Brutalism: The Architecture of Big Governments

Almost everyone in the United States has encountered one of those monstrous, monolithic, concrete government buildings and wondered, how do our government officials actually work there? Not to mention, why did our government officials even decide to build such buildings in the first place? Would it have not been better if they had followed the examples of the German Bundestag, a neo-Baroque building, or even Philadelphia’s City Hall, a structure in the style of Napoleon III? What is the government’s obsession with cold and unfeeling concrete buildings all about and when did it begin?

In 1939, a Swiss architect by the name of Le Corbusier described his celebrated Modernist buildings as being constructed from “le béton brut”—that is, “rough concrete” in English. (2) Several decades later, British architectural critic Reyner Banham noticed an emerging architectural movement in his home city of London and, in 1966, published a book describing the movement as “Brutalism”: an architectural movement characterized by cold, enormous structures and the excessive use of exposed concrete. Contemporaneously, structures of the same aesthetic were emerging in many Western European nations and also, in Japan, the Philippines, Israel, and Brazil. Most of these structures housed government offices, museums, and institutions of varying sorts.

The emergence of these so-called Brutalist buildings came during the wake of the Second World War when the governments in the United Kingdom and in continental European nations were rebuilding their cities and setting up welfare states to help their populations during a time of mass rebuilding. So much death had occurred during the Second World War that, in the next decade, the governments of Europe essentially overcompensated in their commitment to the welfare of the human being and placed the “human” above all other things, including architectural ideals. Governments at the time saw Brutalism as functional, economical and, most of all, “honest” in its application of materials. As far as the layman could see, Brutalist structures did not drain the government coffers by being adorned with glorious statues to Wisdom and Truth, as neo-Baroque and Third Estate buildings did, but rather remained functional so that more could be spent on communities and on the welfare of the human being. (The truth, ironically, was that the Brutalist structures were not necessarily less expensive than more elaborate ones.)

The Brutalist movement later influenced the Americans and, in the 1960s and late-1970s, the US Government built innumerable structures in the very same style that emerged in the United Kingdom and Europe in an effort to rebuild after the Second World War. In almost every city in the US, one can find at least one building in the Brutalist style. Some of the most notable examples of American Brutalism are the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C., and the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston. In the 21st century, however, Brutalism has become the brunt of much criticism and scorn. The “functionality” and the “honesty” that the artistic innovators of the movement once exalted are now seen, quite frankly, as ugliness. The exterior concrete of such buildings—the material that Le Corbusier once exalted—soaks up moisture and turns black with age, making many of the examples of Brutalism in the United States unattractive, grime-covered slabs of concrete.

Author: Steven Bonhoeffer