Beauty through brutal simplicity by Nerio

 National Library of Australia

National Library of Australia

Brutalism in architecture is a concept that is not widely known outside of design circles, having never gained the international momentum that others enjoyed. Born at a time when Modernism was morphing towards Post Modernism, a small group of architects moved to introduce a particular type of honesty to their buildings. This innocent pursuit questioned the way designers approached their buildings and provoked one of the greatest questions about ethics of design. It suggested we allow an item be it a building, clothing or jewellery to stand and be seen for itself, and not to be one thing whilst pretending to be another. And so, the Modernist obsession with not dressing a material unnecessarily, coupled with the belief amongst some that form follows function developed into a movement all of its own. This movement celebrated the way concrete as a material could form not only the functional requirements of a building but also provide beauty through its own rough weightiness. 

It has been said that one of the most intriguing elements of the movement, comes not from the buildings themselves (although their unapologetically hard, heavy appearance certainly has its appeal) but rather that the movement’s name is so weirdly appropriate. The term brutalism was born not from a reference to the movement’s often hefty, somewhat overwhelming nature, but rather to the use of concrete in its natural, unadorned form. The movement is thought to have had its earliest appearance when master architect Le Corbusier referenced the chosen material for his Unite d’habitation in Marseille (1952) as being formed of beton brut, French for raw concrete. From here, others started playing with concrete as a material and celebrating its innate ability to take on the form of its mould. 

 Unite d’habitation in Marseille (1952)

Unite d’habitation in Marseille (1952)

Architects rejected concrete designation as structural columns that needed to be encased in a material more aesthetically pleasing. In response, they started creating large rounded forms and leaving the concrete to shine in its natural state.

Enjoying a scale that often dwarfs the mere humans that inhabit it, brutalism was usually reserved for public architecture which demands a certain level of presence. In Australia, we are lucky enough to have many great examples of the style, with concert halls, government buildings, and law courts amongst them. The most iconic to my mind is the Sirius building in Sydney. Nestled at the very foundations of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Sirius building epitomises the struggles that have so plagued the movement itself. People either love or hate this building, and despite its incredible history, notoriety and architectural significance attempt to demolish it continue to this day. More about this can be found here.

It should come as no surprise that Canberra, a city rich in design history and appreciation, has many examples of the movement including The High Court of Australia, Canberra School of Music, Cameron Offices in Belconnen, and The National Gallery of Australia.

 National Gallery of Australia

National Gallery of Australia

For me personally, the beauty of the Brutalist movement comes not in its historical significance but rather in the way such large, brutally simple structures confront and assail their inhabitants. As a society, we are very used to things being made beautiful for us. I am guilty of it. As an architect, I often find ways to soften a corner, a roof form, or the scale of a building when viewed by a pedestrian on the street. Brutalist buildings have none of this and I think this speaks to their true place in the world, in a wholly urban landscape. 

Whilst some find the sight of the Sirius Building offensive nestled beside the Harbour Bridge, imagine it sited adjacent to your neighbourhood park. Everything about it suggests it belongs in the city centre, a place where people gather in larger numbers, where festivals and protests also find their home. These buildings offer an innate sense of foreboding, perfectly suited to the highest court in our country, or the safekeeping of our most treasured pieces of art.  

The question of human scale in architecture is brought to great significance when you consider the different uses of the structures we build. For me, one of the great joys of architecture is the differing scales that different buildings and functions demand. In a past life I designed school buildings, we designed with a firm belief that the scale of the building should increase as the scale of the student does. Put simply, a child starting school for the first time, who’s most profound architectural experience has usually been their home, should be introduced gently to the wider world of bigger and bigger buildings. 

The campuses start with preschool buildings that are residential in scale and grow as the students using them progress through their formative schooling years. By the time a student is ready to venture forth as an (almost) fully fledged adult, they have grown accustomed to a scale of building more akin to that of an office building, or a university study hall. That way, students are not left shell-shocked when thrust forward into the urban scaled buildings they will likely inhabit for the majority of their adult lives.

 Cameron Building

Cameron Building

At the forefront of all architectural endeavours, I have a profound desire to protect, revitalise and restore our natural environment. I relish in the way in which brutalist architecture restores the deep human experience found in the natural environment. Never was a 100-year-old eucalyptus so beautiful, as when viewed in juxtaposition to a solid, overbearing and not just a little overwhelming immovable concrete form. There is a place in this world for authentically designed urban landscapes full of big buildings, cars and sounds. And their presence only serves as the most precious reminder of the true beauty to be found in nature.

While brutalist architecture has seen a revival in recent years, its confronting nature lends itself to being reserved for only the bravest of inhabitants. It's brutal honesty, however, is an idea that in my humble opinion, more designers should aspire to. Love it or hate it, the true merit of a brutalist building is not in its size or use, but it's inherent honesty, pretending to be nothing other than it is, a voluminous concrete form.

