putting the ‘brut’ in brutalism
October 15, 2016 § 3 Comments
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…