What Is Brutalism?

One Police Plaza in NYC

Gary Winiker / Getty Images

Brutalism is a style of architecture from the 1950s-1970s, characterized by simple, block-like, hulking concrete structures that are as shocking to the eyes today as they were when they were first built. Your average Brutalist building is a memorable, scene-stealing, graphic piece of architecture that stands out in a crowd, forever altering city skylines and looming over built landscapes around the world. A bold, in-your-face and eternally polarizing style, Brutalism leaves no one indifferent, with both passionate defenders and those who find it equally hard to love.

Boston City Hall
Boston City Hall. Isaac Murray / Getty Images

The History of Brutalism

The term Brutalism—coined by Swedish architect Hans Asplund as nybrutalism and popularized by British architectural critic Reyner Banham in 1955—is not a reference to the arguably brutal nature of its appearance but a play on the French phrase for raw concrete, béton brut.

J Edgar Hoover FBI Building, Washington, DC
J Edgar Hoover FBI Building, Washington, DC. qingwa / Getty Images

Emerging from the modernist movement of the late 19th century to mid 20th century, Brutalist architecture was born in the 1950s. Celebrated modernist architect Le Corbusier’s iconic Cité Radieuse in Marseille, France—a post-war working class housing unit for 1,600 people that is part of his Unité d'Habitation social housing project—is thought to be the building that inspired the Brutalist movement. Completed in 1952, it had a massive unadorned reinforced concrete frame filled with modular apartment units that was a model for post-war societies looking to replenish housing stock for the masses.

UK National Theatre building
UK National Theatre building. peterhowell / Getty Images

Brutalism spread throughout Europe, the Soviet Union and to the U.S. (and around the world to countries such as Israel, Japan and Brazil). Brutalist architecture became a popular if perennially controversial choice for institutional buildings such as NYC’s One Police Plaza (1973) and Boston City Hall (1968) as well as university libraries, car parks, churches, shopping centers, high-rise social housing blocks like the Orgues de Flandre in Paris and cultural complexes like the Hayward Gallery (1968) and National Theatre (1976) on London’s South Bank.

Les Orgues de Flandre social housing tower block towers in Paris
Les Orgues de Flandre, Paris. James Burns / Getty Images

Brutalism began to fade out in the 1980s, where it increasingly came to be regarded as cold, alienating and unfit for humans. It turned out that concrete had an allure of indestructibility but deteriorated from the inside, making it difficult to maintain and prone to crumbling and water damage as it aged. Brutalist buildings were neglected and covered in graffiti, symbolizing urban decay. The embrace of Brutalist architecture in the Soviet Union meant that the style also began to suffer from its association with totalitarianism.

Geisel Library, La Jolla, California
Geisel Library, University of California, La Jolla. Barry Winiker / Getty Images

In the years since, the world has been divided into those who think that Brutalist buildings are eyesores that should be demolished and those who find these vintage but not yet historic buildings architectural masterpieces to be cherished and preserved. Because of their heavy poured concrete construction, Brutalist buildings are difficult to renovate, though one successful example is the Centre National de la Danse just outside Paris, which opened after the original 1972 building was reconverted in 2003. They are also difficult to tear down, which only makes the public debate about whether or not to save these hulking relics even more complicated.

Brutalist-style Communist housing in Belgrade, Serbia
Brutalist-style Communist housing in Belgrade, Serbia. BalkansCat / Getty Images

While architecture moved on to 1980s and 1990s postmodernism and today’s contemporary styles, in part because everything comes back into fashion in one way or another, and thanks to a recent spate of books and the rediscovery of #brutalism by a new generation on the web, Brutalism is having a bit of a moment, showing its influence in contemporary product and interior design, furniture, objects and even Brutalist websites.

Velasca Tower in Milan
Velasca Tower in Milan. bwzenith / Getty Images

Key Elements of Brutalism

  • Blocky, heavy appearance
  • Simple, graphic lines
  • Lack of ornamentation
  • Utilitarian feel
  • Monochromatic palette
  • Use of raw exposed concrete (and sometimes brick) exteriors
  • Rough, unfinished surfaces
  • Use of modern materials such as steel, glass, stone, gabions
  • Small windows
  • Modular elements
Trellick Tower in London
Trellick Tower in London. VictorHuang / Getty Images

Interesting Facts About Brutalism

London’s Trellick Tower designed by architect Erno Goldfinger is a 31-story Brutalist housing unit completed in 1972 that now has landmark status. Goldfinger was one of the modernist architects called upon to rebuild and restock London’s housing supply after the ravages of World War II, but not everyone is a fan of his work. James Bond author Ian Flemming famously hated Goldfinger’s aesthetic so much that he named Bond’s nemesis after him.

Brutalist buildings are popular locations in films and television series about urban dystopias.

Brutalism is an offshoot of modernism.

Trellick Tower in London
Trellick Tower in London. James Burns / Getty Images