The Polarizing Aesthetic of Brutalist Architecture (and 12 Iconic Examples)

The red shed structure contrasted with the board finish concrete of the brutalist architecture of original National Theatre South Bank Lambeth London. National Theatre in Lambeth, London.

Brutalist architecture appeared in the mid-20th century as a quick, economical solution to the urban destruction caused by World War II. Though originally centered in England, the architectural trend spread quickly over the next few decades, transforming major city skylines worldwide. The style—marked by a heavy use of concrete and steel, modular elements, and a utilitarian feel—hit its peak in the mid-1970s, but was quickly overturned by Old-World Revivalism, which was favored in the 1980s.

Though many critics view the architecture style as too harsh and abstract, a renewed interest for Brutalism within the last decade has propelled many to find a new appreciation for the imposing, seemingly impenetrable buildings. Dozens of these concrete structures have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, including London’s Royal National Theatre, one of the country’s most beloved Brutalist examples. Here, we explore the understated beauty behind the style, and why these buildings have become a beacon for architectural enthusiasts worldwide.

What is Brutalist Architecture?

geometric angular concrete building with walkways.

Geometric, angular concrete building.

Brutalist architecture is a style marked by bold, geometric forms that often use raw concrete as the primary material. Often, Brutalist buildings showcase the process of their construction through unfinished surfaces, rife with markings and imprints of the building’s basic elements and materials. Rather than cover areas with marble, plaster, gold, and other materials, Brutalism not only revealed, but celebrated the mechanical systems and support structures utilized in production.

Brutalist Style and Characteristics

Brutalist structures followed the modernist design principle that form should follow function. A rejection of the revivalist movements of the early 20th century that drew inspiration from decorative Gothic castles and Egyptian temples, Brutalist buildings were solid, unadorned, and undecorated. The concrete exteriors offer a monolithic feel to the structure itself, giving the appearance that it may have been created from a single block. Buildings tend to communicate strength and functionality, with visually heavy, fortress-like characteristics. The bold, confrontational style of Brutalist architecture proved to be polarizing, equally beloved and despised by architect enthusiasts.

A Brief History of Brutalism

concrete bridge and other components of a concrete, Brutalist-style building.

National Theatre in Lambeth, London.

The rise of Brutalism can be traced back to Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. He worked extensively in raw materials, and even developed a system of reinforced concrete columns that allowed interior walls to be load-free. He translated his love of concrete into a residential house design building known as Unité d’Habitation. Corbusier described the building as béton brut, the French word for “raw concrete,” from which the movement derives its name. The building was intended to serve as working class housing and its giant, reinforced concrete framework paved the way for Brutalist projects that followed.

The word “Brutalism,” as it relates to architecture, was first used by Swedish architect Hans Asplund, who used it to describe a square brick home known as the Villa Göth in 1949. English architects Alison and Peter Smithson led British Brutalism through the latter half of the twentieth century. Hungarian-born architect Erno Goldfinger was also a pioneering figure, and it was he who designed the famous Trelick Tower and Balfron Tower, both of which are often cited to exemplify the movement.

By the 1980s, Brutalism began to fall out of favor due to its cold, austere aesthetic, which was often associated with totalitarianism. Another contributing factor that led to its sharp decline was the fact that the buildings aged poorly, often revealing damage and decay. Graffiti artists began utilizing these blank canvases, and their adoption of the buildings furthered the decline of the movement.

12 Notable Examples of Brutalist Architecture

Paul Rudolph Hall, New Haven

Yale Art and Architecture Building on street corner.

Formerly named the Yale Art and Architecture Building, this 1963 project was renamed to honor Paul Rudolph himself after he served as the designer of the building. It is considered one of the first Brutalist structures in the United States, featuring smooth concrete and glass elements supported by a sequence of towers that protrude above the roof. The giant textured-concrete columns surround an off-center entryway that welcomes students and visitors from the university.

The Breuer Building, New York City

The Met Breuer building in New York City.

Designed by architect Marcel Breuer in 1966, the Breuer Building, like many other Brutalist buildings, was widely disliked when it was initially unveiled. Once the home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, it is today known as the Met Breuer under its current occupant the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has been reported that the Frick Collection will take over the space in 2020. Today, the avant-garde structure is largely regarded as one of Breuer’s best works with its inverted ziggurat form and stark purity of materials that include mostly concrete and granite.

Centre Point, London

Centre Point building in London with sky in background.

Completed in 1966, Centre Point became one of London’s first skyscrapers, containing 34-stories created from pure concrete and glass. Currently, the building is in the final stages of transitioning from commercial to residential use, where designers are working to preserve its Brutalist roots.

Bank of London and South America, Buenos Aires

Banco Hipotecario concrete building.

