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