Saving the Concrete Monsters: A Look at Brutalist Architecture with SOS Brutalism



Fritz Gerhard Mayr / Fritz Wotruba, Vienna; Austria: 1974–1976


Since the 1950s, some of the most striking buildings ever produced have come out of the architectural movement known as Brutalism. Big, imposing, and seemingly impenetrable, these buildings certainly seem to fit the name their movement was given. However, the name “Brutalism” doesn’t actually refer to the buildings uncompromising aesthetics. Rather, it comes from the French word for raw,
brut, and refers to the raw, exposed concrete and brick used in these buildings’ construction.


Despite of its distinctive design, Brutalist architecture isn’t enjoyed by all. In fact, a lot of people downright hate Brutalist architecture. British cultural critic Theodore Dalrymple once wrote that “[Brutalism pioneer] Le Corbusier was to architecture what Pol Pot was to social reform.”

But as fans of interesting and unusual design in whatever package it comes in, we here at Schoolhouse are big fans of Brutalism. So when we discovered the #SOSBrutalism campaign on social media, which aims to bring awareness to and ultimate save Brutalist architecture from demolition, we wanted to share the campaign with our readers. Today, we talk with Felix from SOS Brutalism who writes to us from Frankfurt, Germany (in his secondary language, no less.) Felix explains some of the history and context of Brutalist architecture and provides some compelling reasons for why it’s worth fighting to save.



Sachio Otani: Ohgigaoka Campus, Kanazawa Institute of Technology, 1967–1982


Describe #SOSBrutalism—Who are you, where are you located, and how did your project get started?


SOS Brutalism is a research project by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (German Architecture Museum) in Frankfurt and the Wüstenrot Foundation. It consists of three parts. The first was an exhibition, which was held at the DAM in 2017/18. The second part was the exhibition catalog, which represents the first truly global scientific survey on Brutalism. The third part is an ongoing online database at www.sosbrutalism.org. It contains over 1600 Brutalist projects from around the world—it is still growing with the help of our supporters that we gathered around our #SOSBrutalism campaign.

The project is named SOS Brutalism because many of these buildings are endangered by demolition or extensive remodeling. We catalog their status, report threats and maintain a red list of buildings that are currently most at risk.



Charles H. Bruchard: Crosley Tower, University of Cincinnati, 1964–1969

 

What is Brutalism?


Brutalism started in Great Britain in the mid-1950s. The architects Alison and Peter Smithson together with architecture critic Reyner Banham came up with the term to postulate a new architectural direction or ethos. At its core, Brutalism is about three things:



  • Honestly and authentically exposing the construction materials — do not hide anything behind plaster or paint.

  • Expose the building’s structure and inner workings. If possible, make the different parts legible and apparent from the exterior.

  • Create a unique design that is memorable as an image. No interchangeable, faceless boxes.


Within a couple of years the new style spread all around the globe and its initial purist aesthetic principles quickly turned into a newfound joy and celebration of mass, materiality, and sculpturality. It created some of the most exciting and unusual architectural designs of the 1960s and 1970s.



Janko Konstantinov: Post Office and Telecommunications Center, 1968–1981



Agustin Hérnandez: Taller de Arquitectura; Mexico City, Mexico 1972–1975


How was Brutalism understood in its original context? Was it considered beautiful? Powerful? Political?


The narrative surrounding Brutalism changed quite frequently throughout the years. Initially it was seen as something spectacular—a new monumental, modern design language for the Space Age. Because many projects were public commissions they were also signs of the new welfare state that cares for the wellbeing of their citizens. However, at the same time there was a disconnect between the professional architects and the people living with the buildings from the very get go and there have always been opinions about Brutalism being too uncompromising and out of scale.


Things changed quickly in the 1970s. With architecture critics like Jane Jacobs denouncing city master plans that disregard existing structures, a general shift to a new skepticism towards the state and the ecological movement, Brutalism’s popularity went down rapidly. It started to be seen as a symbol of destructive urban planning and an oppressive metaphor for states that were perceived as totalitarian. Another problem was the lack of maintenance that sent many buildings into disrepair quite quickly and hurt their image further. In the decades since, many Brutalist buildings have been demolished without regard for their qualities and original intentions.


However, in recent years we have seen a resurging interest in Brutalism with new books and research projects like ours, surprising popularity on social media and architects referencing Brutalism in their new designs in what could be considered a Neobrutalist revival.


Roberto Puig: Hotel Claridge; Alarcón, Spain, –1969

 


Hermann Rosa: Atelier Hermann Rosa, 1960–1968
 


Has the project uncovered any previously unknown gems of Brutalist architecture?


