Brutalism: How unpopular buildings came back in fashion

Brutalism: how unpopular buildings came back in fashion
The National Theatre on London’s Southbank was completed in 1976

Could there ever be a more bizarre choice of name for an architectural movement than Brutalism? How odd that some of the very architects charged with creating working-class housing and public buildings from the mid-1950s to the early-1970s should have been happy to be called Brutalists. It was hardly likely to make them popular. Who, especially among those hit hardest by the brutality of World War II, wanted to live in brutal buildings?

This peculiar name was a supposedly clever play on beton brut, French for raw concrete, which in the hands of an artist-architect like Le Corbusier, and especially under a Mediterranean sun, could be a strikingly beautiful building material. So, Brutalists – the name conceived and popularised by Reyner Banham, a determinedly hip and massively bearded English architectural critic in the influential pages of the Architectural Review – were meant to be a new breed of thrusting young architects who, while building a post-war socialist utopia, would challenge the very foundations of what they saw as the fey, bourgeois Modernism of the 1930s. And, even worse, of the charming, reticent kind of new state-approved British architecture represented by the Royal Festival Hall, centrepiece of the 1951 Festival of Britain. []

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