For me, this linking of Brutalism with the Solomon R. Guggenheim is the last straw. There’s little point recalling Brutalism’s former role of applying economies of materials and the rationalities of construction to fill a social need. That all belonged to a time three quarters of a century ago when national governments were still concerned with providing housing for their national workforces. China is probably the only country left in the world where this is still a concern.
It seems that if the memory of what Brutalism stood for can’t be neutralized by denying it as an aesthetic, then it can still be neutralized by accepting it as one even if for all the wrong reasons. What was Brutalism or, more to the point, what is it now? Does it have any meaning beyond a stylistic choice to use concrete?
béton brut translates quite naturally and easily into English as raw concrete but meanings of gross, crude, unrefined, rude and ugly were carried over into the English term Brutalism and stayed.
Yet, in French, brutal(e) can mean killing and suppression or it can mean frankness and honesty – as it does in English too when we say brutally honest. Linguistically, there’s no reason why raw concrete should translate as vulgar or unrefined (i.e. not classy] instead of honest or pure but it did. If the forces of the prevailing economic paradigm hadn’t worked to demonize social housing by demonizing its method of construction in the bad sense of brutal, then by now we might have come a long way towards an honest and pure architecture not just for our times but for ever. In retrospect and given how the term brut translated, maybe we should have gone with raw.
In the beginning all materials were raw. There’s no shortage of buildings built using them along with a construction process that is a record of the process of construction. This may sound obvious, but it’s anything but. Vernacular buildings are generally good examples of unselfconscious brutalism because they’re not trying to pretend they were built from anything other than what they were built with, and by some construction process other than the one used. Every country once had buildings like this. It was a type of building that was so natural and devoid of pretentious it was just building.
Joseph Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace is usually regarded as the beginning of modern architecture but, inasmuch as glass was being glass and still looked like glass and cast iron was being cast iron and still looked like cast iron, it was really an extension of a vernacular approach to materials and construction. There was nothing modern about it regarding its usage of materials even if those materials were unproven. For half a century it was not even clear what this new material called cast iron was meant to look like because it could be whatever shape one chose to make it.
Nonetheless, Crystal Palace was clearly not a building that could have been made by stone even though its cast iron columns and ribs and barrel vaults are all elements borrowed from stone construction and suggest that cast iron was seen as a substitute for stone and construction adapted accordingly. This would have been the safest thing to do since little was understood about the structural dynamics of cast iron or even its properties (as the fire that destroyed it showed). Perhaps more important than its use of cast iron was that until then there had never before been a need for a building like it. It was a trophy building for the major economic power of the era.
This is Gardeners Warehouse (John Baird, 1856) in Jamaica Street, Glasgow. It is the first building in the world to have a completely cast-iron facade. I only mention Gardeners Warehouse because it is usually forgotten when history books leap from Crystal Palace to The Chicago School. It’s cast-iron yes, but it’s raw cast iron. Again, it uses the elements and motifs of stone construction but since cast iron has no intrinsic shape this is no more a crime than trying to make it look “industrial”.
Chronologically, the next Brutalism was a conscious attempt to use materials sparingly and to their maximum performance. The buildings of Hannes Meyer are a modern type of vernacular in that it that does not attempt to conceal materials or the process of construction. Nor was there was no attempt to imbue them with any kind of architectural pretensions, although Messrs, Johnson & Hitchcock disagreed as they were incapable of seeing architecture as anything but. For them, the absence of aesthetic pretensions was itself an aesthetic pretension. Let’s move on.
The buildings of Hannes Meyer were what they were because he thought it was wasteful and thus socially irresponsible to add finishes and processes that were purely cosmetic. With his 1932 Maison de Verre, Pierre Chareau was the first to take unfinished materials and an unconcealed process of construction and to use them for the purposes of architectural expression but this was no exercise in socialist economy.
The 1947 Eames House crops up in many histories of architecture as an example of building using prefabricated “catalog” components. (It’s last outing was as a precursor to High-Tech and “Industrial” style which we will come to in time.) The choice of colors for the manufactured panels is an arty affectation but if a cladding panel is to have a protective finish that can be any colour then it’s a minor quibble.
