Brutalism: Historic Foundations, and Why You Shouldn’t Knock It

[This essay was written in April as coursework for my fine art degree course. Bibliography and reference are at the bottom. I may add more images some day, as I know some of my points could’ve been better illustrated.]

Rococo and baroque art celebrated an ornate excess. This was present in all facets of the style. During the 1700s, rococo was superseded largely by Neo Classicism.  

After the French Revolution, Neo-classicism fulfilled some aspects of Napoleonic-era France’s needs architecturally as a modern society: different buildings constructed for different purposes (schools and libraries are different to housing), relatively cheap and simple so it could be mass produced in a short time to support the new regime, and it showed the might of the empire. 

By the close study of greek, roman and Etruscan ruins, architects evoked the established empirical prowess of monumental classic architecture by approaching construction in the same way. Simplistic forms like those of the Greek Doric and Ionic orders were fabricated and assembled with less expense and effort than baroque styles, while visually representing the change in politics, the wealth/superiority of the establishments, and the learned accuracy of the architects. (Frampton, 1985, pp. 13-41) 

Society in the 1700s was undergoing massive changes – populations were rising rapidly, technologies were improving, and infrastructure was implemented, notably in the form of canal networks and turnpikes. Towns grew greatly in size and importance, alongside cotton industry and naval trade. (Gresham College 2012) 

Architecture of this era is belittling and monumental, with some architects conjuring unrealisably vast designs. These idealised, imagined structures and historical fascinations created dramatic buildings evoking the classic romantic reverence for roman and greek culture.  

Many cathedrals and churches of this time, however, were built in the gothic revival style, though the gothic elements were largely decorative rather than structural. Neo-classicist styles were used more appropriately for civic structures, creating temples to modern building-types such as stock exchanges, literary and philosophical clubs, large banks, etc.  

Structures such as the St George’s Hall in Liverpool stand as internationally renowned examples of this style. The Impressive architecture showed the culture, strength and wealth of Liverpool. The hall not only dwarfed other structures and stood imposingly in the city, but was also technologically remarkable, employing an air conditioning system. (Playdo 2014) 

St. George’s Hall, Liverpool designed by Harvey Lonsdale Elmes and Sir Charles Cockrell 

Thanks to advances in technology, wrought iron became a more commonly utilised material in building, especially for its fireproof qualities. Cotton mills created a crucial industry. The issue with cotton mills up to this point was that the fibres in the air created a very flammable atmosphere; the introduction of iron structures within mills works in some measure to safeguard the building against this hazard. The first building to fully implement this iron framework within was ditherington flax mill in shrewsbury, with iron columns and beams throughout – this structure was an effective prototype for our everyday steel frame construction used today. (Gresham College 2012) 

All these advancements in technology led to urbanisation, with not just the populations of cities growing uncontrollably, but also mass imigration of rural workers into towns and cities. Cotton mills grew in efficiency with the advent of more machinery and steam power, often being located beside waterworks and coal distribution due to this reliance, leading to the creation of mill towns, and further urbanisation – a great shift of worth from labour, water and farming to machinery, coal and capitol.  

This industrialisation and resultant growth in population of cities in the early 1800s was an incredible strain on old cities, which were often built within walls and with layouts that weren’t robust enough for such hitherto unimagined populations. Resultingly, areas in cities such as London became slums, with double-backed housing, shared courtyards, squalid living conditions, nightmarish sewage problems and disease. In a profitable, immoral turn, areas of land near to factories were bought, developed with as many dwellings as physically possible, then let and sublet to workers with no alternative, leading to awful life expectancies and the horror largely associated with the industrial revolution in Victorian Britain. (Gresham College 2012) 

These issues were put to parliament by groups concerned with worker’s welfare – advents such as The Great Stink in the summer of 1858 and outbreaks of cholera led in the late 1800s to slum clearance laws, the implication of an extensive sewer system (largely still in use today) and eventually to the Working Classes Act of 1890, which meant that workers had to be provided with housing by prospective employers. A resulting development was the Millbank Estate of 1897, containing very early examples of high-rise blocks of flats. These flats were designed sympathetically, to give the appearance of nicer neighbouring dwellings than just cheap worker’s housing. (Frampton, 1985, pp. 13-41) 

