How I learned to stop worrying and love Brutalism

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like Brutalist buildings. I think they’re eyesores and blights upon the urban landscape. I would hate to work or learn in a Brutalist building, let alone live in one. I’m actually a frothing architectural reactionary who thinks nothing built after 1930 is worth the (cheap) material it was built from, and that the colonisation of our cities by Brutalist concrete monstrosities, and the accompanying destruction of priceless architectural heritage, was a heinous crime.

I don’t need to give a lecture on the ills of Brutalism, which are plain enough. Not only are Brutalist buildings ugly, they’re designed to be ugly. Or, rather, they’re designed to eschew any and all notions of beauty and aesthetic appeal in favour of pure functionality. Which, really, is the same thing as being designed to be ugly. Beauty is elitist and oppressive, you see, and by rejecting conventional norms of beauty we reject elitist, oppressive bourgeois society. By tearing down the spires and arches and ornate façades from the past and replacing them with featureless concrete blocks, we create a just new society atop the ashes of the oppressive old, where none are beautiful or ugly, rich or poor, gentle or common, great or small; where all are equal, and all the same.

Brutalism, then, is not just ugly, but deliberately anti-beauty. It is designed to reduce the built environment to the lowest common denominator, levelling down the physical world we live in just as we level down the human world itself. Brutalist buildings are also depersonifying in the way egalitarian ideology is: their monumental proportions make the individual feel minute and insignificant, except as one tiny, indistinct cog among millions in an enormous, inhuman social machine. Brutalist buildings, therefore, are erected as physical symbols of the brave new world; visual egalitarianism.

Which is all very well, but such high-minded ideals don’t spare much sympathy for the people who actually have to live and work in these drab concrete eyesores. No one should be surprised by the revelation that the physical world around us affects our mood, our productivity, and even our mental health. Sunlight, warmth, greenery, pretty buildings and other people make us happy. Grey skies and cold, grey surroundings devoid of humanity make us anxious and downcast. Few people like living and working in cold, grey, concrete environments. The proliferation of Brutalist buildings in the 1960s and 1970s was an instance of building for ideology rather than for people.

So much for what’s wrong with Brutalism. And yet—and yet—there’s a small part of me which can’t help but admire Brutalist architecture, in all its cold, nihilistic ugliness. No, I will never think Brutalist buildings are pretty, but no one could deny they’re impressive. Brutalism isn’t supposed to be pretty, but it’s designed to impress and to awe, with its gigantic proportions, its stark, straight lines and geometric shapes, and its overpowering cold, barren greyness. When you approach a Brutalist building, you feel increasingly diminished as the sheer, bleak façade towers over you. When you are inside one, you are awed by the dimensions, which are exaggerated by the ostentatious lack of any feature or ornament whatsoever. Brutalism is an aesthetic experience designed to dominate the senses.

And this is by no means a characteristic unique to Brutalism. Many of the great buildings of the past were also constructed to create an awesome impression. What were the great European cathedrals but edifices and spaces designed to make the believer feel small and supine before the divine majesty of God? What was the feudal lord’s towering castle on the hill but the Brutalist eyesore of its day, designed, in part, to intimidate and awe the oppressed local peasantry? And we don’t think of the Tower of London or St Peter’s Basilica as anything other than priceless artefacts of our historical heritage.

And while Brutalist buildings may not be pretty (in the sense of Instagrammable), if you squint really hard and tilt your head a bit and look at them in just the right light, they do, I’ll admit, have a certain avant garde glamour to them, in a sci-fi, Ayn Randian sort of way. You could compare Brutalism, for example, to Vaporwave (or its forerunner, Surrealism), which is to art what Brutalism is to architecture. No one thinks Vaporwave art is pretty, but, with its faux-nostalgic imagery, hyper-saturated pastels and incongruous Roman busts, it has its own weird, evocative allure that has nothing to do with conventional notions of beauty.

In the same way, Brutalism’s stark shapes, hard lines and bare surfaces exercise the aesthetic sensors of the brain. Not in a pleasing, endorphin-producing way, but it exercises them nonetheless. If sufficiently open and receptive to aesthetic experiences other than the pretty, pleasing kind, people are drawn to the visual impression created by Brutalism in the same way they’re drawn to Vaporwave, or Black Metal music, or skydiving, or very spicy food, or whisky. Our senses and our bodies are not made to enjoy these things, but once we overcome our instinctive repulsion to them, we can enjoy the experience of exciting our senses with things they instinctively reject.

And for my part, at least, it’s also hard not to admire an architectural style propagated so boldly in the service of its guiding philosophy, whatever one might think of that philosophy, over other relevant concerns such as aesthetic appeal and fitness for human habitation. It’s hard not to admire buildings which were, in part, designed as physical symbols of such a bold and ambitious social philosophy. One can appreciate and admire the impressive intellectual edifices crafted by Nietzsche, Marx, Plato, Stirner and Rand despite being justifiably repulsed by those thinkers’ worldviews.

So, on balance, if I could, would I knock down all the Brutalist eyesores that blot our cities? If it meant replacing them with the kinds of beautiful buildings that were themselves invariably demolished to make space for the new concrete horrors in the 1960s and 1970s, then I would. Little satisfies more than putting right an old wrong.

But, let’s face it, they’re not going to be replaced by beautiful Victorian train stations and Georgian pubs, but, if possible, by even blander, less interesting buildings that blend seamlessly into the rest of the featureless, unexciting modern urban landscape. Brutalist buildings, at least, have the decency to be offensive and ugly, if they’re not going to be pretty. I think I would rather a building that is proudly, shamelessly ugly than one that, although it tries to avoid being ugly, still can’t bring itself to be pretty. The former is something to be looked at, to be reviled or admired, depending on your taste. The latter won’t even be looked at, or thought about at all. It’s just there. Brutalism, at least, is not that.


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