Why You Should Care About Brutalist Architecture

One of the world’s most misunderstood architectural styles is having a moment. For years, Brutalism has been used as popular shorthand for any modern building that is too ugly and too massive – or maybe just out of fashion. But the word refers to a specific architectural movement concerned with raw materials, bold geometry and a desire to radically refashion our living environments. It spread around the world from Europe, evolving as it went, before falling out of favour after its heyday in the 1970s. Today, however, in the era of Instagram and architecture-as-backdrop, the distinct aesthetics of Brutalism have made a comeback. 

That was confirmed last September when an exhibition named BRUTAL! – Unknown Brutalism Architecture in Hong Kong was held at Openground, a buzzy café-gallery in the fast-gentrifying wholesale district of Sham Shui Po. Sponsored by the Design Trust, filled with photos by Zolima CityMag contributor Kevin Mak, and curated by AaaM Architects co-founder Bob Pang, the show cast a spotlight on local Brutalist structures like the old Shaw Brothers film studio in Clear Water Bay and the gymnasium at St. Stephen’s College in Stanley. 

“It was very popular and totally surprising,” says Pang. The exhibition received widespread attention in the media and drew 3,000 visitors. The curatorial team had made hundreds of tote bags and postcards to sell as souvenirs at the show. The voracious audience bought every last one. 

For Pang, it confirmed that there was resounding interest in Hong Kong’s architectural heritage, especially its large but vulnerable stock of Modernist buildings from the decades after World War II. “Most of the audience was surprised that we found so many cases of a single architectural style,” he says. “[And] many of them were surprised we used to have experimental or avant-garde architecture in Hong Kong.” 

But it also underlined how much work was left to be done. Pang feels there is still too much focus on the aesthetics of Brutalism and not enough on the ideas behind it, or why it might be worthy of conservation. “Brutalist architecture is relatively young – the oldest structure we found [in Hong Kong] is only 55 years old,” he says. “Due to lack of maintenance and poor construction techniques, we found cracks, spalling and water leakage. This makes the architecture less appealing to the public.”

It’s not necessarily an easy style to appreciate. Brutalism emerged from the wreckage of postwar Britain, when the country was desperately rebuilding cities that had been devastated by Nazi bombs. In cities that had been previously characterised by overcrowded tenement housing and a lack of public space, the rebuilding effort was an opportunity to rethink everything from the ground up. 

Modernism offered a seductive promise to sweep away the baggage of the past, and Brutalism emerged as a wave atop that deeper current of architecture. The term was first used by Swedish architect Hans Asplund to describe Villa Göth, a house in Uppsala that was designed by Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm and completed in 1950. The house laid bare its structural elements, with exposed brick walls, visible beams and poured concrete that bore the texture of the wooden boards used to mould it. When a group of young English architects visited the house shortly after its completion, they brought its ideas back home, where they quickly caught on among their contemporaries. 

Among them were Alison and Peter Smithson, who described their plans for an unbuilt London rowhouse, featured in a 1953 issue of Architectural Design, as “New Brutalism,” the first published use of the term. Like Villa Göth, the Smithsons’ house was conceived with raw concrete, brickwood and wood in order to lay bare the essential structure and materiality of the building – “a combination of shelter and environment,” as Peter described it. Several years later, Alison said the couple had been motivated by a reaction to lacklustre new buildings built in the 1940s, often in a neo-traditional style, that were “not built of real materials at all, but some sort of processed material such as Kraft cheese. We turned back to wood and concrete, glass and steel, all the materials which you can really get hold of.”

As the idea of Brutalism took hold, architectural critic Reyner Banham offered a definition that rested on three pillars: “memorability as an image, clear exhibition of structure, and a valuation of materials ‘as found.’” But the movement quickly became associated with one material in particular: concrete. Critic and curator Oliver Eiser says this is due to the influence of Le Corbusier, whose Unité d’habitation—a housing prototype that formed the basis of Marseille’s La Cité Radieuse, completed in 1952—was made of unfinished concrete. The famed Swiss architect described the result as “béton brut,” meaning raw or rough concrete, echoing the terminology used for dry sparkling wine.

Le Corbusier’s designs embodied the first step of Brutalism’s evolution: what Eiser calls “an expression of exaggeration and extravagance,” adding a fourth criteria to Banham’s three-pronged definition of the style. And just as raw concrete came to be indelibly associated with Brutalism, so too did the vast scale of many Brutalist projects, including the Barbican Estate—a complex of 2,000 flats and houses, along with shops and a performing arts centre—and Boston City Hall, an impressively rugged structure whose cantilevered form looms over surroundings that date back to the days of the American War of Independence.

Though the use of concrete made many Brutalist buildings opaque, the honest way they expressed their structure and materials revealed a spirit of transparency, which lent itself to grand civic projects that aimed to improve society. “There was a focus on the celebration of the neighbour, of equity, of well-being – this larger social agenda,” says Cecilia Chu, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Division of Landscape Architecture and the current president of Docomomo Hong Kong, a group dedicated to conserving Modernist heritage. 

You can see that ethos in projects like Habitat 67 in Montreal, which was an experiment by architect Moshe Safdie to mass-produce housing by assembling prefabricated concrete cubes into a modular apartment building. In Paris and its suburbs, public housing estates like Les Arcades du Lac, Les Orgues de Flandres and the Cité du Parc were built in a flamboyant Brutalist style that made the case that public housing need not be grim and utilitarian. In the Indian state of Punjab, Le Corbusier went even further and designed an entirely new Brutalist city from the ground up – Chandigarh, parts of which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site

With the rise of Postmodernism and neo-traditional architecture in the 1980s, Brutalism fell out of style, although many of its philosophical underpinnings—the emphasis on materiality, the visual showmanship, the transparency with regards to structure—would continue to inform architecture for years to come. These days, many Brutalist buildings find themselves in the same awkward spot as other Modernist structures: old enough to be at risk of redevelopment, but still too young to be considered as heritage worth saving, at least in the eyes of the general public.