In fact, several industrialists took it upon themselves to create not just extensive housing for their workers, but entire towns surrounding their industries, such as the town of Stourport-on-Severn, the first extensive canal town, created around 1771 rooted in the transshipment of goods from the river Severn to the neighboring canal system, and Saltaire in Yorkshire, a mill town established in 1850 with a range of public amenities. Some of these idealised towns were outright utopian, such as Charles Fourrier’s dream of psychologically-determined vast dormitories of workers outlined in 1829, but despite these living arrangements being imagined, and sometimes built, they often resulted in limited success in their application. (Frampton, 1985, pp. 13-41), (Gresham College 2012) 

A prime example of an industrial town in this vein is the town of Pullman, the first of its kind in America. George Pullman was a major manufacturer of sleeper cars, crucial to the rail industry surrounding Chicago, and he bought a plot of land outside of the greatly-expanding city, founding his town in 1880. The town was meant to cater in every way for the lives of the skilled workers of the company, featuring amenities, housing, and of course a factory complex. The town was later the site of a violent strike, owing to low wages and an economic depression. To this day, the town, its factories and hotel, still stand as a protected historical site within Chicago. (Frampton, 1985, pp. 13-41) 

The responsibility of architecture during the 1700s and 1800s was prompted largely by individual entrepreneurs and industrialists; many designs for public or commercial buildings were determined through competitions, with architectural entries largely coming from talented gentlemen. Architecture at this time was a collaboration between engineers (owing to the contemporary industrial boon) and, in terms of stylistic approach, a sense of historical observation and propriety from architects. As established by architectural critic Claude Perrault in the late 17th century, long-standing Vitruvian values of utility, solidity and beauty were to be replaced with those of ordinance, distribution and bien-séance – that is to say practicality had become crucial to the idea of architecture at this time; even stylistic devices (what little there were on somewhat austere neo-classicist structures) were to be symbolic and appropriate. This harsh adherence to historical values contrasts wildly with the new technology being employed to create these structures, resulting in wrought-iron structures being hidden behind false timber facings, giving illusion of age with then-modern technology. (Frampton, 1985, pp. 13-41), (Gresham College 2012) 

The Crystal Palace, London, 1851 (pubic domain) 

A good example of this importance of engineering of the time is the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition of 1851. A temporary structure (a novel idea at the time), the building wasn’t seen so much as a piece of architecture as a feat of engineering. The design itself was largely the responsibility of Joseph Paxton, a gardener – fitting as it was essentially a gargantuan greenhouse. This short-lived landmark was a demonstration of a large shift in architecture, as at this time taxes on windows and glass were repealed, and materials such as iron and glass became much more viable for buildings. Initially, their application was limited and clumsy, used more for utilitarian aims such as train stations, warehouses and mills, though they became better utilised with time. A wondeful example of the integration of such technology is Henri Labrouste’s 1840 barrel-vaulted library of Sainte Geneviève in Paris, or the harsher structural-realism of his later Bibliotheque Nationale in 1860, making use of a glass ceiling to allow light to filter through the thin iron frames of the building. (Frampton, 1985, pp. 13-41), (Gresham College 2012) 

This range, however, of historical styles being drawn from grew conflated, as Gothic, Greek, Romanesque and Italian renaissance styles all vied for popularity, with the clashing views of strictly idealised, historical classicism and looser romantic attitudes featuring individualised, artistic approaches. This came to a head in the late 1800s when the Victorian period which had been so characterised by a plethora of competing historical revivals developed its own, distinctive style. Partially in reaction to the smog-filled, dreary grey nature of these harsh neo-classicist towns, young architects began to use these predetermined historical elements with a more creative attitude, combining elements from all strains of history to create new styles uniquely Victorian and instantly recognisable, often using the brick, glass and iron that had recently become available. (Gresham College 2012) 

 For years after their construction, many examples of characteristically Victorian architecture were considered harsh, bullying and ugly compared to their more historically compromising predecessors, and the lack of respect for classic architecture was affrontive, especially due to their mass and seeming indifference to surrounding historical features. This in part owes itself to negative views of Victorians and the industrial revolution held to this day: dirty, uncaring, dark and exploitative. (Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry with Jonathan Meades, 2014)  

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Casper David Friedrich, Oil on Canvas, 1818 

