In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Brutalism in Architecture

  • Introduction
  • The Roots of Brutalism
  • The New Brutalism
  • The Smithsons and Brutalism
  • Reyner Banham and Brutalism
  • Brutalism and Art
  • The Brutalist Style
  • Canonical Architects and Buildings
  • Brutalism as a Regional Phenomenon
  • Brutalism and Concrete
  • Brutalism and Preservation
  • The Brutalist Revival
  • Redefining Brutalism

Architecture Planning and Preservation Brutalism in Architecture
Réjean Legault
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0087


In its most generally accepted sense, Brutalism refers to the architecture of the late 1950s through the 1970s that is primarily identified by an expressive use of exposed concrete. While the precise characterization of the works associated with this label is still in flux, wavering between a focus on their form, their materiality, their visual impact, and even their ethical intent, the common denominator of brutalist architecture remains that of the primary material employed. This accepted characterization of Brutalism as a stylistic category has tended to obscure the complex history of the notion. This brief introduction thus focuses on the brutalist trajectory, with the goal to consider its discursive origins, its competing iterations, and its contemporary interpretation. There is a broad consensus to the effect that the notion first emerged in England in the early 1950s within a circle of architects, artists, and critics who shared a new sensibility toward the material and visual culture of postwar Britain. The discourses and practices emerging from this circle were encapsulated under the label of the “New Brutalism.” Most historians also agree that by the end of the 1950s, the idea and its descriptors—New Brutalism, Brutalism—and the adjective brutalist began to move beyond Britain to appear in print in continental Europe and beyond. Severed from its original context, the idea was applied to different architectural cultures. By the late 1960s it was clear that a significant shift had occurred, with the idea of Brutalism now primarily associated with the architecture of exposed concrete, which was perceived as an international phenomenon. Central to this new conception was Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation at Marseilles (1945–1952) and its expressive use of béton brut, which came to be viewed as the primary source of brutalist architecture. Any serious investigation of Brutalism in architecture must therefore take into account that this umbrella term refers to two distinct yet interrelated phenomena. From the 1970s to the 1990s, Brutalism in architecture was little discussed in the historiography. The architecture of exposed concrete—to which it came to be associated—was generally subjected to negative criticism, even outright rejection. The tide began to turn at the end of the 1990s, and since the new millennium, Brutalism as an idea and an architecture has now become a serious topic for scholarly investigation. In parallel with aesthetic considerations, some scholars have also explored its social and political underpinnings, making connections with the rise of the welfare state in Western countries. This renewed interest coincided with a new appreciation, even affection for brutalist buildings in all their manifestations, triggering passionate campaigns to re-evaluate and protect a wide range of buildings. Yet the scholarly scrutiny of recent years has also shown that the historical assessment of Brutalism, and the precise characterization of the architecture to which it is associated, is still open to debate.

General Overview of Published Sources

Given the complexity of the brutalist trajectory, any overview of publications on the subject must address the various phases of and trends within its development. Starting from the assumption that Brutalism in architecture originated with the emergence of what might best be described as an idea in architectural discourse, the first phase of its trajectory can be solidly located in England in the early 1950s. At the time, this idea—promoted by the architects Alison and Peter Smithson and the critic Reyner Banham among others—was essentially disseminated through articles and commentaries published in architecture journals. The same vehicles were employed when the idea began to be disseminated abroad, beginning with Italy and Germany. The main turning point came in 1966 with the publication of Banham’s The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (published simultaneously in German), which offered the first retrospective account of the movement associated with Brutalism and the architecture to which the brutalist label could be applied. From then on, discussions of Brutalism in architecture tended to move away from the original idea of a brutalist sensibility, focusing instead on the affirmation of the existence of a brutalist architecture of exposed concrete. From the early 1970s to the late 1990s, publications on Brutalism and brutalist architecture were few and far between, a paucity that was further compounded by the negative reception of the architecture of exposed concrete and the corresponding pejorative associations raised by the term. Since the beginning of the new millennium, however, interest for the brutalist architecture of exposed concrete has returned to the forefront of the architectural agenda, a reappearance that has had a direct impact on the production of scholarship. The first two decades of the 21st century have witnessed a surge of contributions dealing with the many facets of the brutalist phenomenon in architecture as well as the architectural production to which it is related. There are still relatively few books focused on Brutalism either as an attitude or as a stylistic phenomenon. Among the ones that exist, most tend to focus on its manifestation in the work of a single architect or firm, in a single country or even city. By contrast, there are now hundreds of essays and articles. The subjects they touch upon are much broader, exploring a variety of topics related to Brutalism in architecture conceived either as an artistic attitude, a movement, a theoretical position, a debate, a period, or building types. Moreover, many contributions are now exploring the brutalist phenomenon in terms of national or regional manifestations.

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