Brutalism which was once popularised by the likes of Le Corbusier had vanished into oblivion since mid-1970s finding place only in coffee table books and some academic round table conferences. But there is a popular saying that trends are circular and what’s old becomes new and the process goes on. That may be partially true in case of Brutalist architecture.
From the mid-20th century, this style rose in popularity before reaching its peak in the mid-1970s, when it came crashing down as a model of bad taste. Though word is derived from the French béton brut, meaning raw concrete, for many it still connotes brutality.
Known for its use of functional reinforced concrete and steel, modular elements, and utilitarian feel, Brutalist architecture was primarily used for institutional buildings. So, one could mostly see brutalist architecture in schools, churches, libraries, theatres, and social housing projects. Often identified with socialist ideals, brutalist architecture’s popularity also swung with the fate of socialism. No wonder, brutalism was particularly popular in East European countries and to an extent in Britain. Le Corbusier who popularised the brutalist architecture is often criticised for his fascist-leaning ideologue and it is difficult say whether his love towards brutalism was due to his political leanings or other way around. In fact, Le Corbusier credited with the advent of brutalism and his 1952 completed mammoth housing complex for working class which could house up to 1,600 people, was largely devoid of decorative elements and laid the framework for future Brutalist projects.
It should be noted that when Brutalism started gaining popularity concrete wasn’t just in vogue, it was relatively inexpensive too and was available in abundance. There was also a general perception, often misguided though, that concrete buildings needed little or no maintenance. When people’s perception about concrete started changing their view towards Brutalism too became shaky.
Fall of Brutalism from favour is not entirely due to its association with totalitarianism but much more to do with its overdependence on one material, that is, concrete. The raw concrete used in construction didn’t age well, often showing signs of water damage and decay that brought down the overall aesthetic. Brutalism being too material-centric, there was not much scope for its evolution or change to suit modern needs. Brutalism came to symbolize urban decay and economic hardships that were out in the open for world to see.
Further, the use of concrete as a building material which is at the core of the concept of Brutalism has restricted its applications. Usually, as concrete structures are heavier than those made using steel Brutalism hasn’t found favour with civil and structural engineers especially while planning buildings on soft soil conditions like reclaimed land or marshland. Still further, inexpensive maintenance cost, a tag which the fans of Brutalism often associate with it is also being questioned saying that when the Brutalist buildings fall into disrepair their maintenance becomes prohibitive thus forcing the local bodies to go for their demolition than preservation.
One reason why Brutalism is being looked at as an option in 21stcentury is the increased disenchantment among the section of the society against cloud kissing skyscrapers and too much use of shiny exterior of the modern buildings. Skyscrapers are often considered as exhibition of opulence hated by the neighbours as it blocks their view. Skyscrapers with shiny steel and glass exterior attract public ire when they become reflective and create public nuisance. No wonder then the public start liking harmless Brutalist structures which neither creates public nuisance nor is considered a sign of opulence. If this line of thinking continues for long, people may change their perception about Brutalism completely and Brutalism may no longer remain the architecture of a forgotten underclass. But it is little too early to arrive at this conclusion. Appreciating a concept and liking the old Brutalist building are one thing and actually living in such buildings is altogether a different thing.
Yes, on social media its being viewed by more and more people. On Instagram, there are more than half million images of Brutalist architecture which indicates growing interest in the subject. In last few years many coffee table books have been published on the subject which again is an indicator of its popularity. However, on ground things have not changed much with modern architects still having some doubts about its relevance in modern times.
In India, Brutalism made its entry thanks mainly to Indian architecture’s long-standing association with Le Corbusier. Corbusier designed the city of Chandigarh and Capitol Complex of the city is still the ‘living’ example of Brutalism in the country. It is a living example because unlike in Western countries in India there are many Brutalist buildings which are still in use. Recently published coffee table book, the Atlas of Brutalist Architecture, has a list of 23 Brutalist buildings in India. Pritzker prize winner, BV Doshi and others like Shivnath Prasad, Raj Rewal and Kuldip Singh are greatly influenced by Le Corbusier and his idea of Brutalism. However, revival of Brutalism is very unlikely as one architect puts it “concrete has limited life and after that its preservation becomes a problem.” It is also said that Indians basically are not as much attracted by concrete as they are in case of building material like wood and stones.
Will the Brutalism regain its lost glory and touch the peak of popularity we had seen in 1970s? It is an unlikely eventuality because the situation today is slightly, to put it mildly, different from the one that was prevailing in mid-20thcentury. Due to fear and effect of global warming, people have started becoming ‘Green’ conscious. According to WWF estimation, concrete industry’s share of global emissions is at 8% which is considered substantial. Thus, with all its positives notwithstanding, concrete is extremely energy intensive to make and transport, and produces a significant amount of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. With these inherent weaknesses, Brutalism may not be able to gain the lost ground. However, the present newly regenerated curiosity about Brutalism may help to conserve and preserve the old Brutalist buildings world over many of which are in ruins due to utter negligence. If that happens, conservationists should be thankful to some of the coffee table book publishers!