This darkness associated with Victorian values isn’t exclusive to the architecture of the time. Right from the prior Georgian period, literary works and artistic movements tackled challenging dark themes representative of the broad changes happening in society and the threat these changes posed to traditional ways of living. From the introduction of the concept of the sublime in William Burke’s 1757 ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’, to the ideological changes that came with the French Revolution in 1789 to the exploration of the sublime in Romantic works such as Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of fog (1818) and the melancholic works of the Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood, the arts explored darker themes. In literary works, we had Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) through to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the macarbre poetry of Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49), Charles Dicken’s harrowing tales such as Great Expectations (1861) and philosophical reassessments from Kant’s works in the 1780s through to Friedrich Nietzsche’s assertion “God is dead” a century later in 1882. All of these cultural, artistic shifts make the case for displeasure heightening artistic experience, be it through tragic storylines, sorrowful paintings, ponderings of death or the sublimity of nature, which was being replaced by urbanisation and machinery. This combines to pose the powerful question – is art just created for pleasure? Or is there a greater application for challenging perceptions in dark, troubling themes? No doubt Dickensian wouldn’t be a recognised, loaded literary term if it weren’t for the darkness in his stories, and penny dreadfuls and Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t be sensationalised if not for explicit vices and involvement with awful crimes. 

The progression of culture and technology continued into the 20th century. With the growing rail systems, new techniques were used in production of steel as opposed to wrought or cast-iron rails. These improvements allowed engineering applications such as bridges spanning huge distances, including the Brooklyn Bridge built 1869-83 utilising steel wire suspension, and I-beams of steel, as would be used up to modern day for of high-rise buildings, leading to reinforced concrete. 

Reinforced concrete was developed in different places independently throughout the 1800s – though the steel was an engineering feat, the use of the concrete and application of techniques was often the responsibility of on-site craftsmen and workers, with different companies recommending different mixtures and the results being largely trial and error. (Forty, 2012, pp. 17-18) 

Tatlin and his tower, 1919, public domain 

Stylistically, the use of metal structures and modern materials was influential for Constructivism in revolutionary Russia. Vladimir Tatlin designed a structure called the Monument for the Third International (1920) to celebrate Russia, and the design has since become known as Tatlin’s Tower.  Another simultaneous Russian movement was Suprematism, led by Kazimir Malevich, whose paintings were reductive studies of simple, geometric shapes, challenging artistic tradition by having the art of the painting be the paint on the surface, art for art’s sake. All of this coincides with massive upheaval of established artistic tradition, with early modernist movements such as expressionism and dada reacting to mass urbanisation and later WWI respectively. 

The most inextricably linked of these early 20th century movements to resultant architecture, however, was of course the Bauhaus school in Germany. Bauhaus associates Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier singlehandedly made impacts on the future of architecture to this day that cannot be overstated. For brevity, I will focus on one of their buildings each. 

Concrete Office Building Project, Berlin, Germany (Exterior perspective) 1923, Mies Van der Rohe 

In 1923, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe designed this concrete office building in Berlin. It is recognisable almost a century on as one reproduced the world over. The simplified rectilinear forms and clear function exemplify the Bauhaus, showing a form-following-function idea, mirroring the austere attitudes of neo-classicists adhering to unornamented historicism. The difference here is that instead of turning towards the past for structural forms, modernists turn towards the future and the reductive nature of their art, and inwards, to the internal structure of the building as determined by its function, utilising and championing new technology, including their extensive use of reinforced concrete. This office block doesn’t look like any previous style; indeed, it’s not intended to have a style at all – it’s an office in its most primary form– walls and a roof with windows. It bares its structure with unapologetic modernity and no falsified historical references. This outward modernity is where the modernists argue the beauty arises. This novel approach to architecture is like that of the later Victorians in its creativity, progressiveness and newness, but different with its abandonment of historical styles. The marker of this period is the disuse of history – this is a crucial aspect of modernism. (Frampton, 1985, pp. 13-41), (Gresham College 2012) 

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, 1929 

 Le Corbusier’s 1929 Villa Savoye near Paris upholds the 5 values of his 20s ideals: it has pillars raising the bulk of the building, an open plan layout, internal structure that leaves the façade bearing no weight, a ribbon window to allow light, panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, and a roof terrace to recompense the nature it replaces. Le Corbusier saw buildings as a “machine for living in”, designing his buildings functionally. The Villa Savoye was thoroughly modern, with the drive way being designed for the turning circle of a motor car, the bottom floor providing housing for a chauffeur. (Frampton, 1985, pp. 13-41) 

This aim for suitability for modern living wasn’t particular to individual buildings or architects, but pressing all developments, with new needs for infrastructure. As with gridded cities in America and Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s reforms of Paris in the mid 1800s, adapting to modernity was a serious concern for town planning and architecture. 

Before the then-established modernism of Le Corbusier could run its due course, the second world war entirely changed the path of 20th century architecture. 

