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Troubles in Theory V: the Brutalist moment(s)

From the Smithsons’ claim to have originally coined the term, to its alleged incarnation in the béton brut of Le Corbusier’s Unités, the provenance of New Brutalism, seen as a corrective to ‘soft’ Modernism, is as problematic as what it stood for: ethic or aesthetic?

‘As Britain’s first native art movement since the systematic study of art history reached these islands, the New Brutalism needs to be seen in a double historical context − that of post-war architectural thought, and that of post-war historical writings on architecture.’
Reyner Banham, 19511

The many, diverse and amusing stories advanced to explain the origins of the term ‘Brutalism’ that surfaced in a short text by Alison Smithson in 1953, attached to the project for a house on Colville Place, rival those explaining the birth of ‘Dada’ in 1914; but they also give clues to the ambiguous and wide-ranging connotations later attached to the word.

The canonical version was offered by Reyner Banham in 1955, as he identified a double French root stemming from, on the one hand, the ‘Art Brut’ coined by Dubuffet, and on the other béton brut, by then synonymous with the postwar work of Le Corbusier at Marseille. Banham was clear on his motive: to launch by this affiliation with a new French avant-garde, a new British avant-garde: the ‘New Brutalism’. But as he acknowledged there were other previous contenders to the coinage.

Banham’s was not the only source to be put forward in the press, following the publication of his essay. Peter Smithson thought that it was from his friend Eduardo Paolozzi out of Dubuffet; Georges Candilis joked that it was a neologism formed of Smithson’s nickname ‘Brutus’ combined with ‘Alison’.

Later, Banham added the name of Guy Oddie, the Smithsons’ friend. The search for terminological origins continued with Eric de Maré recalling that he had met Hans Asplund (son of Gunnar) who claimed he had coined ‘Neo-Brutalist’ to describe a design by Edman and Holm, who in turn had shared it with Michael Ventris, Oliver Cox and Graeme Shankland, who brought it to England, where ‘it had spread like wildfire’, ‘somewhat surprisingly’ adopted by a ‘faction of young English architect’.2 Banham replied acidly that ‘Neo’ had no relation to his own ‘New’ − the former was a stylistic label (like Neo-Classic, Neo-Gothic), the latter a true movement that was at root ‘an ethic, not an aesthetic’.

For Theo Crosby, writing in AD in 1954, the term embraced both the Hunstanton School, and the aesthetic of formal proportions (from Wittkower’s Architectural Principles) and a Japanese sense of materials. Responding to Crosby’s question, Peter Smithson, contributing to the confusion, spoke of Corbusier’s béton brut, and Mies’s version of the ‘structure and screen’ common to Japanese building, but also of Frank Lloyd Wright’s open plan, and the form-making of Garnier and Behrens, concluding that the ‘root of the so-called New Brutalism’ was a reverence for materials, and an affinity with ‘peasant dwelling forms’ relating to ‘the direct result of a way of life’.3

4

The Maisons Jaoul were the inspiration for Alison and Peter Smithson’s designs for a house on Colville Place in London’s Soho, an early example of the New Brutalism

Finally, a satirical letter from ‘Accra’ by ‘Kenneth Scott’, purloined an AR article devoted to Frank Lloyd Wright to serve as a parodic description of the little urban row-house project on Colville Place as possessing ‘balance of space, equilibrium embodied in greater and lesser volumes, reestablishing a sense of intimate brutality at the very moment of participation in surrounding nature’, the geometry of the house ‘dominating the turbulence of the setting’.4 This piece, published in the AR’s well-known ‘funny column’ was exposed by Richard Llewelyn-Davies: ‘Who is pulling whose legs?’5

Even the ‘movement’s’ most virulent opponents contributed something to the debate: the students of the Architectural Association, reacting to the Parallel of Life and Art exhibition at the ICA in the autumn of 1953, were outspoken in their condemnation of the work as ‘shallow, eclectic, an example of the new Picturesque, and denying the spiritual in man’.6

These diverse ‘origin’ myths, beyond the rivalries of their originators, underscore a more serious characteristic of what was to become widely understood as ‘Brutalism’, whether seen as ethic or aesthetic: its polymorphic and often self-contradictory nature. If Colville Place was its start, as modelled on Le Corbusier’s recently designed Jaoul Houses, then the original Brutalist style should be considered as developing through Stirling and Gowan’s Flats at Ham Common (1955-58) and thence to the ubiquitous concrete slab and brick infill constructions through to projects such as Rudolph’s Beneficent House in Providence, Rhode Island (1963-68). But if the retrospective labelling by Peter Smithson and Banham of the Hunstanton School (1954) is correct, then we should look for a Miesian paternity, stemming from the celebrated drawing of the corner detail of the IIT Library and Administration Building published in the AJ in 1946.

