Concrete Jungles

Modern Design. Leonard Joel Auctions

“Brutalism is the techno music of architecture, stark and menacing. Brutalist buildings are expensive to maintain and difficult to destroy. They can’t be easily remodelled or changed, so they tend to stay the way the architect intended. Maybe the movement has come roaring back into style because permanence is particularly attractive in our chaotic and crumbling world.”
Brad Dunning, GQ Style

Modern Design. Leonard Joel Auctions
Nevigeser Wallfahrtsdom, Germany / Alamy

An architectural period to forget, or a legacy worth preserving? Few building styles have made an impact on a region or caused as much controversy as brutalist architecture.

Brutalism is considered a variant of post-war modernism, rising to popularity from the early 1950s before reaching its peak in the late 1970s. Known for its use of functional reinforced concrete, modular elements, and utilitarian feel, brutalist architecture was primarily used for institutionally commissioned buildings such as schools, churches, libraries, and public housing.

The term originates from the pioneer of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, from ‘beton brut’, French for ‘raw concrete’. Imposing and geometric, brutalist buildings have a distinct graphic quality, the architecture looks heavy and immovable. It is artistically sculptural, giving it unique qualities that rely on depth, creating patterns and compositions through light and shadows.

Brutalism is intertwined with the urban modernist idea that a rational approach to design could produce the best architecture, striving to create simple, honest, and functional buildings. This was especially significant after World War II in countries such as the UK and across Eastern Europe, where affordable large-scale housing was becoming increasingly necessary.

Modern Design. Leonard Joel Auctions
The Sirius public housing building in The Rocks area of Sydney city centre, NSW / Alamy

Heading into the 1980s, brutalism became unpopular, due to the cold and austere nature of the architecture, often associated with totalitarianism. Concrete also did not age well, showing signs of water damage and decay that brought down the overall look of the buildings. Contributing to the decline, concrete was the perfect canvas for graffiti vandalism. This symbol of urban perish and economic hardship was out in the open, for the world to see. 

Since the backlash of the 1980s, countless brutalist buildings have been torn down. While some consider these eyesores, many others believe that their destruction is in fact losing a significant and important piece of architectural history. This awareness has led to the protection of some buildings, and their reconstruction as historic sites; some have even achieved UNESCO heritage status.

A prominent example of brutalist architecture in Australia is the Sirius apartment complex in The Rocks district of Sydney, designed by Tao Gofers in 1978 for the Housing Commission of New South Wales. Despite a public outcry to save the building and a lengthy case to support its importance, along with a unanimous recommendation by the heritage council, the building was sold to private developers in 2019 for $150 million. Just a few years later, Sirius was transformed into a luxury apartment block selling for over $435 million.

The architectural world is all about re-appreciation, and suffice to say, the revival of brutalism has been relatively swift. Perhaps what once appeared so ugly, was in fact always visionary to its form.

ANNA GRASSHAM / Head of Modern Design

Banner Image: The Sirius public housing building in The Rocks area of Sydney city centre, NSW / Alamy

May 2022