With the blitz in England and our bombing of Germany, many historical buildings on both sides were lost. Due in part to the previously-outlined public view of Victorian architecture, as well as modernism’s pointed rejection of history, and partially to the cost of repairs during a period of post-war austerity, many historical buildings that were destroyed were replaced with modern buildings, often made of concrete, and often as inexpensive as possible with experimental, new strategies. The coincidence of modernism’s simplicity and potentially cheap construction with post-war reconstruction fuelled this relatively drawn-out application of what could have otherwise been a passing style. Another massive impact in construction after the war was a shift from architecture being privately commissioned, to becoming a nationally funded, state-commissioned need. (Gresham College 2013) 

By 1958, over a decade into reconstruction and massive inner-city redevelopments nation-wide, the Victorian Society was founded to preserve Victorian structures. Utilitarian, massive post-war structures were rising everywhere, often unsympathetic to their neighbours, built for their practicality by town planners, committees, councils – a stark contrast to the more personal, individualistic nature of the buildings they were replacing. In this period several issues mirror those of the 1800s: the rising population after the baby boom, the new technologies in the wake of the war and their resultant need for appropriate architecture e.g. the rise in car ownership and the nature of modern economy (offices, commuters, a much larger workforce, including the changing role of women). (Gresham College 2013), (Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry with Jonathan Meades, 2014) 

Goldfinger’s 1967 Trellick Tower  (Donat, 1972) 

As was the case in the 1800s, blocks of flats were constructed to house these populations, but due to advancements in technology and generally-accepted architectural practices, these took the form of concrete high rises. As in the 1800s, these were idealised by the designers as self-contained communities, planned with all the ameneties needed for a happy, social society. A good example is Modernist Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, built in 1967 in west London. The tower’s services (waste disposal, the lifts and the boiler room) are separated from the rest of the tower, keeping the noisy amenities from the domestic, joined with bridging corridors, as well as laundrettes, shops, a youth centre, a doctor’s and a nursery also on site. The flats within have light flooding in from both sides, and balconies off from their kitchens. (Trellick Tower, 1991) 

I’m using this specific example as I feel it demonstrates well why buildings such as this have such poor reputations, and why I feel it’s time common perception of these buildings changed. Goldfinger’s intentions for the tower block were positive and considered, and he cared for the views of those who inhabited his buildings – he even spent time as a tenant himself to better understand life in his architecture and how it could improve. Though the tower was built for social housing for even the poorest of people, he wanted the best possible living standards for the tenants.

However, throughout the 70s Trellick Tower became known for crime and anti-social behaviour: a 31-storey, ugly concrete towering example of everything wrong with city life and the horror of dehumanizing, dystopian housing – high rise buildings were hated even before it was finished, let alone after it stood as an open home for crime. The council responsible for the building changed hands during construction, meaning corners were cut and Goldfinger’s visions couldn’t be realised, including a major lack of security. The tower arguably served as the inspiration for the central setting of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High Rise.

From 1984, however, changes slowly arose, such as implication of a resident’s association, proper management, an intercom system and a concierge. Over time, the crime rate dropped, the demand went up and by the 1990s, the tower was a desirable destination. It’s still standing as a grade II listed building, with high demand, and flats selling for upwards of a hundred thousand pounds. (Trellick Tower, 1991) (Carrol, R. 1999) 

Across the country, many structures like Trellick Tower have been, or are in danger of being, demolished. However, recently there has been a resurgence of popularity for brutalist structures, especially among the young. My entire lifetime, Trellick Tower has been a desirable location. Holding onto the idea that post-war architecture is inhumane and deserves to be destroyed is equal in my eyes to the attitude that lead to Trellick Tower being built on the site of historic Victorian buildings. I think these opinions are largely outdated and unfounded, or at least don’t recognise that they are a continuation of an ongoing historical rejection of any new architecture that heralds the advent of changes to society, improving technology, and modernity.

Projected new student housing currently being built in Exeter by Sir Robert McAlpine

On a personal note, I dislike many of the new student housing projects around Exeter (where I study), but nothing frustrates me more than falsely sympathetic, quick-turnover housing being built with mock-traditional facades locally. Many planned developments lack the architectural ambition or progressive gumption of movements that came before, as a result of compromise, focus groups and profiteering. If you’re going to build a new structure for present day, I believe you should do it with the visionary sublimity of Neo-Classicism, or the aesthetically considered utilitarian spirit of the Bauhaus, or the expressive creativity of eccentric Victorian structures. Brutalism, like architecture reacting to the cultural shift of the 1800s, has the capacity to marry these virtues in service to the societal demands of the time. Personally, I find the sculptural forms and textures of ambitious Brutalism can be far more beautiful than, say, ostentatious Rococo excess or Mc Mansions. I can forgive the brash, self-contained student housing (if it’s good to live in and serviceable to the city), but not the compromise-heavy profit-driven model towns that are enveloping the local countryside.

