Books

A Colossal Compendium of Brutalist Architecture Argues for Saving ‘Concrete Monsters’

SOS Brutalism is the first global survey of Brutalist architecture from the 1950s to ’70s, and is a rallying cry for preserving these concrete structures.

Fritz Wotruba, Holy Trinity Church, Wien-Mauer, Austria (1971–76) (photograph by Wolfgang Leeb, 2011)
Fritz Wotruba, Holy Trinity Church, Wien-Mauer, Austria (1971–76) (photograph by Wolfgang Leeb, 2011)

SOS Brutalism A Global Survey was only recently published by Park Books, but already two of its featured projects have been destroyed. The 1972 Robin Hood Gardens, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, was demolished last fall in London; the 1972 Pragati Maidan, designed by Raj Rewal and Mahendra Raj with a cast-in-place concrete lattice of triangular shapes, was torn down last April in New Delhi. Despite Brutalism’s new surge in popularity, the survival of the concrete-heavy architecture remains at risk.

Cover of <em>SOS Brutalism: A Global Survey</em> (courtesy Park Books)
Cover of SOS Brutalism: A Global Survey (courtesy Park Books)

The colossal book, available in English and German versions with over 700 pages of richly illustrated material, is published in conjunction with SOS BRUTALISM – Save the Concrete Monsters!, on view at Deutschen Architekturmuseum (DAM) in Frankfurt. After the exhibition closes at DAM on April 2, it will travel to Architekturzentrum Wien, opening on May 3. Both the book and the exhibition represent the first global survey of Brutalist architecture from the 1950s to ’70s. They were developed from the online #SOSBrutalism campaign, a collaboration between DAM, Wüstenrot Foundation, and Uncube, that crowdsourced a database of over 1,000 projects across the world. (Hyperalleric covered its launch back in 2015.)

“In strong opposition to the modernism of the International Style, Brutalism was transformed locally as a bottom-up movement, in close relation to local culture and craftsmanship,” Oliver Elser, curator at DAM and one of the editors of SOS Brutalism, told Hyperallergic. “In many countries it was the architecture of independence and/or cultural and economical progress. This connection with politics is only visible through our global perspective.”

For instance, the 1975 Kolašin Memorial Center in Kolašin, Montenegro, was constructed as a Yugoslavian civic facility; following the country’s collapse, the spiky concrete building lost both its social role and maintenance funding. In the Ivory Coast’s Abidjan, the 1973 La Pyramide was designed by Rinaldo Olivieri as a modern African market in the city center. Yet its optimistic city investment was a failure, and its huge pyramid-shaped space is gutted and inaccessible.

John Madin, Birmingham City Library, Birmingham, Great Britain (1969–73), demolished in 2016 (photograph by Jason Hood, 2016)
John Madin, Birmingham City Library, Birmingham, Great Britain (1969–73), demolished in 2016 (photograph by Jason Hood, 2016)

Nevertheless, SOS Brutalism is not a litany of disaster. “It shows a large amount of examples of successfully preserved or adapted buildings,” Elser said. The 1967 Jooste House in Pretoria, South Africa — designed by Karl J. Jooste as his own residence and office — was partly adapted into a restaurant. In Nairobi, Kenya, the 1973 Kenyatta International Conference Centre, crowned with a blossom of exposed concrete by architect Karl Henrik Nøstvik, was initially built for the Kenya African National Union KANU, but is now an active symbol of the country’s independence.

As Anette Busse of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology explains in an SOS Brutalism essay, “Brutalism arose from strands of development in the fine arts and art theory, adopting from these the idea of appreciating that which is available, or an honest material. The search for natural forms was taken from science, and the new sculptural and constructive possibilities from structural engineering.”