The particular stigma associated with Brutalism doesn’t help. “I think the word ‘brutal’ is sometimes associated with violation,” says Horta Fu, an architect and the author of BrutalistHK 20, a pamphlet documenting Brutalism in Hong Kong. “There are also a lot of movies that reflect a dystopia under Brutalism, like Clockwork Orange in the 1970s. And when you go into the 1980s those [European] council estates built in Brutalist style are associated with decay.”

Even though Brutalism has seen a revival of interest in recent years, it is still greeted with disdain by many people. “Most people can’t see what is special about these buildings,” says Fu. That’s what motivates him to document many of Hong Kong’s Brutalist structures on his Instagram account, @hortayhfu. And it’s also what prompted Oliver Eiser to launch SOS Brutalism – Save the Concrete Monsters, a book, exhibition, social media campaign and online database of Brutalism around the world, made in collaboration with the Deutsches Architekturmuseum and the Wüstenrot Foundation. Since its launch in 2018, the project has catalogued 2,038 buildings, more than 10 percent of which are in acute danger of being demolished or rebuilt. Eiser spent several weeks in Hong Kong as an M+ / Design Trust fellow, which gave him a chance to explore the legacy of Brutalism here. 

It turns out Hong Kong is a bit of an outlier. “I discovered more buildings that resonated with Brutalism but were atypical examples of it,” said Eiser in an interview with M+ Magazine. “They made me consider how other factors infiltrated the Brutalist approach, such as Hong Kong-based architects’ consciousness of traditional Chinese architecture, or the influence of postmodern architecture that reinterpreted and referenced historical precedents.”

That’s something kindergarten teacher and architecture enthusiast Iain Cocks has noticed in his many walks around town, documenting Hong Kong’s Modernist heritage for his Instagram account @gaatzaat. “Hong Kong is quite different, in that it doesn’t have any of those monumental buildings that Brutalism is known for,” he says. “It was really suited to big builds – government buildings, theatre complexes, museums, housing estates. Those huge projects, all constructed in the postwar boom years, align with the time when Hong Kong was also rapidly expanding. You might have thought colonial Hong Kong would have followed suit with what was happening at home, but that wasn’t the case.”

Cocks sees glimpses of Brutalism in certain structures like the monumental lift shafts of Kwai Shing West Estate, which reminds him of Ernő Goldfinger’s landmark Trellick Tower in London. And the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s campus, which was built starting in the 1960s, includes a large collection of Brutalist structures designed by architect Szeto Wai, which Eiser describes as “a clever ensemble of buildings that avoids monotony, with each building having different architectural expressions.” 

Some of Hong Kong’s other Brutalist structures have also garnered attention, including the Shaw Brothers Studio, with its rough aggregate façade punctured by dozens of exposed concrete pipes, and the North Point Methodist Church, whose façade consists of massive structural columns shaped by bottle openers. Compared to the large complexes associated with Brutalism elsewhere in the world, however, these local examples of the style tend to be one-off, smaller-scale buildings. The very first was the private residence of architect Jackson Wong, co-founder of Wong & Ouyang, which is today one of Hong Kong’s largest architecture firms. Perched atop a seaside bluff in Chung Hom Kok, the house—which was built in 1966 but has since been demolished—consisted of a two-storey concrete box with a cantilevered upper floor. 

Avant-garde architect Tao Ho had a particular fascination with Brutalism. His design for St. Stephen’s College in Stanley, completed in 1980, includes a gymnasium with rough concrete walls and windowed walls titled at such an angle that the space is always bright while avoiding any direct sunlight. Ho kept experimenting with the style well after its popularity had faded. His design for the Wing Kwong Holiness Church in Lok Fu, completed in 2000, consists of a five-storey block of community facilities cantilevered high over the nave of the church, next to an 100-metre tower that soars high over the treetops of the adjacent Morse Park. Although the church lacks the material quality normally associated with Brutalism, it seems to have had a clear influence on its form. 

As Brutalism has come back into style, many Brutalist landmarks around the world have been preserved and restored – but often at the cost of being converted into luxury housing. That was the case for the Parkhill Estate in Sheffield, a Brutalist public housing complex, and it is likely to be the fate of Singapore’s Golden Mile Complex, which is currently a mix of affordable flats and shopping arcades home to small Thai businesses. 

“I’m a little bit critical of this obsession with Brutalist style,” says Cecilia Chu. “It’s cool, it’s fashionable, there’s a lot of nice coffee table books that try to revisit this era. But in turning these buildings into something fashionable and often more high-end, you lose the original meaning of these buildings. It’s important to ask, why are we celebrating these buildings? What kinds of values are we embracing?”

Eisner notes that Hong Kong’s Brutalist structures don’t necessarily carry the same civic ambitions as those elsewhere. “In Hong Kong and the surrounding region, I have the impression that architecture has never been as ideological as in the European–US context,” he says. In some cases, local architects may simply have seen it as a style to be replicated. But it’s impossible to truly separate Hong Kong Brutalism from its international context. And that’s part of what makes the city’s examples of the movement so fascinating: they are reminders of how ideas travel the world, adapting to each local situation they encounter.

After the success of the exhibition last September, Bob Pang is continuing his research into local Brutalism, with the goal of eventually publishing a book on the topic. “There’s still a lot of work to be done,” he says. Hong Kong Brutalism might fly under the radar for now, but perhaps not for long. 

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