Reyner Banham from “The New Brutalism” 1955

Reyner Banham The new Brutalism Presentation

The word ‘brutalism’ as Reyner Banham deployed it in his 1955 article ‘The new brutalism’ had a double valence. Architecturally, it evoked the idea of béton brut (raw concrete) as well as Le Corbusier’s celebration of ‘matières brutes’ (raw materials), which Banham quoted at the beginning of his 1955 essay on new brutalism.[1]

Reyner Banham was one of the most influential writers on architecture, design, and popular culture from the mid1950s to the late 1980s. Banham entered the London University in 1945 to study art history. During this time, he wrote criticism on contemporary architecture for The Architectural Review and other journals. As a critic, he particularly espoused modernist architecture. Banham wrote his thesis under Nikolaus Pevsner at the Warburg, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age which appeared as a book in 1960.[2]

Brutalism is an architectural style that spawned from the modernist architectural movement and which flourished from the 1950s to the 1970s. Brutalist building typically contains poured concrete. Brutalist buildings usually are formed with striking repetitive angular geometries, and, where concrete is used, often revealing the texture of the wooden forms used for the in-situ casting. Banham defined Brutalist buildings as being formal legibility of a plan, clear exhibition of structure and valuation of materials ‘as found.[3]

Brutalist architecture was a reaction to the white cube functionalist architecture of the pre-war heroes of the modern movement. Where their bricks were rendered and painted white to look like a machine finished concrete surface, the Brutalists wanted to be honest about the material surfaces, to leave brick unpainted and un-plastered, and the shutter-work exposed on concrete. Even the services were to be surface mounted and on display, as were the joints between materials, wherever possible. This was all documented in Banham’s book, beginning with the Smithson’s Hunstanton School.[4]

The Hunstanton School was the first accepted New Brutalist building, even before it was finished in 1954 by Alison and Peter Smithson. Hunstanton, and Soho, can serve as the points of architectural reference by which The New Brutalism in architecture may be defined.[5] Banham described the school as being “almost unique among modern buildings in being made of what it appears to be made of ”.[6] At the time, a lot of the modern buildings being built had a whitewashed appearance, despite being constructed out of steel or concrete. The Hunstanton School was completely honest about it’ s materiality. Unadorned walls are left in brick, the ceiling was left as open framework, concrete slabs are left bare and columns and beams were left as steel. Even water and electricity are honest about their delivery, as the pipe work is visible.[7] “One can see what Hunstanton is made of, and how it works, and there is not another thing to see except the play of spaces”.[8]

Another brutalist structure was the Robin Hood Gardens that being a residential estate in London designed in the late 1960s by architects Alison and Peter Smithson. Highly visible examples of Brutalist architecture. It was intended as an example of the ‘streets in the sky’ concept: Social housing characterized by broad aerial walkways in long concrete blocks. It was a reaction against Le Corbusier’ s Unite d’Habitation. It covers about two hectares and consists of two blocks, one of ten stories, the other of seven, built from precast concrete slabs and containing 213 flats.[9]

Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, as Le Corbusier had concrete, another of the brutalists idols had done the same with steel.  Mies van der Rohe, particularly with the Illinois Institute of Technology, “had made and honest use of steel as a builders’ material, employing it, not as an abstract ideal of structural stiffness, but as a real substance having surface, substance and character of its own, and structural habits as reliable and as comprehensible as those of brick or masonry.” Although Mies Van der Rohe was a pioneers of the modern architecture, materials in his buildings are revealed and showed clearly and Brutalism movement was based by his works in the direction of Peter & Alison Smithson.[10]

The idea of leaving materials unfinished was influenced by Le Corbusier’s expressionist period after the war, where his designs took on a much more monumental and heavier style. He described the construction of his buildings as ‘beton brut’ as the concrete was not rendered or painted but left rough in a very cheap way. The board marks of the concrete, and the hand marks of the workers were all left exposed. This can be seen in the ‘Unité d’Habitation’ in Marseille, which was finished in 1952.[11] Unité d’Habitation was the best known early Brutalist architecture is the work of the Swiss Architect Le Corbusier. Corbusier created his own modular inspired from the human proportions and the golden section and the concept formed the basis of several housing developments designed by him throughout Europe with this name, and to create a whole neighborhood in one building. He put the five principles of modern architecture in his vision. [12]

In his article Banham noted that “only one other building conspicuously carries these qualities in the way that Hunstanton does, and that is Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Centre.”[13] Like the school, the Yale Art Centre exhibited its materiality and structural method honestly. The exterior of the building features a monolithic brick façade along the side of the building, and the front is a curtain of steel and glazing. This restrained use of raw materials gives the interior a rich quality and creates a simple and dignified environment in which art can be displayed. The Yale Art Centre was accepted by some Brutalists, but not all. [14] According to the Reyner Banham, the building offers an exact equipartition of the plan contributes little to its functional organization or the visual experience of the visitor. In other words, no significant architectural promenade arose out of the rhythm of the structural grid or at least not one that in any way transcended the sporadic and ever- changing disposition of the gallery partitions.[15]

The another significant architect was the Paul Marvin Rudolph in that term. His most famous work is the Yale Art and Architecture Building, a spatially complex brutalist concrete structure. It was Completed in 1963, the building is formed of intersecting volumes of bush-hammered concrete. Smooth concrete and glass horizontal elements are supported by a sequence of towers that protrude above the roof in a series of turrets.[16]

In the term of brutalism, much of the criticism comes not only from the designs of the buildings, but also from the fact that concrete façades do not age well in damp, cloudy maritime climates such as those of northwestern Europe. In these climates, the concrete becomes streaked with water stains and sometimes with moss and lichens, and rust leaches from the steel reinforcing bars.[17]



[1] Potts, A. (2012). Realism, Brutalism, Pop. Art History, 35(2), 288-313.
[3] Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (London: The Architectural Press, 1966)
[4] Banham, Architectural Design 23 (9) (1953): 238-48.
[5] Risselada, M., Smithson, A. M., & Smithson, P. (2011). Alison & Peter Smithson: A critical anthology. Barcelona: Polígrafa.
[6] Banham, Reyner (1955), The Architectural Review
[7] New Brutalism: The major ideas that characterized the architectural movement. (n.d.).

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[8] Banham, Reyner (1955), The Architectural Review
[9] Contemporary Architecture Dr. Yasir Sakr Presentation Retrieved from
[10]Frampton, K. (1992). Modern architecture: A critical history. London: Thames and Hudson.
[11] New Brutalism: The major ideas that characterized the architectural movement. (n.d.).

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[12] Contemporary Architecture Dr. Yasir Sakr Presentation

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[13] Banham, Reyner (1955), The Architectural Review pp. 355-361
[14] New Brutalism: The major ideas that characterized the architectural movement. (n.d.).

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[15] Frampton, K. (1992). Modern architecture: A critical history. London: Thames and Hudson.
[16] Contemporary Architectural Trends and Theories

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[17] Contemporary Architectural Trends and Theories

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