Avraham Yasky, Yaakov Gil, Ada Karmi-Melamed, Bracha and Michael Hayutin, Nadler Nadler Bixon Gil, Amnon Niv and Rafi Reifer, Ram Karmi, Chaim Ketzef, and Ben Peleg, Ben Gurion University Campus, Be’er Sheva, Israel (1968–95) (photograph by Gili Merin, 2017)
Avraham Yasky, Yaakov Gil, Ada Karmi-Melamed, Bracha and Michael Hayutin, Nadler Nadler Bixon Gil, Amnon Niv and Rafi Reifer, Ram Karmi, Chaim Ketzef, and Ben Peleg, Ben Gurion University Campus, Be’er Sheva, Israel (1968–95) (photograph by Gili Merin, 2017)
O. Gurevich and V. Zhukov, Hotel Rus, Saint Petersburg, Russia (1980–88) (photogrpah by Konstantin Antipin, 2016)
O. Gurevich and V. Zhukov, Hotel Rus, Saint Petersburg, Russia (1980–88) (photogrpah by Konstantin Antipin, 2016)

There are around 120 buildings explored in the book, divided into regions and accompanied by recent and archival photographs, as well as essays and case studies on heritage hotspots like New Haven, Connecticut and Skopje, Macedonia. The book is less an attempt to list every Brutalist building in the world, and more an effort to seriously examine their typologies, how similar aesthetics were expressed in different cultures and for various purposes, and in turn argue for their significance in preservation. Many may be familiar to raw concrete aficionados, including the gargantuan 1969 Boston City Hall and London’s sprawling 1962-82 Barbican Estate. Others are obscure, such as the contemplative 1965 columbarium by Kiyonori Kikutake in Kurume, Japan, with concrete walls that seems to hover above the floor of the funerary space, and the Lari House in Karachi, Pakistan. The 1972 residence with its dynamic cantilever balconies was designed by Pakistan’s first woman architect, Yasmeen Lari.

SOS Brutalism demonstrates the richness and diversity of the style. Exposed concrete has its own unique preservation challenges, and Brutalist buildings are often difficult to reuse if their original purpose becomes obsolete. Still, they collectively represent a post-World War II moment of experimentation with form and new materials, something that is worth protecting. As Elser affirmed, “For me, it is just obvious when I flip through the pages.”

Minoru Yamasaki, Pahlavi University (today: Shiraz University), Shiraz, Iran (1960–79) (photograph by Hamidreza Bani, 2017)
Minoru Yamasaki, Pahlavi University (today: Shiraz University), Shiraz, Iran (1960–79) (photograph by Hamidreza Bani, 2017)
Alexander Belokon and V. Sulimova, Gosstroy Residential Building, Baku, Aserbaijan (1975) (photograph by Simona Rota, 2011)
Alexander Belokon and V. Sulimova, Gosstroy Residential Building, Baku, Azerbaijan (1975) (photograph by Simona Rota, 2011)
IACP (Carlo Celli and Luciano Celli), Rozzol Melara, Trieste, Italy (1969–82) (photograph by Paolo Mazzo, 2010)
IACP (Carlo Celli and Luciano Celli), Rozzol Melara, Trieste, Italy (1969–82) (photograph by Paolo Mazzo, 2010)
IACP (Carlo Celli and Luciano Celli), Rozzol Melara, Trieste, Italy (1969–82) (photograph by Paolo Mazzo, 2010)
IACP (Carlo Celli and Luciano Celli), Rozzol Melara, Trieste, Italy (1969–82) (photograph by Paolo Mazzo, 2010)
London Borough of Camden Architect’s Department (Neave Brown), Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London, Great Britain (1967–79) (photograph by Gili Merin, 2017)
London Borough of Camden Architect’s Department (Neave Brown), Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, London, Great Britain (1967–79) (photograph by Gili Merin, 2017)
Johannes Möhrle, Central Post Office, Marburg, Germany (1965–76) (photograph by Felix Torkar, 2017)
Johannes Möhrle, Central Post Office, Marburg, Germany (1965–76) (photograph by Felix Torkar, 2017)

SOS BRUTALISM – Save the Concrete Monsters! continues through April 2 at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (Schaumainkai 43, Frankfurt, Germany). SOS Brutalism A Global Survey is out now from Park Books, distributed by the University of Chicago Press

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