new brutalism


new brutalism
   ‘New brutalism’ was a term coined in Britain in 1954 to characterize an architecture which provided a conscious embodiment of a mood widespread among younger architects of the 1950s. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities for building in postwar Britain and by an increasing dissatisfaction with the aesthetic compromises entered into by establishment architects, they were prompted to offer a new response. Stripped neo-Georgian or the so-called contemporary style, based on Scandinavian modifications of modernism, were the forms favoured for the comprehensive social building programmes initiated by the welfare state, intended as a setting for postwar ‘New Britain’. These suave and undemanding, humanized versions of the modern movement, supported by the architects of the London County Council and promulgated by individuals including J.M.Richards and Nikolas Pevsner in the editorial pages of the Architectural Review, became known as ‘the new humanism’ or ‘the new empiricism’. These forms were unacceptable to a growing number, who proposed ‘new brutalism’ as an alternative architectural morality. This was a structural, spatial, organizational and material concept, attuned to the given and necessary conditions of buildings. Alison and Peter Smithson, supported by the critic Reyner Banham and other members of the ‘20th Century Group’ in London, were united in their desire to convey the realities of modern urban life by means of a new art. They sought to introduce a vein of social realism referencing the socio-anthropological roots of popular culture and informed by an interest in Continental existentialism. The Smithsons ideas for ‘urban reidentification’ brought them into contact with the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, the photographer Nigel Henderson and Dubuffet’s anti-‘polite’ art cult of art brut. These ideas found crystallization in the London exhibitions ‘Parallel of Life and Art’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1953 and ‘This is Tomorrow’, 1956 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.
   Early examples of a conscious brutalist sensibility showed an admiration for the uncompromising intellectual qualities and roots in tradition of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Palladian clarity and restraint, the heroic scale of architecture by Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor and the uncompromising forms of nineteenth-century engineering structures were all embraced. The Smithson’s Hunstanton School, Norfolk (1949–54), invokes the elegant steel-frame vocabulary of Mies’s Illinois Institute of Technology, and reflects his honest use of materials and structure. However, their sprawling plans for the Golden Lane Housing Project, London (1952) show a move away from this Miesian expression, towards an aesthetic of change. By the mid-1950s, the rather puritanical and hermetic British brutalism was extended to embrace an international movement which espoused a brutalism of form. Le Corbusier’s béton brut, exhibited at the Unité d’Habitation, Marseilles (1947–52), Chandigargh, India (1951–64) and the Maison Jaoul (1955), influenced the formulation of the aesthetic aimed at expressing complete honesty in form described by Reyner Banham as ‘a unique and memorable image’. A developing concern for honesty in expressing functional spaces and their interrelationships is reflected in the Smithson’s scheme for the Economist offices, St James’s, London (1959–64), which solve the problem of adapting a modern building type to the requirements of a particular place. At Park Hill, Sheffield (1961) by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, rationalism has been abandoned in favour of a brutalist composition based on the topography of the site and the planning of communications within the housing complex. The arrangement of Robin Hood Gardens, London (1966–72), with street decks intended to express and embody the ideal community, was a further demonstration of the Smithson’s housing theories. A series of late brutalist ‘monuments’ by James Stirling and James Gowan show the final integration of the formal and populist aspects of the British brutalist aesthetic with a glass and brick ‘vernacular’ drawn from nineteenth-century industrial structures. In these university buildings, formal and functional concerns are combined with cita-tions of the canonical forms of the modern movement. The dormitory project for Selwyn College, Cambridge (1959) and the Engineering Building for Leicester University (1959) formed the basis of their personal style, based on a syntax of glass and brick, invoking a heroic engineering romanticism. Stirling’s History Faculty Building, Cambridge University (1964), continues this trend, with the teaching and library spaces being integrated by means of a radial plan in which the diagonal becomes a major organizing axis. The vocabulary of Leicester is fully exploited and extended in the almost overwhelming prominence of glass. The Florey Building, a student residence at Queen’s College, Oxford (1966–71), with its reminders of Le Corbusier’s Pavilion Suisse and Aalto’s Baker House, at once acknowledges and denies the modern movement.
   See also: ICA; modernism
   Further reading
    Banham, R. (1966) The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic, New York.
   HILARY GRAINGER

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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