Neither of these two precedents, however, comes close to the received notions of Brutalism that ultimately were to be derived from the béton brut of Le Corbusier’s late period, beginning in 1946 with the Unité d’Habitation, Marseille. There is little in Banham’s 1955 ‘New Brutalism’ article, or in the Smithsons’ early projects, to indicate the future pre-eminence of the rough concrete style to come. Certainly, as Peter Smithson allowed, the way was opened for a vernacular revival of sorts, registered by the Smithsons’ Burrows Lea Farm and Stirling’s ‘Village’ projects for CIAM, a vernacular later to be championed by the AR in its ‘Functionalist Tradition’ issue (July 1957, with photographs by Eric de Maré). And the AA students were not far off the mark either, despite the New Brutalists and their colleagues’ opposition to the Picturesque as advanced by AR editors Nikolaus Pevsner, Hubert de Cronin Hastings and Gordon Cullen; for there was much in the ‘roughness’ of material surfaces, the a-formal circulation patterns, and visual image reception of objects taken in by a moving subject, to remind British critics of early Picturesque theory and practice.

Not surprisingly, given the semi-contradictory criteria that he had advanced in the 1955 article − a combination of as-found materials, structural authenticity and a strange composite of Gombrich and St Augustine forming his concept of ‘image’ − Banham’s enthusiasm waned fairly quickly. For his article had reached further than a simple article of faith in unvarnished concrete or steel used ‘as found’. He had deliberately entitled the piece ‘The New Brutalism’, a direct reference to Corb’s ‘New Spirit’ and an attempt to construe the Smithsons’ aesthetic as a new movement that would overcome the soft Modernism of the AR’s ‘New Humanism’, or ‘New Empiricism’.

‘The South Bank Centre was described as an army of centipedes carrying off the dried carcass of a broken turtle’


He was to be disappointed. The radicalism that he had found in the Hunstanton School, the intimations of a new and aspirational avant-garde, were, he opined, not to be found in the Smithson-Henderson-Paolozzi contribution to the 1956 This is Tomorrow exhibition. Their wooden garden shed, with corrugated roof, interpreted by many as a radical, post-apocalyptical sign of nuclear catastrophe, was, for Banham, merely ‘submissive to traditional values’, an exaltation of ‘time-honoured’ ‘activities and needs’, ‘a confirmation of accepted values and symbols’.

Where Banham found his vision of a new ‘concrete’ image fulfilled was in the Voelcker-Hamilton-McHale installation with its ‘optical illusions, scale reversions, oblique structures and fragmented images to disrupt stock responses’ that resisted classification and forced the viewer ‘back on a tabula rasa of individual responsibility for his own atomized senses’ − a ‘section that seemed to have more in common with that of the New Brutalists than any other’.

1

The New Brutalism of the Smithsons was further developed by James Stirling and James Gowan at their Flats at Ham Common, London (1955-58) published in AR October 1958

In this way, the sense of a ‘radicalism that owes nothing to precedent’, of the ‘new aesthetic of materials’ that he had observed in Hunstanton was lost; his friendship with McHale introduced him to Buckminster Fuller’s work, who provided the antidote to ‘academic’ Modernism in the conclusion to Theory and Design five years later; Archigram and clip-on became the new potential instrument of an ‘Autre’ architecture, supported by megastructures that became his next topic of interest. By 1967, the ‘movement’ that had barely attracted conscripts beyond the Smithsons, had, in his eyes degenerated to the level of an aesthetic and lost ethical content.

