Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Brutalist world

The second of my quartet of summer book reviews is a massive work of reference on an architectural style that, having fallen out of favour, now seems to be fashionable again.

Oliver Elser et al (eds), SOS Brutalism: A Global Survey
Published by Park Books 

I’ve been impressed by a number of the recent books that have helped us to look with a more informed eye on the concrete buildings of the 1960s and 1970s and have led to a new appreciation of the architectural style known as Brutalism. One of these books has already been reviewed here; others have got me thinking too. I lived through the period when these buildings went up and was educated in a school designed by one of the most celebrated (and occasionally reviled) architectural practices of the period, but these books have told me more about the period and the interest of its architecture.

But I’ve been left uncertain of the wider context, and of the definition. What exactly is Brutalism? Every book seems to have a different perspective on this, and much of what I’ve read covers Britain, but doesn’t set this country in the wider picture of world architecture. How unlike books about 1930s modernism, which can’t wait to tell us about Le Corbusier, Watler Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and rightly so.

SOS Brutalism helps with this context. It’s a global survey in two large volumes of Brutalist architecture, combining the views of one hundred authors, several of whom have written extended essays and case studies published here. The first of the two volumes, the big fat one, begins with a short series of essays and case studies. British readers will be especially interested in two contributions by leading authorities: ‘British Brutalisms: New and newer’ by Barnabas Calder and ‘British Universities: Opportunities for a rising generation’ by Elain Harwood. But there are also pieces looking at varieties of Brutalism, and at the style in places from Japan to the former Yugoslavia.

The rest of the fat volume consists of a generous coverage of 120 buildings from all over the world. This gives a broad picture of Brutalism across the world, with enough illustration in the form exterior and interior photographs, details, and, sometimes, plans or cross-sections, to give a sense of each example. This reader was pleased to be introduced to a variety of interesting buildings in South Asia and Latin America, and to be reminded of the Brutalist architecture of Eastern Europe (and by a writer ready to admit the elasticity of the term ‘Eastern Europe’* and keen to stress that generally architects in this region did not use the term ‘Brutalism’ at all). Concrete addicts will not be able to get enough of all this, and some of us will marvel at the depth of interest in parts of the world we’ve not visited, from Africa to South Asia.

This volume is bundled with a second, slimmer but still substantial, of contributions to a symposium held in Berlin in 2012, and published under the auspices of the Wüstenrot Foundation. This material consists of a further 17 essays, some on specific buildings such as Hunstanton School and the Czech embassy in East Berlin, some on particular countries (Italy, the USA, Japan, Germany), still others on more general themes, wrapping up with studies of New Brutalism’s relevance today and on the issue of giving these buildings the status of historical monuments. This whole project, which includes a huge amount of previously unpublished material, is impressive, monumental, and far too large to be done justice in a short review like this. This review is simply a pointer. If you’re at all interested in the subject, find a copy of this impressive double volume, look at it, and decide: it will almost certainly be for you.

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*Many Czechs. for example, insist that their country is in Central Europe, and they have a point. Vienna is more easterly than Prague.


honeyrose said...

Well I have a pretty clear picture of what I consider to be Brutalist architecture and find it all uniformly horrid.I particularly dislike stained and discoloured concrete. But your reference to the Czech republic is an interesting one. Anyone who has been to Prague knows that the hills around the city are covered with the worst type of Soviet tower block. I suppose these do not count as part of the Brutalist movement because they were not architect designed to beso. To me there is no discernable difference in the exteriors.

In London a lot of glass curtain wall buildings have gone up in recent years. Is this a movement and does it have a name?

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I'm afraid it might take an awful lot to convert me to a positive appreciation of "Brutalism".
I think the style is well named, and the resource, concrete, wasted by building in it.