‘Redefining Brutalism’ offers an interpretation of architectural ethics rather than fashionable aesthetics, finds Nicola Rutt


Nicola Rutt


‘Redefining Brutalism’
Simon Henley
RIBA Publishing, 224pp, £30

A quick search on Amazon shows that there have been at least 14 books on Brutalist architecture published in the last 18 months. That beats publications about other architectural style hands-down, and given the bad press that Brutalism has received over the last 50 years, it can only be a good thing. This new appreciation of Brutalism is gaining momentum, and architect Simon Henley’s new book ‘Redefining Brutalism’, sets out to provide us with an alternative understanding of it.


Top: School of Ballet, Cuba, designed by Vittorio Garatti and begin in 1961 but not completed (ph: S Henley)
Above: Mäusebunker, Berlin, designed by Gerd Hänska

As the title suggests, its premise is to dispel preconceptions that Brutalism is exclusively characterised by concrete buildings from the post-war period. Henley hopes to “detoxify” the term Brutalism by redefining it as a sensibility rather than a style, and one which is not confined geographically or materially, and remains relevant and very much alive today. To sum it up, he says “I hope this book will be a lens through which to see the present as much as the past”.

Henley hopes to ‘detoxify’ the term Brutalism by redefining it as a sensibility rather than a style”

Henley sets out his argument over twelve thought-provoking essays which in part cover examples of buildings constructed in materials other than concrete, but which can be defined as Brutalist. I imagine the architects and academics most likely to read this book would agree with that: cases in point are Gillespie Kidd & Coia’s St Bride’s Church in East Kilbride (1963) and the Smithsons’ Hunstanton School (1954), which are Brutalist in style despite being constructed in brick and steel respectively.


Sainte Bernadette du Banlay, Nevers, France, designed by Claude Parent (1963-66)

There are plenty of other examples, especially in the chapter titled ‘Brickalism’ which covers works by Louis Khan and Sigurd Lewerentz, among others. Concrete Brutalism is still well represented in the book, mixing in a range of lesser-known international projects such as Gerd Hänska’s ‘Mäusebunker’ in Berlin (not for the faint-hearted), with some home treasures like the Barbican and the National Theatre.

Government Service Center (Boston), designed by Paul Rudolph. Construction began in 1966 but was not completed

Other essays within the book go beyond material qualities to consider how political and socio-economic events helped give rise to Brutalist architecture, again selecting projects with a wide geographical reach and highlighting their differences while still defining them as Brutalist.

However, it is the final essay, ‘The Brutalist Revival’ which is the most ambitious and controversial. The majority of buildings used as examples in the other chapters are from the inter- or post-war periods, but here the spotlight moves to more recent times. Brutalist revival projects include some fairly obvious candidates – Grafton Architects’ UTEC Lima, a concrete megastructure that clearly references Lina Bo Bardi, and the Brick House by Caruso St John with its uncompromising use of brick to form sculptural interiors. Some of the other buildings selected require more of a mental leap to make the connection, but this is made possible in most cases through the speculations and various definitions covered throughout the book.


Student accommodation at the University of Roehampton, London, designed by HHbR, 2017 (ph: David Grandorge)

At the core of the book is the idea that Brutalism is concerned as much with ethics as aesthetics, and that the aesthetic element is characterised by mass, expression of raw materials and honesty of construction. Henley states that by “casting the net wide” it is “possible to understand Brutalism as a way of thinking and making”. ‘Redefining Brutalism’ challenges our understanding of an architectural ‘style’ that has gained a loyal following over recent years. It will probably attract a fairly niche audience, but will certainly provoke wider discussions about how we define architectural style and what it means to us today.