The interior has an abundance of raw materials but now they’re all organic. This is not what we think of as High-Tech or even Industrial Style. There is nothing wrong with this because people live on the inside of houses and they are free to choose whatever rugs, sofas, shelving and lampshades they wish. The floor was finished with VAT (vinyl-asbestos) tiles which have since been replaced with something less potentially toxic.
Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House is also invoked as a precursor to High-Tech for its exterior use of raw steel and glass and not for its interior use of herringbone brick flooring, or brick fireplace/bathroom, raw organic interior finishes and components or its timber frame and plaster on lath ceiling [as seen on Curbed].
The original ceiling plaster contained asbestos. When the time came to replace it, it was very difficult to replicate a less toxic substitute because asbestos fibers, those same ones that get stuck in lungs, resist being troweled flat and so make the surface a soft diffuser of reflected light. Who knew?
We know a lot about this, even if Le Corbusier wasn’t the first person to ever let construction materials be construction materials and to let construction articulate the process of construction with his 1954~56 Maisons Jaoul. He was not. But he was probably the first to take a construction process using unfinished materials and imbue it with architectural pretensions. The brick and exposed slab thing had already been done twenty years earlier. [c.f. Raw 2.1.]
This took no time at all coming. If Raw 3.0 attempted to elevate raw materials into the realm of architecture then Raw 3.1 immediately saw the advantages of no finishes and a logical process of construction and applied it to low-cost housing. This is Raw 2.1 revisited and is what continues to negatively define raw materials as “not architecture” for many whereas it was Raw 3.0 that was the exception.
Late 1940s examples such as Eames House and Glass House, Raw 2.3 were hard and inorganic metal and glass on the outside yet on the inside had equally raw materials such as brick, timber, plaster and stone, accented with leather and textiles. Within a decade, Raw 3.2 was to feature natural raw materials on the outside and natural raw materials on the inside. It most likely originated in Scandinavia, possibly with Jørn Utzon’s 1952 house he designed for himself.
Or perhaps Japan. Here’s Utzon’s 1953 Middelboe House. Every element is what it is and the completed building is a document of the process of its construction.
Raw brick and stained timber came to be known as natural materials and contrasted with artificial materials such as metal and concrete. Everything, including the process of construction, appeared no more or less than what it was. Here’s some other examples from Utzon’s Nordic contemporaries.
This architecture was known as Scandinavian Modernism or, with equal frequency, Danish Modernism but, in the UK, it would come to be known as Soft Brutalism with houses such as Alison & Peter Smithson’s 1956 Sugden House.
In Australia, soft Brutalism was seen the raw and rugged yet comfortable Australian Modernism with houses such as the one architect Kevin Woolley designed for himself in 1962. There was also Tony Moore’s 1961 Moore House but these are just two of many.
It was also there in Catalan Modernism – not the Gaudí kind – but the early buildings of Ricardo Bofill, such as his 1964 Bach 28 Apartments.
Inventiveness with concrete had been bubbling away for a decade and we have Japanese architects to thank for the next big leap back to the future in the history of Raw. This is Yoii Watanabe’s 1966 Nishida House that uses concrete for what feasibly could have been built in timber. This referential language scared no horses, and nor did concrete columns and beams bearing the grain of timber shuttering. This was not being postmodern. It was making do. It poses the interesting question nobody ever asked: “Was it an affectation to allow the grain to imprint, or would it have been more of an affectation to remove the grain beforehand?”
It wasn’t to matter as rough-cut pine formwork soon gave way to plywood and, later, to metal formwork as we’ve come to know from buildings such as Ando’s 1976 Sumiyoshi/Azuma House that, curiously, is never labelled Brutalist despite its concrete being as raw and as concrete as raw concrete gets.
This history isn’t linear. Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre Brutalism 2.2 and Eames House and Glass House’s Brutalism 2.3 led to British High-Tech and its use of metal and glass. Here’s Foster Associates 1970-75 Willis Building in Ipswich and Richard Rogers and Partners’ 1978 Lloyd’s Building. We can still call metal and glass raw materials inasmuch as they are unfinished. [I wouldn’t call the steel frame of Farnsworth House raw however, not because of its white rust-preventive coating but because its welded joins have been ground smooth.]
This we can safely call Industrial Chic, which was popular circa 2000 give or take. It was an interior style of materials that were mostly unfinished. Floors were polished concrete or industrial rubber in a variety of colors. Coffee table books had long introductions referencing Chareau and Eames.
