Visual Culture
10 Icons of Brutalist Architecture, from the Breuer to the Barbican

With béton brut (“raw concrete”) as its namesake and primary material, Brutalism initially surfaced in the middle of the 20th century, in part as a quick, economical solution to the urban destruction wrought by World War II. At first centered in England, the style spread across the world in the following decades, proposing a radical new form of Modernism, steeped in socialist ideas, that embraced hard lines and a utilitarian lack of ornamentation. Long reviled but recently revived, Brutalism is nothing if not striking, with its heavy, imposing buildings that privilege function over form. Here are 10 of the world’s most iconic examples of the style.


Unité d’Habitation, Marseille

Le Corbusier, Completed in 1952

Photo courtesy of Anapuig via Creative Commons.

Photo courtesy of Anapuig via Creative Commons.

The first in Le Corbusier’s series of “unité” buildings was built as post-WWII working-class housing, but instead it became home to Marseille’s intelligentsia, when its intended residents balked at the revolutionary design. Then complete with a shopping center, post office, and room for 1,600 people in efficiently laid-out apartments, the building acted as a self-contained city that, according to Le Corbusier, “show[ed] the new splendor of bare concrete.” Recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the megalith arguably represents the birth of Brutalism.


Paul Rudolph Hall, New Haven, Connecticut

Paul Rudolph, Completed in 1963

Photo courtesy of Sage Ross via Creative Commons.

Photo courtesy of Sage Ross via Creative Commons.

Yale University’s Paul Rudolph Hall—formerly called the Yale Art and Architecture Building and renamed for the preeminent architect in 2008—is considered one of the first brutalist buildings in the United States. Two of the Hall’s giant textured-concrete columns flank its narrow, off-center entryway, corralling visitors inside. The interior is unexpectedly open, enhanced by natural light and enabling views of the Louis Kahn-designed Yale University Art Gallery across the street. Intended to forge a community among students, the building manifests Brutalism’s social ideals.


Bank of London and South America, Buenos Aires

Clorindo Testa and SEPRA, completed in 1966 

Photo courtesy of Dan DeLuca via Creative Commons.

Photo courtesy of Dan DeLuca via Creative Commons.

Now owned by Banco Hipotecario Nacional, the building that once housed Buenos Aires’s Bank of London and South America stands both in concert with and contrast to its neoclassical neighbors. Echoing the surrounding Beaux Arts buildings, the bank splays out to meet the area’s narrow streets, yet passersby can move among columns at its base, enjoying the impression of more sidewalk space. Visible at the building’s front is its primary structure—a sleek glass box encased on either side by a rugged concrete shell. Apertures in the concrete lend both levity and character, as well as exterior views from within.


SESC Pompéia, São Paulo

Lina Bo Bardi, Completed in 1986

Image courtesy of Patrick Parrish.

Image courtesy of Patrick Parrish.

Image courtesy of Patrick Parrish.

Image courtesy of Patrick Parrish.

Transformed from an out-of-use factory slated for demolition into a leisure center, the SESC Pompéia in downtown São Paulo epitomizes Lina Bo Bardi’s dedication to local heritage and materials. When the architect began the project—what she called a “socialist experiment”—in the late 1970s, the building was serving as a kind of unofficial community center, with the non-governmental Serviço Social do Comércio (SESC) organization hosting cultural activities and sports there. Bo Bardi honored the building’s existing use, expanding the complex with monumental concrete towers and bridges that also pay homage to its industrial roots.


 

The Breuer Building, New York City

Marcel Breuer, Completed in 1966

The former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art (which relocated to the Meatpacking District last year), the hulking, top-heavy Breuer Building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side initially met with criticism when it opened in 1966. Since then, its bold contrast with the area’s brownstone-lined streets has endeared it to the public as an avant-garde neighborhood fixture—and current Met outpost. Named after its Bauhaus-educated architect, the building’s unornamented granite façade and concrete ceilings typify the brutalist insistence on raw materials and functionality.


The Barbican, London

Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon, Completed: 1982

Image courtesy of Patrick Parrish.

Image courtesy of Patrick Parrish.

Image courtesy of Patrick Parrish.

Image courtesy of Patrick Parrish.

The architects of the Barbican created the estate’s mottled façades by hammering away at cast concrete, and enlivened the structure’s cantilevered balconies with plants. The massive multi-use complex contains an arts center, cinema, restaurants, and schools, as well as some 2000 apartments that began as council housing, intended to make inner-city living desirable to middle-class professionals. Built on a site razed by World War II bombings (“The Blitz,” as it is known in the U.K.), the estate’s layout is intentionally bewildering, an effect created through elements reminiscent of a medieval fortress as well as private gardens, lakes, and walkways.


Boston City Hall, Boston

Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnnell, Completed in 1968

Photo courtesy of Cliff via Creative Commons.

Photo courtesy of Cliff via Creative Commons.

Built as part of a campaign to restore the city’s former glory in the face of economic inertia and white flight, Boston’s City Hall has been under fire for its harsh aesthetic since it opened in 1968. The architectural community, however, has praised it as an icon of Brutalism. The concrete building was conceived according to a kind of modernized Classicism à la Le Corbusier, with rows of coffered overhangs and various protruding modules, one of which houses the mayor’s office. With windows into the building’s activities and an outdoor plaza designed to flow seamlessly into the lobby, the building espouses governmental transparency.


Habitat 67, Montreal

Moshe Sadie, Completed in 1967

Habitat '67, World Exposition
Moshe SafdieHabitat '67, World Exposition1967Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Habitat 67 began as Safdie’s McGill University graduate thesis and evolved into one of Canada’s most recognizable brutalist structures. His first design to ever be realized, the set of 354 interlocking, prefabricated concrete units, containing 158 one- to four-bedroom apartments, each with a roof garden, was originally presented at Montreal’s 1967 World’s Fair. Situated along the Saint Lawrence River, the dramatic complex—with its cubic modules that jut out into the surrounding space—proposed the idea of an urban “village,” which Safdie considered a more humane and organic alternative to traditional apartment living.


Trellick Tower, London

Ernie Goldfinger, Completed in 1972

Photo courtesy of @brutal_architecture via Instagram.

Photo courtesy of @brutal_architecture via Instagram.

“Cities can become centers of civilization where men and women can live happy lives,” Goldfinger once said. Yet by 1972, when the “unité”-inspired Trellick Tower was erected as public housing, it was in the face of growing disillusion about similar tower block buildings. Now revitalized after years of dereliction and petty crime that earned it the moniker Tower of Terror, the 332-foot-high concrete block features two distinct yet connected buildings, separating elevators and stairwells from the balconied apartments to maximize living space.


Brazilian Museum of Sculpture (MuBE), São Paulo

Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Completed in 1988

Photo courtesy of @gleicefpaiva via Instagram.

Photo courtesy of @gleicefpaiva via Instagram.

Though MuBE took shape in the late 1980s, significantly after Brutalism’s heyday, it is a striking example of the Paulista School style—the international movement’s Brazilian iteration. As such, Mendes da Rocha—who received a Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale and the 2006 Pritzker Prize—embraced the large-scale, bulky forms that raw concrete naturally facilitates, manifested in the nearly-200-foot beam atop the museum. Containing offices, an art school, and open, concrete galleries, the museum itself is built largely below ground, so as to respect the surrounding green space.


Rachel Lebowitz