Article by Shannon Demicoli Battisson
Images by Samuel Broomby
First appeared in Big Ink Magazine

A home for a family to grow into for years to come by Nerio

A new block in an old town, surrounded by historic gems.

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This project started when we were approached by a young couple who had bought a new block in old Bungendore. While the houses on one side of the street are all new, and the other side are all older, all of the existing homes had a very country feel about them. They were in love with this style, however, wanted to add a sense of themselves, a modern twist of traditional Australian living.

Instead of forfeiting one love for the other, they merged their love of their town and their modern style; this idea became the seed that grew into the home we now see, Introducing modern living elements into this old town.

Making the project all the more lively and engaging, the clients managed to happily combine some of life’s most significant milestones into the two-year design and build period. Welcoming their first child and getting married all during the build was undoubtedly ambitious, but kept the true meaning of the project at the forefront for the whole duration. The project was to be a beautiful, warm, and welcoming family home for the young couple to grow into for years to come.

The first requirement of the home, lead the direction of the entire design. On a slim block, the clients needed a house which included vehicle access from the front and rear entrances of the home. To ensure maximum benefit could be gained from the small northern outlook, a garage was done away with in preference for a lightweight carport, part of which can be driven through to gain access to the rear yard.

A pavilion style home rose up next to the carport whereby the living areas were housed within the widest part of the home, and large clerestory windows were installed to allow light to bounce around the main rooms, despite the carports north presence.  

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The central pavilion would then become a welcoming bridge between the front public gardens and the private rear yards. From the moment you move beyond the entry room, your eyes are immediately drawn to the generous rear deck and yard beyond.

Mixing traditional design with a modern style this welcoming family home included features regularly seen in older houses, however, were essential to the client.

The mudroom is the main feature, while the home enjoys a generous sun filled formal entry for guests, with space to sit and remove shoes and coats, the family enter through a more relaxed mudroom. Allowing them the freedom to drop the remnants of their day (bags, shoes, and jackets) and enter their home relaxed.  

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A quiet nook was introduced into the north facing master bedroom, overlooking the garden and quiet country street and beyond. The modern take of the window seat features Clad in COR-TEN steel, explicitly designed to rust and age with time, the solid boxlike structure belies the soft, custom upholstered seat within. The result is a wonderfully quiet, sunny spot, to read in the sun, to watch the life of the street beyond the house, to hide away.

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The central living pavilion of the house has a beautiful raked ceiling with clerestory windows that ensure sunlight reaches the most southern corners of the space. The high ceiling was raised to allow space for the clerestory windows which also adds a beautiful sense of drama and visual interest to space.

As the windows allow for your eye to move around the room following the light, the kitchen stops you and is the modern touch the family wanted to introduce into their Bungendore gem.

An ultra matt black finish meets the edges of concrete and timber for an incredible result and a kitchen that juxtaposes the traditional elements. This home is a hidden gem, a mix of the old and the new, a home for a couple to grow into for years to come.

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Photography by Adam McGrath - HCreations

The home that lets light in. by Shannon Battisson

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It started with the need to replace a dishwasher, which led to a desire for a new kitchen and ended with a complete renovation of a traditional family home. 

When we met on site to discuss the brief, it was clear that whilst the clients loved their home, and had invested significant money in the now established landscaped gardens, the house itself failed to meet their needs and wants.  With a young family, the hardworking couple desperately wanted to introduce some light into the living areas which were currently dark, cold and disconnected from the beautiful garden spaces surrounding the dwelling. 

Once we understood their needs and knew that the introduction of light was a necessity we provided multiple concept designs to ensure that all possibilities were considered. Starting with an option that changed only the kitchen, the next was the living spaces and the last was a complete renovation of the current home.

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The client was onboard and ready to make some major changes to the way the house functioned, and in so doing actually reduced the overall footprint of the house! This is a strong example of why extra floor area does not equate with better quality spaces.  In this instance, a pop out dining nook, which was too small and badly placed to be useable, was blocking all natural light from both the kitchen and family room. 

Removing the pop out made way for the introduction of the 6m wide stackable sliding door.  And when combined with three operable skylights, this formerly internal and dark space was suddenly opened to both the sun and the garden beyond.

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The other great change was the relocation of a series of box-like rooms that ran the length of the house, blocking access to the garden, light and cross ventilation.  Moving one bedroom to the south, and a study to an internal space with a large skylight, allowed the placement of a new north facing living room, dramatically improving both the energy use of the house and the general amenity of the spaces.

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And finally, we removed a feature common to houses in new estates from the 90’s onward, the entry portico.  This heavy masonry structure added little aesthetic value to the house but contributed to the complete lack of natural light within.  Removing exterior structures allowed the introduction of a beautiful timber solar pergola which provides weather protection for the front door, shade during summer months, and vital sunlight during Canberra’s winter. A home that lets light in.

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Photography by Adam McGrath - HCreations