Brutalist connections

Although the term Brutalism was recently coined, it is not easy to objectively analyze its meaning and significance. Its inconsistent and prejudiced use makes the necessary task of disentangling its conceptual knot, and promoting its objective understanding, a certainly difficult endeavor. In any case, it would be impossible to perform that task without revisiting, among other sources, Reyner Bahnam’s book “The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?”, published in 1966.

Reproduced and copied, with or without explicit reference, by uncountable other sources, Banham’s book was responsible for the crystallization of several myths. For example: the understating of Brutalism as a “movement”, as predominantly an “ethic”, established and nourished by British architects, with exclusivity or at least precedence. It was Banham’s book that smartly produced a mishmash of two different phrases, historical situations and concepts: Brutalism - as an world-wide spread architectural trend (a fact clearly noticeable in 1966 when Banham publishes the book); and the so-called “New Brutalism” - as a provocative denomination, coined inside a limited and circumscribed local British debate, at the beginning of the 1950’s (which then produced more fanfare than results). Banham’s book of 1966 proceeds to collect, entrap and confuse both terms and to make believe that they were one an only - which they are not. As for the other myths mentioned above, they do not stand up to historical scrutiny either.

Nevertheless, Banham was very successful in such mythmaking. It is not unusual, even today, to find Brutalism portrayed as originally British– an affirmation frequently stated without any other basis but the scholastic reproduction of Banham’s words. Due to the acritical acceptance and hasty reading of excerpts of his book, considered as a reliable and undisputed source, there remains a pervasive belief that the term Brutalism can be correctly applied only in the circumscribed and restricted sense proposed, mostly in the first half of his book – even though Banham did not completely hold such simplified position in the second part of his account.

In any case, Banham’s book is more-often mentioned and partially quoted than critically read and thoroughly studied. A close reading and analysis paradoxically reveals its qualities, complexity and many contradictions. The first part of the book clearly shows how vigorously Banham endeavored to promote the myth of the predominance and precedence of his fellow British colleagues on the subject. A task he accomplishes by an abbreviated and partial historical account, confusing the sequence of the events - Le Corbusier makes its appearance only on chapter 4 - cleverly seasoning facts with some memorable but unimportant anecdotes. In any case, his explicit intention was not to arrive at an objective definition of Brutalism, but to promote some circumscribed architectural contribution - Britain between 1946 and 1966 in particular the work of Allison and Peter Smithson. This of course is a very interesting and an extremely important architectural contribution, but no less important than many other national architectural contributions, designed by several architects from all over the world during the same period. The book offers no clear proof that British brutalism precedes or originates other Brutalist manifestations in other places - except for the authority of his position, helped by some imprecise dates and inverted sequence of facts.

Nevertheless, in the second part of the same book, Banham increases his range and includes other Brutalist manifestations, whose existence he acknowledges in order to propose the existence of a somewhat expanded “Brutalist connection”. Acting not as a partisan, but as a critic, in this part of the book Banham takes into account the presence, in several countries, of many interesting works, in tune with Brutalism, but not necessarily affiliated to each other or sharing a central focus - except for the original connection with Le Corbusier.  The existence of a Brutalist connection is then illustrated with examples in Italy, Switzerland, Japan and Chile.

This research works on that clue and goes beyond. It has verified the proper design dates of the works mentioned by Banham - for example, the Chilean work he mentions was designed in 1953, not in 1964 as he mentions - which is not an unimportant difference! Moreover, the research has strived to include a considerable number of other examples connected with Brutalism and to organize a more precise timeline, in order to enlarge the boundaries of what, until now, has been a limited understanding of the significance of the “brutalist connection”.