Italian-Argentine architect Clorindo Testa is largely credited with the design of the Brutalist bank, whose construction was completed in 1966. In contrast to its Neoclassical neighbors, the building showcases an array of thin, deep concrete columns with a sleek, glass box encased on each side by a concrete shell.

Habitat 67, Montreal

An apartment building in Quebec with cubic, concrete finishes.

Habitat 67 is one of Canada’s most recognized Brutalist buildings. Designed by Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, the building debuted at Montreal’s 1967 World’s Fair, showcasing 354 interlocking concrete units that contained 158 apartments. Its cubic modules and three-dimensional landscape produced a dramatic complex and introduced two contemporary concepts: urban garden residency and modular high-rise apartment buildings.

Boston City Hall, Boston

Boston city hall building with three flag poles out front.

Boston City Hall has been one of the most polarizing architectural structures since it opened in 1968. It was built in an effort to restore the city’s former glory after facing economic hardship, and though it still manages to top architectural lists, it also continues to be criticized for its foreboding aesthetic. The building features rows of coffered overhangs and numerous protruding modules, while the interior boasts soaring spaces and intricate Orwellian theatrics.

Geisel Library, California

Geisel Library with glass mirrors and concrete finishes forming the shape of an abstract hand.

Situated in La Jolla, California, this library was named after local legend Theodor Geisel—a.k.a. Dr. Seuss—housing a collection of drawings, books, and memorabilia from the famous author. Designed by architect William Pereira, the structure, which was completed in 1970, showcases a unique, futuristic design made predominantly of concrete piers and glassed-in floors that mimic hands holding up books.

Trellick Tower, London

Trellick Tower in London with blue sky as the backdrop.

After its completion in 1972 the Trellick Tower was considered one of the least aesthetically pleasing buildings ever created. Now, it’s highly sought-after, feverishly studied by architects worldwide, and used as a backdrop in photos from visitors. Designed by Erno Goldfinger, this 332-foot-high building features 32 stories of raw concrete, providing modern, well-equipped flats to those who lost their homes in the destruction of World War II.

Royal National Theatre, London

Royal National theatre as seen from Waterloo Bridge.

As one of the most prominent publicly-funded performing arts venues, London’s Royal National Theatre bore much criticism upon its completion in 1976. Designed by English architect Denys Lasdun, the building features horizontal and vertical concrete elements with interconnected foyers and interlocking terraces. Currently, it’s perched on London’s South Bank, housing three different auditoriums.

Western City Gate, Belgrade

Two towers jetting up towards the sky with a blue sky backdrop.

Designed by architect Mihajlo Mitrović, the Western City Gate consists of two towers, both over 20 stories high, that are connected by a two-story foot bridge. Often referred to as the Genex Tower after Yugoslavia’s premier trading company, the towers exemplify the angular Brutalist style that emphasizes natural, concrete finishings.

Brazilian Museum of Sculpture, São Paulo

Concrete structure in Brazil.

The Brazilian Museum of Sculpture was finished in 1988, a time when Brutalism was on the decline. The building is a shining example of the Paulisa School style, formed by a group of architects in Brazil in the 1950s who embraced much of the Brutalist approach, including concrete structures and rougher finishes. Atop the building protrudes a 200-foot beam.

Hill of the Buddha, Sapporo

Buddha sitting amidst a concrete dome.

A modern master of concrete, Japanese architect Tadao Ando added to the giant stone representation of Buddha that can be found at the Makomanai Takino Cemetery. Though Buddha’s head already existed, Ando surrounded the head with a series of Brutalist water features, tunnels, and walkways to heighten the anticipation of experiencing the 44-foot-tall statue.

The Resurgence of Brutalism

Brutalism undoubtedly bore the brunt of the global backlash against rising inequality throughout society, whether deservedly or not. Early Brutalist structures aged, and the media and public began to associate the style with low-income housing projects. However, as fast as it was pushed aside, it has since risen in popularity once again. This is due to three factors: a general interest in its unusual design, newly published research that underscores the style’s historical significance, as well as the rise of social media making examples of Brutalist architecture easily accessible to new and younger audiences.

One shining example of the impact of social media on Brutalism’s renaissance is the campaign SOSBrutalism. Aimed to bring awareness and save Brutalist architecture from demolition, the platform offers a database of over a thousand Brutalist buildings (and it continues to grow). Felix from SOSBrutalism explains the sentiment behind their mission, “Brutalism defined a special point in architecture history that won’t come back. Building codes, labor costs and the unique zeitgeist all factored in conditions that enabled this special way of designing for this particular time. Once it is turned into rubble it won’t come back. By demolishing Brutalist buildings we are in danger of repeating past mistakes.” As interest grows and younger design enthusiasts turn to the aesthetic, these raw, concrete structures are becoming treasured in cities overpopulated by contemporary glass and steel towers.

Sources: My Modern Met | GQ | Brutalist DC | Architectural Digest | Tate | Schoolhouse