Absolutely! With the help of our followers, who have been sending us countless tips and images of previously largely unknown buildings, we were able to catalog many unrecognized buildings and projects. Research naturally is difficult when nothing has been published before, but it is important to move beyond the canonized examples that get published over and over again. Our database shows how truly global this phenomenon was and how it enabled architects to find their own voice with all kinds of regional and personal particularities.


What are some of your favorite Brutalist buildings?


The Boston City Hall (Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles, 1962–1968) is one if not the most well known icons of Brutalism. It exemplifies all of Brutalism’s strengths and weaknesses. Its brick and concrete is unapologetically exposed. Its spatial organization is apparent from the outside—from open public spaces at the bottom to large assembly halls and the mayor’s office in the middle to all these little offices on the top floors. It went through all the highs and lows of appreciation as well. When it opened it was on the cover of all major architecture magazines. For years it was universally dreaded and possibly only saved because the structure is so massive that demolition was unfeasible. Today it has been expertly restored and functions better than ever. Even the public seems to have come around to it.



Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles / Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty:
Boston City Hall, 1962–1968


Another building that perhaps is a little less well known outside of Germany are the Central Animal Laboratories of the Free University Berlin (Gerd Hänska, 1971–1980). Because of its original purpose it got the nickname “Mäusebunker“ (mouse bunker). Its design looks a bit like a Star Destroyer, but is actually very functional. Because of the need for highly controlled conditions and all the necessary technical infrastructure, the architect Gerd Hänska decided to decentralize the HVAC and sandwich stories for the infrastructure in between the stories for the labs. This way maintenance and research does not interfere with each other.


The cannon-shaped exhaust pipes simply try to get the warm air as far away from the façade as possible, while the odd tetrahedral windows all point northwards to avoid direct sunlight. Lab buildings are always highly monofunctional and specialized. Hänskas design demonstrates that despite the necessary rationalism, these requirements can lead to spectacular, one of a kind designs. It is considered one of the most outstanding Brutalist buildings in Berlin. Unfortunately, it is acutely endangered because the university wants to demolish it. But protests have been growing and there are discussions about a potential heritage listing. Hopefully it will get saved.


Gerd Hänska: Mouse Bunker", Freie Universität Berlin (Zentrale Tierlaboratorien "Mäusebunker"), 1971–1980




Atelier 5: Brunnadernstrasse Houses; Bern, Switzerland, 1970–1972




How have the buildings that compose the Brutalist movement aged over the years?

It really depends on the building, but a lot of the time the architects were a bit optimistic in their projections regarding maintenance. With the liberalization of a lot of governments in the 1970s and 1980s, upkeep for public buildings and social housing got cut and things deteriorated quickly. If there were renovations, the cheapest way of dealing with aging concrete oftentimes was (and still is) to just paint over it.


However, since the honest exposure of the building materials and the details of its texture are so fundamental to Brutalism, layers of paint severely interfere with the original design. Even worse, some projects are being wrapped in layers of insulation, burying the original design intentions even more. In recent years, technologies for properly restoring exposed concrete surfaces have really come a long way and it is now easier and more affordable than ever to stay true to the original design.

 

Why is it so important to save Brutalist buildings?


Brutalism defined a special point in architecture history that won’t come back. Building codes, labor costs and the unique zeitgeist all factored in conditions that enabled this special way of designing for this particular time. Once it is turned into rubble it won’t come back. By demolishing Brutalist buildings we are in danger of repeating past mistakes.


During Brutalism’s heyday, countless examples of turn of the century architecture like Penn Station were torn down without much regard for their qualities. Today we cherish these intricate designs and ornamentation and we gasp at the recklessness of the time. These designs were only about 60 years old back then. Today we are carelessly knocking down architecture that once again is roughly 60 years old. We have to ask ourselves if we will once again regret this hasty disposal of our architectural heritage 20 or 30 years from now.



Dragutin Kordić / Nikola Redžić: Hotel Tamis; Pančevo, Serbia, ?–1978

 

Finally, what are some ways that readers can celebrate or support Brutalist architecture and #SOSBrutalism?


You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, tumblr, and Pinterest. We regularly post about unique buildings that you might never have heard about before. You can also browse our database at www.sosbrutalism.org and discover buildings near you with our world map. It also works great as a Brutalist travel guide. Finally, if you would like to give us tips about undiscovered buildings or you have pictures or new information you can get in touch with us at help@sosbrutalism.org.


Bahlo-Köhnke-Stoßberg: Bredero Hochhaus; Hanover, Germany 1974–1975



Shiv Nath Prasad / Mahendra Raj: Shri Ram Center for Art and Culture, 1966–1969

 

Photography via SOS Brutalism