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Brute forces in Berlin

A two-day conference in Berlin explored the international incarnations of Brutalism but didn’t quite manage a definition

The Wüstenrot Foundation is trying to decide criteria by which it can discern not only what Brutalist architecture is worth preserving in Germany, but what Brutalist architecture is. The aim of its Brutalismus conference, held at the appropriately Brutalist Akademie der Künste in Berlin, was ‘to establish substantial criteria and benchmarks, and thus promote the consistent and considered evaluation of the Brutalist legacy’. Even two long days of varied presentations and intense discussion could never achieve such lofty ambitions, but did nevertheless deliver a wide range of viewpoints on this most fashionably unfashionable movement.

The Britishness of Brutalism underwrote the proceedings, so given the constellation of American and Continental star speakers, it was a glaring omission to include no British-based architectural historian or critic to advocate what Brutalism meant in its place of birth at its time of birth, what it means here now, and how it is being treated. Ken Frampton, who has spent almost the last half century in the US, started his talk by warning that he had nothing new to add to the debate and to this end, he did not disappoint. So the pre-ordained myths of British Brutalism remained preserved.

AR Archive: 1955 December

Reyner Banham’s 1955 article on The New Brutalism. Read the full online Archive article in the AR Archives.

The New Brutalism was born of the early fifties’ Independent Group discussions. Its parents were Alison and Peter Smithson, and one of its midwives, Reyner Banham, wrote the first Brutalist exposition in the December 1955 AR. The other midwife, just as important but in danger of being wallpapered over, was Theo Crosby, technical editor of AD and close personal friend of the Smithsons. In the first AD for which he was responsible (December 1953), Crosby published their Soho house containing the first mention of the phrase ‘The New Brutalism’ in the press. He was also responsible for giving the Smithsons the January 1955 editorial in his magazine in which to write a New Brutalism manifesto, and subsequent unfettered access to the pages of the up-and-coming AD.

The importance of the transformation of Brutalism through its export to other countries via publications should not be underestimated. Luca Molinari discussed this emerging theme of the Brutalist diaspora in the Italian context, focusing explicitly on the debates in Italian magazines, such as using Brutalist imagery to counter Banham’s 1959 accusation of a regressive neo-liberty tendency. On migration, the Brutalist ethic is always separated from the aesthetic through mediation of the image, a substantial aspect of Brutalism as Banham rightly identified in his definitive 1966 history of the movement, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? As Stanislaus von Moos explained, ‘Brutalism is charged with art’, but an equally significant part, at least in Britain, was about the making.

Much of the first day of Brutalismus focused on trying to define Brutalism by either what Banham wrote or what the Smithsons wrote, under the illusion that this would lead to an authoritative definition. Only Dirk van den Heuvel acknowledged that both parties had a different vision of what Brutalism meant, each wanting to own it in a different way. As might be expected from a magazine man, Banham’s Brutalism concentrates on the aesthetic, converging on the chiaroscuro of board-marked béton brut. In contrast, the Smithsons themselves didn’t do an in-situ concrete building until the 1980s.

Of course, Brutalist discourse constantly shifted from the very early years throughout its maturation and up to the present day – movements are invented, not discovered. Van den Heuvel’s coup de grâce was to point out that as Britain’s second original native architectural movement, Brutalism was in fact a continuation of the first, the Arts & Crafts Movement, courtesy of the fact that Alison Smithson’s father was trained by William Lethaby at the RCA. This links the all-important making and doing aspect of both movements to a way of life, suggesting that, according to van den Heuvel, the peculiarly British ‘Brutalist ethic holds a latent political project’.

The conference’s other recurring theme was war. The New Brutalism was born of British post-war austerity and welfare state reconstruction, which is where the Smithsons’ ‘make do and mend’, ‘as found’ ethic originates. But it is not the only movement to have been created by the war, as implied by Beatriz Colomina, who repeated her interesting talk on the Independent Group war biographies given at the ICA two weeks earlier. The AR’s Townscape campaign was also a product of war, for example, and a direct counterpoint to the New Brutalism in British architectural discourse.

In fact, as von Moos pointed out, Banham associated Townscape’s New Empiricism with the USSR’s Socialist Realism, which Khrushchev outlawed in his secret speech of 1954 to the construction industry unions, due to its expense. By constructing a microcosm of East-West politics, the New Brutalism became a ‘fiercely Cold War project’. The war also explains other nations’ misinterpretation of Brutalism: Philip Ursprung explained how Switzerland had no Brutalism because it had no war and therefore no reconstruction. The Swiss also have no large-scale projects, no central administration and a mentality of not suppressing affluence, he claimed, implying these as tenets of a ‘classic Brutalism’.

Nevertheless, Atelier 5’s Siedlung Halen housing near Bern must surely qualify for anyone’s Brutalist canon. Jörg Gleiter discussed the polar opposite of ‘Brutalist practice’ in Japan, a country whose ‘as found’ situation after its wartime annihilation was effectively a tabula rasa. Again, the aesthetic of exposed in-situ concrete dominated, even to the extent of it simulating traditional timber construction as in Sachio Otani’s Congress Centre in Kyoto, 1963-66. Perhaps they were searching for something permanent after the shock of the war, or perhaps, as Gleiter explained, concrete was simply cheaper than steel at that time.

If the conference showed anything, it was that the nature of Brutalism is not a universal entity, but actually quite a regionalist concept. Leaving the last word to Joan Ockman, who in turn pointed out that American Brutalism lacks the moroseness of Europe’s, developing a theory of preservation based on the ‘as found’ could be the most promising avenue to pursue.

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