If you enjoyed this essay addressing post-war architecture, you may like my short art film/experimental synth music video inspired by it!
You can view it here:



Architecture at the Crossroads: Doubt and Reassessment (1986) Directed by Peter Adam [Film]. London: BBC.  

Trellick Tower (1991) Directed by Paul Bryers [Film]. London: BBC. 

Mies van der Rohe, L. (1923) Concrete Office Building Project, Berlin, Germany (Exterior Perspective) [Charcoal and crayon on paper]. Available at: (Accessed: 09 January 2019). 

Girvan, R. (2015) The Temple and Tower at Exmouth. Available at: (Accessed: 9 January 2019). 

Joanbanjo (2011) Torre dels Vents d’Atenes. Available at: (Accessed: 9 January 2019). 

Mayo, C. H. W. (1824) Exmouth Chapel 1779; Tower of the Winds 1823 [Etching]. Devon County Council, Exmouth. 

Storeye (2007) The Temple of Hephaistos in Athens. Available at: (Accessed: 10 January 2019). 

Shepherd, G. (1810) The second Newgate Prison: A West View of Newgate [Watercolour on Paper]. Available at: (Accessed: 10 January 2019). 

The School of Life (2016) Burke on: The Sublime. Available at: (Accessed: 10 January 2019). 

BBC Radio 4 (2014) Edmund Burke on the Sublime. Available at: (Accessed: 10 January 2019). 

Frampton, K. (1985) Modern Architecture: a Critical History. 2nd edn. London: Thames and Hudson. 

Gresham College (2012) English Architecture, 1830 to 1914: On Top Of The World – Professor Simon Thurley. Available at:–ZbU (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Gresham College (2012) English Architecture, 1760 to 1830: Engine House – Professor Simon Thurley. Available at: (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Gresham College (2013) Coming to Terms with Modern Times: English architecture in the post-war era – Simon Thurley. Available at: (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Gresham College (2012) Building the Victorian City: Splendour and Squalour – Professor Simon Thurley. Available at: (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Playdo (2014) People’s Palaces – The Golden Age of Civic Architecture: Neo Classical [BBC, Full Documentary]. Available at: (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Hickley, C. (2018) Saving Brutalism: The Campaign to Preserve Concrete Icons. Available at: (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Beckwith, M. D. (2014) Interior Shot of St George’s Hall. Available at: (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Valueyou (2008) Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, Poissy, France. Available at: (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry with Jonathan Meades(2014) Directed by Jonathan Meades [Film]. London: BBC. 

Forty, A. (2012) Concrete and Culture: A Material History. Glasgow: Bell & Bain. 

Carrol, R. (1999) How did this become the height of fashion?. Available at: (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 


Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry with Jonathan Meades(2014) Directed by Jonathan Meades [Film]. London: BBC. 

Carrol, R. (1999) How did this become the height of fashion?. Available at: (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Gresham College (2012) English Architecture, 1830 to 1914: On Top Of The World – Professor Simon Thurley. Available at:–ZbU (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Gresham College (2012) English Architecture, 1760 to 1830: Engine House – Professor Simon Thurley. Available at: (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Gresham College (2013) Coming to Terms with Modern Times: English architecture in the post-war era – Simon Thurley. Available at: (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Gresham College (2012) Building the Victorian City: Splendour and Squalour – Professor Simon Thurley. Available at: (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Forty, A. (2012) Concrete and Culture: A Material History. Glasgow: Bell & Bain. 

Frampton, K. (1985) Modern Architecture: a Critical History. 2nd edn. London: Thames and Hudson. 

Playdo (2014) People’s Palaces – The Golden Age of Civic Architecture: Neo Classical [BBC, Full Documentary]. Available at: (Accessed: 2 April 2019). 

Trellick Tower (1991) Directed by Paul Bryers [Film]. London: BBC. 

Donat, J. (1972) Trellick Tower. Available at: (Accessed: 4 September 2019). 

If you find this list isn’t comprehensive, please contact me and I’ll endeavour to dig up more sources! I may have missed a couple of things due to rushing for a deadline, but if anything is missing, I am sorry and would like to be notified if you have a problem. Thanks! 

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