A later variant wasthe fashion, still ongoing, for Commerical Kitchens or Gastro Chic that ditched Formica, Melamine, marble, granite and reconstituted stone counters for stainless steel which was raw in its own way but also a useful decorative foil for the occasional brick wall or timber floor.
Here we must stop and take stock and see how useful this notion of raw materials is as an alternative to the increasingly meaningless term Brutalism. These next two buildings aren’t considered Brutalist even though they both feature raw materials. Moreover, both buildings are records of the process of their construction even though the Ando is monolithic and Lloyds is an assemblage of components.
A concept of Raw includes both while the concept of Brutalism (or whatever’s left of it) precludes prefabrication even though prefabricated components and concrete are like cast iron and plastic in that they can be whatever they are made to be. They can’t be nothing. They’re manufactured products whose only state is the state in which they are used. The act of fashioning them makes them into the finished product. A prefabricated panel is both a raw material and a finished product. Natural and artificial have no meaning. A quick search of “Brutalism” throws up the following.
It’s a mixed bag. The two Eastern bloc examples make it into the usual histories of Brutalist extremes. London’s National Theatre and Trellick Tower are the two classic UK examples, and Breuer’s Whitney, Boston Town Hall and Rudolph Hall the classic US ones. The Pei and the Kahn I don’t get, and nor do I get why Habitat and Ronchamps are tagged. Kahn’s National Assembly Building, Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim and Corbusier’s Ronchamps suggest the current meaning of Brutalism is some sort of audacity of form, perhaps only incidentally possible with concrete. Habitat, Trellick and Rudolph all use prefabricated components but only Rudolph Hall uses them to create something apparently of one piece despite the construction joins. There’s nothing wrong with this. Ancient Greeks did the same.
Precast concrete panels bring us back to the same problem of the Japanese concrete that has the shape and pattern of timber but are not substitutes for it in anything other than some broad structural sense. Pre-cast concrete is a self-finished material for which construction joints are part of the process of manufacture and of construction – to not show them or to pretend they don’t exist is the greater pretension. What does honesty of materials and of articulation of the construction process mean in the case of precast concrete panels?
For me, Ricardo Bofill in the only architect who’s ever asked these questions and has come closest to answering them. Here I could reference his French social housing projects that couple the use of precast concrete panels with Postmodern Classicism. It’s a natural combination because Classical buildings buildings were also built from kits of components. Rudolph’s Yale Art and Architecture Building and Bofill’s later commercial buildings are not that far removed.
Bofill’s Les Maisons Temple proposal for a mass-produced single-family house in the style of Palladio pushes this idea further and takes the raw materials of precast concrete components and a metal-framed steel deck roof and makes it into an aesthetic statement. All the pieces are what they appear to be and are put together much as The Parthenon was. The result is a form audacious in its familiarity and for having been derived from such familiar operations.
One criticism of this concept of Raw is that the materials may be raw but this doesn’t mean they can’t be sophisticated, exquisitely finished, and expensive. This works to eliminate their application where they are most needed. Bush hammering is a time and labour intensive way of producing the appearance of a raw material.
Similarly, in addition to a humid climate, it requires a great deal of care and pride in one’s work to produce concrete as flawless as is possible in Japan. It is possible to use raw materials in a sophisticated manner such as in this next example by H-Arquitectes but this represents the addition of time and skill to the design process as well as the construction one.
Even this next example, again by H-Arquitectes, exhibits an accuracy of dimension and a care of construction
whereas our construction industry is geared towards lower quality materials and less-skilled labour. Buildings are constructed using low-quality or imperfect bricks or quickly constructed from concrete block and any imperfections concealed with a decorative surface coating that may double as insulation. Using design foresight to add aesthetic value to low-quality materials may be the only directly left to go.
The other day when moving out I had reason to be in a service elevator. The floor was hardwood because it was resilient and hard wearing in a way rubber wasn’t, and chip and crack resistant in a way vinyl and stone aren’t. As is often the case, the metal walls were hung with replaceable padded panels to protect both walls and cargo from impact. The ceiling frame was unfinished galvanized iron and its acrylic panels had been knocked, scuffed and scraped. Everything was perfect.