soil, thus reversing all claims of its sustainability and positive ecological impact. Although the idea of marrying contemporary urban environments with nature seems promising, it nonetheless requires new materials and innovative techniques.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.