Opposition to the New Brutalism had been vocal from the start − Philip Johnson’s first response to Hunstanton set the tone, objecting to a term ‘already being picked up by the Smithsons’ contemporaries to defend atrocities’.7 Many architects, including Stirling and Gowan, refused the sobriquet as a fashionable label. Le Corbusier himself was equally enraged, protesting to José Luis Sert that his design for the Carpenter Center at Harvard was in no way ‘Brutalist’ simply because it had been constructed in béton brut: ’ “Béton brut” was born at the Unité d’Habitation, Marseille, where there were eighty contractors and such a massacre of concrete that there was no way of imagining how to construct useful relationships through rendering. I had decided: leave everything “brut”. I called it “béton brut”. The English immediately jumped on the bandwagon and dubbed me (Ronchamp and the convent of La Tourette) “Brutal”, −”béton brutal”; − and at the end of the day, the brute is Corbu. They called it “the new brutality”. My friends and admirers thinking of me as the “brute” of “brutal concrete” (béton brutal)!’8

Nikolaus Pevsner also hated Brutalism. He didn’t mind the Smithsons’ Hunstanton (‘symmetrical, clean, precise, in short Mies van der Rohe and not Le Corbusier in origin’), nor did he mind the Economist Building (‘again entirely unbrutal … and a Townscape sensitive job’), but he hated Denys Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians − ‘next to Nash’s Regent’s Park … with two square concrete posts in front of one bigger square concrete post to mark the entrance − take it or leave it, Mr. Nash’. Accepting with reservations the invitation to speak at the opening of Paul Rudolph’s Yale Art and Architecture Building, he could not hide his distaste. He admired its spatial intricacies but thought the building failed absolutely in terms of its programme. Summing up in the presence of the obviously unhappy Rudolph he castigated the ‘self-expression of the artist-architect’, the ‘fervent avoidance of lightness, of anything that could be called elegant, and also of anything that could be accounted for purely rationally’ and, ‘forms of overpowering − what shall I say? − yes: brutality’.9

2

James Stirling and James Gowan Flats at Ham Common, London (1955-58) published in AR October 1958

It was not by accident that Pevsner launched his diatribe in 1966-67. This was when Banham published his summation of the Brutalist movement, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? and it was Pevsner’s purpose to show that not only was the New Brutalism an aesthetic, it was also ‘expressionist’ and narcissistic, directly negating the principles of his favoured ‘pioneers’ of the Modern Movement, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, and their ‘ethic’ of ‘simplicity, honesty, and service’. In this way Banham’s former mentor sought to bring an end to a movement about which his pupil had been the ‘first to cast doubts’.

Indeed, completing his book, Banham finally closed this ‘period’ that he had himself initiated, with the statement that, for the British contribution at least ‘it was all over’; ‘For all the brave talk of “an ethic not an aesthetic” (which was, of course primarily his own as applied to a few buildings of the Smithsons), Brutalism never quite broke out of the aesthetic frame of reference,’ it would never produce what he had wanted in 1955, ‘an other architecture’, (‘autre architecture’) with an ‘uninhibited functionalism’, and free of a ‘machine aesthetic’. For Banham, the Johnsons, the Johansens, and the Rudolphs were more the followers of a Brutalist ‘style’ than of his ethical programme; they were, ‘their allies, not mine’, as he caustically remarked, seemingly now agreeing with his teacher that an ethic had become a style at last.10

7

Hunstanton School, Norfolk by Alison and Peter Smithson (1954), described by Reyner Banham in AR August 1954 as ‘radicalism that owes nothing to precedent’, the ‘new aesthetic of materials’

The emergence of what has since come to signify ‘Brutalist Style’ (more often than not used pejoratively), the monumental, abstract-geometric rough concrete box was largely developed, paradoxically enough in relation to Pevsner’s belief in Gropius, by students at Harvard under Gropius’s rule and partly in response to Sigfried Giedion’s call to combat the ubiquity of the International Style with a ‘new monumentality’. If modern architecture had passed through a stage concerned with the minimal cell of human habitation, to the development of neighbourhood and city planning, now there was a need for ‘the re-conquest of monumental expression’. Buildings, beyond the demands of sheer technique and function, should represent the ‘social, ceremonial, and community life’ of a people that ‘seek the expression of their aspirations in monumentality, for joy and for excitement’. In this immediate prelude to postwar debates the Secretary of the CIAM tried to redress the questions arising out of the apparently impersonal result of a Modernism itself degenerated into a style.11

