Post war architecture - why Brutalism?

Why did Brutalism become such a popular architectural style after the war? Was it just easy to build to replace lost buildings or was it a genuinely popular style? in the 40s and 50s at least in Europe?

I think it was perhaps a reaction to the over-decorated “Neo-Gothic” style of the 1920’s and 1930’s (“art-deco” was also a reaction, valuing function over art pleasing to the eye.).

Some might say that Brutalism is a combination of the two - Neo-Gothic monumentalism, with Bauhaus functionalism.

Brutalism was also a way to get big things built fast to replace stuff bombed in the war. “Steel cube+concrete” - a style still seen in these giant transfer-warehouses, for instance - goes up fast, and lasts. The apartment-tower-blocks, built the same way, outlived their human usefulness before they failed structurally.

Or am I misunderstanding completely? (It wouldn’t be the first time.)


My two cent here, not any pretension about having the “good” answer to the question.

I think, that it is a combination of multiple factors (as always).

One of the general characteristic of the “Brutalism” (I don’t think that the term was widely used by the architects of this style) was that it generally use concrete as the main material (some building use bricks, or others one, but concrete its what come in mind first when we talk about Brutalism). Concrete can be cheap to produce, and can be easily turn into pre-build part, which ease the process of construction, and help build big stuff quickly.

Also, beyond the material practicality, the general aspect and ideologies behind the style is highly compatible with patterns repetition / modularity, which is also a big a advantage if you need to build quickly “performant” stuff.

These two factors are very handy in an era where the demand was huge (reconstruction + new wave of immigration).

But it’s also important to keep in mind that this style represent a certain idea of the future or a least a modern way of thinking (In reaction to highly decorated style like the one mentions by xfilesfc), in an era where innovation and “progress” was speeding up, I suppose it’s also highly compatible.

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So was “postmodernism” a reaction to the concrete-quickbuild era? (Couldn’t architects come up with better terms? “Neo-Gothic”, “Gothic Revival”, “Modernism”, “Post-modernism”, and - apparently - “Post Post Modernism”, “Hypermodernism”, and “Metamodernism”. Sheesh.)


It’s easier to trace in Europe, as you say, due to the need to re-house so many people across the continent and rebuild industry and commerce. In The Critic, Nikos A. Salingaros put it this way:

After the Second World War, the architecture-industrial complex of building and real estate industries began a massive rebuilding of major cities. This freed up real estate for new construction, an activity that enriched a certain section of society. Working with politicians at all levels, architectural review boards did not value traditional buildings, nor those in any of several new but non-modernist form languages. Any qualms about the irreversible destruction of the life of cities were offset by the media convincing the population that this was an inexorable and much desired move towards progress. Anybody opposing this program of architectural substitution — replacing living by dead structure — was labeled an obscurantist reactionary. The promised utopia seduced academia to join this campaign. People failed to realize that an ideology ostensibly linked to Marxist beliefs was driven by ruthless industry manipulation.

As you can probably tell, he’s not a fan and much of his article outlines why so many British cities ended up looking like an annex of the “Workers’ Paradise”. Theodore Dalrymple is also not a fan of the Brutalist style:

When defenders of or apologists for brutalism illustrate their articles with supposed masterpieces of the genre, it is hardly a coincidence that they do so with pictures of buildings utterly devoid of human beings. A human being would be about as out of place in such a picture, and a fortiori in such a building, as he would be in a textbook of Euclidean geometry, and would be as welcome as a termite in a wooden floor or a policeman in a thieves’ kitchen. For such defenders and apologists of brutalism, architecture is a matter of the application of an abstract principle alone, and they see the results through the lenses of their abstraction, which they cherish as others cherish their pet.

Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson helpfully explain why contemporary architecture repels a lot of people:

The fact is, contemporary architecture gives most regular humans the heebie-jeebies. Try telling that to architects and their acolytes, though, and you’ll get an earful about why your feeling is misguided, the product of some embarrassing misconception about architectural principles. One defense, typically, is that these eyesores are, in reality, incredible feats of engineering. After all, “blobitecture” — which, we regret to say, is a real school of contemporary architecture — is created using complicated computer-driven algorithms! You may think the ensuing blob-structure looks like a tentacled turd, or a crumpled kleenex, but that’s because you don’t have an architect’s trained eye.

Another thing you will often hear from design-school types is that contemporary architecture is honest. It doesn’t rely on the forms and usages of the past, and it is not interested in coddling you and your dumb feelings. Wake up, sheeple! Your boss hates you, and your bloodsucking landlord too, and your government fully intends to grind you between its gears. That’s the world we live in! Get used to it! Fans of Brutalism — the blocky-industrial-concrete school of architecture — are quick to emphasize that these buildings tell it like it is, as if this somehow excused the fact that they look, at best, dreary, and, at worst, like the headquarters of some kind of post-apocalyptic totalitarian dictatorship.


There were three reasons:

  1. Brutalism is a cheap style.
  2. There was a backlash against traditional architecture and other styles because of the Nazis like Speer.
  3. Communists love Brutalism and conquered much of the world. Brutalist buildings such as the Science and Technology Center in Warsaw were originally intended to symbolize the Soviet Union’s dominance over Poland.

I hate Brutalism for several reasons, the biggest one being the tendency for Brutalist buildings to have pebbled floors. Have you ever tried rolling lab equipment across a pebbled floor?


In the post war period the priority was replacing the building stock and so a style that didn’t involve unnecessary decorative effort was attractive.
As to popularity: it was popular among architects for it’s intellectual honesty; among developers because it was easy to do cheap and cheerful; and among politicians because it produced large numbers of units quickly.
In the sixties and seventies it got a bad reputation because the masses of cheap and cheerful buildings were deteriorating.
Many of these have now been replaced.
Many of the better ones are now much loved buildings.
But like all styles it has it’s fans and it’s detractors driven by individual tastes. One person’s beautiful honest brutality is another’s ugly stark brutality.

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In North America the increase in wage levels made ‘ornament’’, particularly stonecarving, too expensive as they were so labour intensive. Curiously, Canada’s Centre Block was one of the last major punluc buldings errected with large amounts if ornamemt in the traditional style in 1924.

Its current renovation has led to a renaussance of stonecarving as masons have incorporated computer-controlled carving machines which saves time and lower costs.