putting the ‘brut’ in brutalism


Boston City Hall.  New York Times, 6 Oct 2016

Here we go again…a piece in last week’s Sunday New York Times, while proclaiming that “brutalism is back” nevertheless pitched it as a style intended to “brutalize” its occupants:

IN THE RANK OF UNFLATTERING monikers for an artistic style, “Brutalism” has got to score near the top. Like the much kinder-sounding “Fauvism” or “Impressionism,” it was a term of abuse for the work of architects whose buildings confronted their users — brutalized them — with hulking, piled-up slabs of raw, unfinished concrete. These same architects, centered on the British couple Alison and Peter Smithson, enthusiastically took up Brutalism as the name for their movement with a kind of pride, as if to say: That’s right, we are brutal. We do want to shove your face in cement. For a world still climbing gingerly out of the ruins of World War II, in need of plain dealing and powerful messages, this brand of architectural honesty was refreshing.

Nikil Saval, “Brutalism is Back,” New York Times T Magazine, Oct. 6, 2016.

So, just for the record, here’s the same newspaper, back in 1969, explaining the origins of the term:

“The ‘brut’ in brutalism is a play upon ‘bèton brut,’ Le Corbusier’s description of his own reinforced concrete work. ‘New brutalism’ is, therefore, a definition of an esthetic approach, coined by Reyner Banham in an article about the influence of Le Corbusier upon certain English architects. A building of bèton brut, like a bottle of champagne brut, is to be judged on its own merits, rather than the imagery of its nomenclature.”

Francis Booth, “The Brut in Brutalism,” The New York Times, Jan. 10, 1969. 46.

To Saval’s credit, the article goes on to talk about the straightforward expression of materials as a key to the ethic and aesthetic of Brutalism, quoting its patron saint and fiercest critic, Reyner Banham:

“Whatever has been said about honest use of materials,” Banham wrote in a 1955 article, “most modern buildings appear to be made of whitewash or patent glazing, even when they are made of concrete or steel.” The Smithsons’ project at Hunstanton, by contrast, “appears to be made of glass, brick, steel and concrete, and is in fact made of glass, brick, steel and concrete.”

What isn’t quoted is Banham’s two-word definition of the style: “bloody mindedness,” which suggests much more the intellectual reach and overreach that led to buildings as rigorous and sublime as Kahn’s Kimbell, and as baffling and alienating as Netsch’s Art and Architecture building at Illinois-Chicago.

 “Brutalism” came out of expressing the processes of making and constructing a building–the “brut” of “beton brut,” and not an evil conspiracy to distress and discomfort the public at large…and a simple keyword search on the writer’s part here would have made that apparent.

Mythbusting Saturday morning…

3 thoughts on “putting the ‘brut’ in brutalism

  1. Yesterday I wandered thru Netsch’s Behavioral Science Building (BSB) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which was part of Open House Chicago. It is one of the three very confusing “Field Theory” buildings that Netsch designed for UIC, along with Art & Architecture, and Science and Engineering South (SES). I’ve made a point of walking around all three buildings and I once thought that SES was the most confusing of the three, as it is the largest. BSB is the only symmetrical building among the three, which may slightly clarify how to get around in it.
    Even so, as I was wandering around it, I came to think that I could eventually come to enjoy it. I got from it the grand sense of discovery and innovation that is appropriate for a college building, and it might indeed foster a spirit of interdisciplinary cooperation and creation. I’d think that spirit of creativity would be even more important in Art & Architecture.


    • The A&A building isn’t exactly hated by the folks who use it–I’ve sat on reviews there and have seen the odd spaces used well. Part of the issue, I think, is it’s total lack of daylight in the public spaces. Once you’re inside, you’re INSIDE and that makes it difficult to orient yourself. Both of those buildings (and the library at Northwestern) are instructive examples of how a great idea in plan doesn’t necessarily turn into a great idea in experience…something students (and practitioners) need to hear again and again…


  2. I was an inmate for 3 years at UIC’s architecture building and found the hostile environment well suited for Stanley Tigerman’s graduate program in the early ’90s. That said, we should remember that the building represents maybe 40% of what Netsch designed. Had it been completed it might have been comparable to BSB or the Science & Engineering building on the south portion of the campus.. I found both of those buildings engaging due to both the bewilderment of first experience, and the revelations to be found around many corners once you started to explore.

    Netsch’s campus was not a pretty place, but I think it was one of Modernism’s better examples of an architectural grand theoretical scheme actually brought to a built conclusion. So much of it was appreciable from the 2nd story walkways which connected many of the campus buildings. The walkways were universally hated from ground level, but up top you could see how the pieces fit together and do so in sunshine & a fresh breeze. (Unfortunately, those qualities were not so appealing in the 9 month winter season in Chicago) The demolition of the walkways did serious harm to Netsch’s campus design, even if it did help soften the many harsh edges of the place.


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