(CNN)And in the fifth decade of Modernism Le Corbusier said “Let there be concrete”: and there was Brutalism.
Well, perhaps not quite. However the Swiss-French polymath certainly kick-started what became the most divisive school of architecture in the twentieth century. His buildings from the late 1940s onwards paved the way for a new brand of Modernism, employing “beton brut“, raw, unfinished concrete set in bold, geometric forms. Form followed function and the result was monolithic, imposing and disruptive.
Brutalism had its admirers, but there were detractors, a group whose voice swelled down the years as buildings fell into disrepair and the aesthetic became a byword for poverty, antisocial behavior and poor urban planning. Some buildings are now living on the brink; others are have already been demolished.
But whisper it quietly: Brutalism is having a moment.
New buildings on the block
Peter Chadwick and Nicolas Grospierre are two authors waving the flag for these hunks of concrete. Chadwick’s “This Brutal World” focuses solely on the aesthetic, whilst Grospierre’s photobook “Modern Forms: A Subjective Atlas of 20th-Century Architecture” covers Brutalism in a wider context of nearly 200 buildings.
Rather than plot his findings on a timeline, Grospierre has chosen to place his photography on something akin to an aesthetic continuum, matching the succeeding building to the shape and style of that which precedes it. The result is a globe-hopping journey of domes into triangles, triangles into cubes, cubes into asymmetrical roofs and so on, each building leeching on those around it.
The osmosis-like layout of “Modern Forms” reinforces the ties that bind the school of architecture. “This Brutal World” however relies on monochrome images to link the works of numerous photographers.
Luckily Brutalist buildings look great in black and white, says Chadwick. “You get a very strong sense of shape, composition… it’s all about light and shadow. When you look at the National Theatre on the Southbank on a sunny day, when you see the shadows it’s just incredible. It’s like architectural theater, and that’s only enhanced by black and white.”
A movement not without its problems
Neither Grospierre nor Chadwick shy away from explaining why Brutalism gets its bad rep. Moreover, they both suggest criticism levied against the aesthetic is often valid. Not all Brutalist creations were made equal, they suggest, and for every great building there was another ready to undermine the movement.
Brutalism’s functionality made it the perfect fit for cash-strapped post-war Europe, seeking to rebuild urban centres for swelling populations. It became the aesthetic of choice for many low-cost housing projects and in Western Europe Brutalism became a symbol of poverty. In Eastern Europe this was compounded; elision between projects and the governments that commissioned them often precluded appreciation of Brutalism’s merits.