The Art of Brutalism: The Style of No Style

To celebrate the release of The Art of Brutalism (with the Paul Mellon Centre) – a fascinating inquiry into an iconic artistic movement – author Ben Highmore explains how his new study challenges some of the established ideas about this stylistic period.

In this brief overview, Highmore explores how he has ‘steered a different path’ in his approach to the subject, hurling the term Brutalism ‘back into the cauldron of the 1950s’ and reconsidering Brutalism ‘as feeling’, perhaps just one part of a ‘whole way of life’.

Ben Highmore on The Art of Brutalism

In a letter to Architectural Design published in their June 1957 issue the architect John Voelcker explained that the ‘New Brutalism’ in architecture ‘cannot be understood through stylistic analysis, although some day a comprehensible style might emerge’. He was amplifying his friends Alison and Peter Smithsons’ claim that ‘Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical’, a claim that had been published in the same magazine two months earlier. Who are they arguing with, you may wonder? Who is it that has been treating Brutalism as a style?

Art of Brutalism

The Roger Stevens building in Leeds designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon in 1970

Enter Reyner Banham, stage left. Banham, writing in Architectural Review in 1955, had laid out a programmatic account of New Brutalism that elaborated on three points: namely that architecture should be legible in terms of structure; that it should present a memorable image (or an image as a memorial); and that materials should be used in the ‘raw’. In 1966 Banham published a large book that in its subtitle registers something of the discussion that took place in 1957: The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (London: The Architecture Press, 1966). There are two things that are worth saying about this book. The first is that the book comes down squarely on the side of aesthetics, if only through the barrage of examples of buildings that use board formed concrete and brick (for instance, my own university campus in Falmer, Brighton designed by Basil Spence and referred to as ‘brick brutalism’). The second point to note is that Banham’s large book is an extended account of the failure of Brutalism as a radical architecture, and that Banham is a stringent critic of what it stands for. In other words, Banham’s book accomplishes two things: it claims that he was right all along in seeing Brutalism as a style; and then proceeds to claim that as an architectural programme it never fulfilled its radical promise. It seems clear though, that this second assessment is based on viewing Brutalism as a style rather than as an ethics.

Art of Brutalism

In The Art of Brutalism I wanted to steer a different path, the one that Banham didn’t take. It meant taking seriously, not only that Brutalism wasn’t a style but that in the words of the Smithsons that ‘Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-produced society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work’. I wanted to pull the term Brutalism away from its immediate association with concrete and alienation, and hurl it back into the cauldron of the 1950s.

I wanted to pull the term Brutalism away from its immediate association with concrete and alienation, and hurl it back into the cauldron of the 1950s.

To see it circulate not simply with architects but amongst a milieu of artists, writers, and curators, all of whom had recently navigated the spiritual vortex of the second world war. I must admit that I felt and still feel a bit like King Canute trying to hold back the sea’s tide. The tidal wash of Brutalism today is enormous. The shelves in bookstores positively howl under the weight of the books on Brutalism that see it as a loose style of architecture that once dominated civic architecture in the 1960s and 1970s. Today Brutalism is a name associated with an uncompromising architectural aesthetic that looks like a monument to the Welfare State. We can love it so much because today’s dominant architectural form (of gherkins, shards, and walkie-talkies) seems such a ruthless monument to mammon, such a savage declaration of moral vacuity.

Art of Brutalism

The Brutalism that I found was more modest, more tentative, and more ambitious than I had been led to believe by both the champions and detractors of Brutalism as style. In the eyes of ‘my’ merry band of Brutalists ‘style’ was a distinct problem. It didn’t signal innovation, it signalled sclerosis. The ‘International Style’ in architecture had by the 1950s become a set of oh so tasteful tropes. The socio-cultural programme instigated by CIAM under the name of the Athens Charter looked like a bureaucratic machine for producing sterile urbanism (the Smithsons again: ‘the problem of human relations fell through the net’ cast by CIAM). The classic avant-gardes such as surrealism had been outrun by the actuality of aerial bombing which produced ‘surreal juxtapositions’ as a matter of course. In this light Brutalism was never ‘one thing’, but a protean force emerging out of the ruins of war. What it produced, I think, was an oceanic rumble that has been submerged beneath what I have called the ‘victory narratives’ of art history where there is only room for ‘Pop Art’, ‘minimalism’ and so on. (To see and hear this oceanic rumble you will have to read more in The Art of Brutalism.)

Today, what would it mean to treat Brutalism as the style of no style, to recognise it as a sensitivity, as a structure of feeling?

Today, what would it mean to treat Brutalism as the style of no style, to recognise it as a sensitivity, as a structure of feeling? It might mean, I think, recognising that in the late 1980s Prince Charles was a lot closer to Brutalism than he could have ever conceived (his architectural advisors included Theo Crosby who was an architect and publisher who had been responsible for publishing the statements by John Voelcker and the Smithsons that I started with). Brutalism and Prince Charles have very different ideas of the vernacular forms that might still be important, but they share a common enemy: the unfettered indifference to people’s needs that is often shown by the most feted architects of the day. But it would also mean that today’s ‘rough poetry’ has to face up to today’s ‘mass produced society’ as it heads for planetary suicide and increased social injustice. It would mean, I think, treating architecture, art, music and any other cultural forms as part of a ‘whole way of life’. It would mean having to give up on the myopic specialisms that want to bracket off the interconnections that produce our cacophonous collective life.

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