THIS BRUTAL WORLD, a catalog of worldwide Brutalist architecture, presents its starkly beautiful black-and-white photos as both a treatise and a love letter. The book’s author, Peter Chadwick, falls resolutely and joyously on the side of Brutalism as an egalitarian, economically progressive, and fundamentally global movement. Chadwick describes his childhood fascination with the industrial concrete structures he encountered growing up in northern England, where Newcastle’s Trinity Square carpark made a particularly lasting impression: ‘I had never seen anything like it. The structure was thrilling and scary, and I immediately liked it, although I wasn’t quite sure why.’
This tendency toward the sublime, imposing, and monolithic, as opposed to the familiar and comfortable, is echoed in the other voices interspersed throughout the book. Quotes from architects and philosophers (Le Corbusier, Zaha Hadid, Nietzsche) appear alongside those of writers of utopias and dystopias (Orwell, J.G. Ballard, Ayn Rand). Chadwick’s lifelong involvement with music is a central thread of the book, with quotes from the darker fringes of epochal 80s and 90s rock: Joy Division, Simple Minds, The Human League, Suede, The Clash, David Bowie, Nick Cave and others, whose words provide a fitting ‘soundtrack’ to the accompanying angles and shadows.
The most interesting quotes are those that hint at the counter-arguments against Brutalist buildings: that they are alienating and ugly at best, and fascist and dystopian at worst, symbols of failed economies and indifferent urban planning, set coldly and indifferently among buildings actually intended for humans. Ballard’s High Rise refers to its titular building as ‘brooding’ and ‘magisterial’, while the architect Peter Eisenman references this detachment directly (‘The architecture that we remember is that which never consoles or comforts us’). The critic Reyner Banham is more visceral: ‘What characterizes the New Brutalism in architecture… is precisely its brutality, its je-m’en-foutisme, its bloody mindedness.’ Ayn Rand, easy enough to associate with Thatcherite coldness, distills this sense of indifference further: ’A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose.’
Most relevant to this question is Jack Self’s double-edged musing on the place of the human in a Brutalist landscape: ‘The Brutalist citizen has to be understood as an abstract egalitarian ideal, not as an individual lost in a microscopic concrete cave of some gargantuan building.’ While this sentiment comes from a place of utopian idealism, it also hints at the dehumanizing tendencies of Soviet-style communism, which shielded its citizens from the vagaries of capitalism at the expense of personal freedoms. While Brutalist architecture is no more inherently fascist than the monumental Neoclassicism favored by the Nazis, it was nonetheless a perfect fit for the more authoritarian regimes of the 20th century, particularly in the USSR and Eastern Bloc.
In grouping the photographs thematically rather than by location or time period, however, the book gives its best argument for Brutalism as an equalizing force. Most striking are the spreads showing similar-looking structures in altogether different cultures and climates: modernist, geometric churches are set among Scandinavian crags and subtropical Latin American jungles, while hive-like clusters of apartments or classrooms represent locations ranging from Israel to Japan to South Africa. In a practical sense, concrete is an incredible insulator for sweltering and freezing climates alike, and if properly constructed, can withstand flooding, fires, and even earthquakes – perhaps Self’s ‘concrete cave’ is not always undesirable, particularly for a citizen of, say, the Israeli desert or the Siberian tundra.
Put another way, if Brutalism carries a degree of guilt-by-association with authoritarianism, then the bland megamall architecture that has followed it is a perfect analog for the cheery plutocracies of neoliberalism. Between the cold utopianism and stark concrete of Brutalism, and the militantly inoffensive, corporate-branded structures that have sprung up in its wake, at least the former is willing to argue, provoke, and claim its space in the urban or natural landscape.
Ultimately, the book transcends such weighty political concerns to become a celebration of minimalist, monumental beauty. Brutalist structures are, first and foremost, honest: at their core they are no colder or starker than a snowdrift, no blanker than an empty sky, and no more authoritarian than a mountain peak or canyon.
This Brutal World
By Peter Chadwick
All images © Phaidon