Yet the best of the Brutalist buildings of the 1960s and ’70s still exhibit traces of the informal and visual ‘image’ sought by Banham. Thus Charles Jencks, in an incisive retrospective review of the South Bank Arts Centre, in 1978, defended the complex against the charge by nearly half of the 550 engineers surveyed that it was Britain’s Ugliest Building.12 The press had previously weighed in describing it as ‘quasi-fortified’, ‘neo-Antheap’, ‘mini-Ziggurats’, ‘bunker’; or what has to be the best that British journalism has ever come up with: ‘an army of centipedes carrying off the dried carcass of a broken turtle’.

Charles Jencks, in his argument for the South Bank development, admitted that to the eyes of a rationalist these attacks were partly justified: the buildings displayed no apparent structural logic, no underlying coherence, and no visual logic to explain the functional logic. They were a ‘confusion of shapes and ambiguity of forms’, all in exposed concrete, with dark and apparently useless space beneath the circulation deck, abrupt changes of level, with stairs that turned inward; there was no provision for daytime activity. In short, he concluded, as far as the always anti-elitist public was concerned, the South Bank was ‘just one more post-war cultural ghetto’. Yet there was, he insisted, a sensible answer to these objections: ‘The architects were not trying to create a building in any conventional sense but a sequence of extended places and events along a route. And where they were trying for a building, it was probably intended to be conventionally ugly.’ In other words, the architects were deliberately trying for something other than the traditional classical monument, or the already traditional anonymous International Style Modernism of corporate usage.

8

Hunstanton School, Norfolk by Alison and Peter Smithson (1954)

The true ancestor of the South Bank, Jencks argued, tracing its lineage back to Banham, was the Brutalist work of the Smithsons − the 1953 Sheffield University scheme − ‘the first really blunt expression of a non-building, organised around non-formal principles by means of a circulation deck’ − or their Berlin Hauptstadt competition scheme − an ‘open aesthetic for the open society’, ‘a loose, poly-centered arrangement which is organised as a series of fixed places on a route for movement, as well as an ad hoc arrangement of elements’.13

So, despite Banham’s despondency in the later ’60s, the main principles of his aesthetic radicalism were alive and well into the ’70s. And if we seek the continuation of the original ‘ethic’ of Brutalism, we can look to the developing nations in Latin America and South Asia to find programmatic and constructional integrity joined to abstract monumental form: the work of Artigas (the School of Architecture at the University of São Paulo) and Lina Bo Bardi (the São Paulo Museum of Art and the SESC Pompéia recreation centre), or to Carlos Raúl Villanueva’s University City, Caracas. We reserve these and other late Brutalist works for a future essay.


REFERENCES

  1. Reyner Banham, ‘The New Brutalism’, summary, contents page, AR December 1955.
  2. For a detailed analysis of the development of ‘The New Brutalism’, see my ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, October 136 (Spring 2011): pp105-32.
  3. Eric de Maré, ‘Et tu Brute?’, Letter to the Editors, AR August 1956, p72.
  4. Peter Smithson, AR April 1954, pp274-75.
  5. ‘Kenneth Scott’, cited in AR April 1954, p274.
  6. Richard Llewelyn-Davies and John Weeks, Letter to the Editors, AR July 1954, p2.
  7. Hugh Pope, Letter to the Editors, AR June 1954, p364. Pope himself, taking Scott’s letter seriously, hoped that the New Brutalism was definitively not a ‘glimpse into the future of English architecture’.
  8. Reyner Banham, ‘School at Hunstanton’, comment by Philip Johnson, AR September 1954, p151.
  9. Quoted in Eduard F Sekler, William Curtis, Le Corbusier at Work. The Genesis of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), p302.
  10. Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘Architecture in our Time: the Anti-Pioneers’, The Listener, 29 December 1966; 5 January 1967.
  11. Banham, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (London: The Architectural Press, 1966): p134.
  12. Sigfried Giedion, ‘The Need for a New Monumentality [1944]’, in Architecture, You, and Me. The Diary of a Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958) pp26-28.
  13. Daily Mail, October 1967.
  14. Charles Jencks, ‘Adhocism on the South Bank’, AR July 1968, pp27-30.

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