There are two Brutalisms, and neither is thoroughly understood nor appreciated. Late in 1953, the Smithsons published a scheme for a house in Fitzrovia, which, with its ‘bare concrete, brickwork and wood... the structure exposed entirely, without internal finishes wherever practicable’ would have been ‘the first exponent of the “new brutalism” in England’. This was also the first appearance of the term.
The approach was elaborated in the Architectural Design for January 1955. Theo Crosby rejected ‘contemporary’ modernism in favour of formal classical proportion, as was being expounded by Rudolf Wittkower, and the Smithsons looked to the principles and spirit of Japanese architecture and peasant dwellings.
The Smithsons wrote of a ‘reverence for materials’ without singling out concrete, and their modest (unlisted) house for Derek and Jean Sugden then being built in Watford is Brutalist in its unplastered brickwork, exposed concrete beams and simple tiled floors and timberwork. It is a house easily taken for granted: simple yet radical, with an underlying balance between formality and awkward elevations were taken from de Stijl and the Maisons Jaoul.
With nothing else to build and a savvy for self-promotion, the Smithsons made Brutalism Britain’s most important contribution to international architecture after the Arts and Crafts Movement. That international perspective is worth remembering as its greatest monuments are needlessly altered or destroyed.
How different is this original Brutalism from what can be called ‘High Brutalism’ in the manner that High Victorian Gothic evolved from the simple lancets of Pugin and his contemporaries? The scale was expanded and the architecture became more expressive in buildings like Sheffield’s Park Hill and Castle Market, Manchester’s Piccadilly Plaza and Gateshead’s Treaty Centre, but while the continuing low budgets and greater size favoured concrete over brick and timber, the pursuit of honest forms and finishes remained.
For a moment in the 1960s Brutalism’s cheapness and flexibility united the public and commercial sectors, and north and south; at the end of the decade, the Smithsons gave it an added intellectual nous with Robin Hood Gardens. Yet was Brutalism ever as truly fashionable as now, in its moment of destruction?
© Elain Harwod
This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 4 'BRUTAL'