Lessons From The Raw: How Brutalism Can Improve Your Life

by Sam Vassallo

There is no one cut-and-dry definition or reaction to brutalist architecture. Opinions morph, decay and regenerate – as do the towering brutalist concrete structures with time. What is undeniable is that this béton brut or “raw concrete” style cemented itself as one of the most important and recognisable architectural movements of the mid-20th century.

While its popularity dwindled in the 1980s due to tyrannic political ties and the grotesque look of weathered concrete, it has found a resurgence of interest online. Social media, fuelling an insatiable nostalgia, has given brutalism a comeback, championing its raw aesthetics reminiscent of a past world.

Beyond providing a nostalgic nod to our newsfeeds, and coffee table books, the movement can give us philosophical tools that are timeless.


Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh, India, by Le Corbusier – image from Wikicommons

Barbican Centre, London, UK, by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon – image from Wikicommons


About brutalism

Emerging in the dust of post-World War II strife, brutalism arrived as a transformative force. The times were marked by a moral seriousness, a desire to shed the past, and an urgent need to erect cheaper buildings – from social housing to public libraries, universities, courts and city halls.

From brutalist pioneers like Le Corbusier with Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles and Smithsons’ Hunstanton School in Norfolk, architects veered away from all superficial decoration, focused on structures that were austere, functional, solid and honest.

The explosion of the movement grew to nearly all corners of the planet: from the United Kingdom and France to the United States, the USSR, South America and India to name a few. A new way of thinking emerged, through imposing buildings, unusual shapes, contrasting textures and straight, austere lines in heavy-looking material.

Unité d’Habitation, Marseille, France, by Le Corbusier – image from Wikicommons

How can we harness brutalism today?

Brutalism fell out of favour in the 1980s. Its links to totalitarian regimes turned the backs of the West to it. It also came to represent a sort of urban decay, as raw concrete does not age well aesthetically, often turning black, or stained and scratched due to the weather and time.

Whatever your opinions on the politics and aesthetics of brutalism, the philosophy still offers some value to our 21st-century lives.

The decay of concrete structures may not be a reference of beauty for many, but its rawness can remind us of our own mortality, as living things constantly edge towards our ends from the moment of birth. Our pressing morality can remind us to savour what is important, away from unnecessary excesses like wealth and social status, to enjoy a life of simple authenticity.

The brutalist philosophy was born out of the desire for a new social equality, community, and a sense of collective identity. Within these brutalist structures, a vision of post-war utopia was

born. In other words, a collective hope for a better future, a kind of positivity that we often leave on the back burner but is pressingly needed for the human spirit.

Just as Brutalism embraces raw materials, we can appreciate the beauty in simplicity and embrace the essence of things rather than chasing superficial embellishments. By seeking a utopian vision, we can come closer to a sense of community, equality, and social impact, working towards a better future.

Ultimately, Brutalist philosophy encourages us to live uncompromisingly, purposefully, and boldly.

Geisel Library, San Diego, USA, by William Pereira – image from Wikicommons



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