Three Myths About Brutalism

by Don Friedman on October 25, 2017

Neave Brown, the architect of the Alexandra Road housing estate in London (above, click to enlarge) as well as other brutalist housing projects, has recently been recognized for his work. In architectural terms, this is undiluted brutalism, with nearly all exterior surfaces as bare concrete or glass.

The article at the second link above summarizes the fortunes of the estate, from being used as a symbol of decay to having a lot of long-term happy residents. A structure like this can’t hide – it doesn’t look like traditional housing and it’s quite large – so it has to succeed or fail while in the spotlight.

The first myth I wanted to mention is quite simple: that brutalism is universally reviled among ordinary people and only liked by architects or people with architectural training. The Guardian article at the second link makes it clear that a lot of the people at Alexandra Road love living there specifically because of the features that set it apart, including its appearance and the megastructure aspects of joined buildings.

The second myth is even simpler, that brutalism, unlike other styles, can’t be used for residential buildings, or at a small scale. This is a big building only by the standards of London housing. In New York its size would be unremarkable, although its architecture obviously would not be. The fact that there are relatively few brutalist apartment houses and even fewer row houses or single-family houses has more to do with the social issues surrounding the style’s birth and use and less to do with its fitness for any given purpose.

The third myth is directly related to our work. Exposed concrete is not somehow uniquely ill-suited as a facade material. It does not necessarily deteriorate faster than other materials. The exposed concrete of brutalism got a bad reputation because (a) a lot of the time the original construction was not of the proper quality. Exposed concrete has to be placed and finished more carefully than concrete that will be hidden from the weather, and this was unfortunately not always recognized before construction. Even more important, every material will deteriorate if not maintained, but somehow people got the idea that they could simply ignore the exposed concrete and it would stay in good shape forever.

A Concrete Building

October 11, 2017

A market hall in Wrocław, Poland: That’s how you do exposed concrete. The hall has the basic layout of a church, with a cross plan for the high gable roof and lower infill between the cross arms. The roof and its clerestory are supported by a series of parabolic concrete arches, which intersect at the […]

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What Is A Building’s “Material”?

October 10, 2017

Curtesy of Marcin Wichary: I’ll almost certainly be getting this map of “Concrete New York” but I find the discussion on Curbed to be problematic. In my opinion, New York does not have an iconic city-center concrete building the way that (among others) Boston, Chicago, and Washington do; the best concrete building nearby has been altered […]

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Patterns of Damage

September 28, 2017

João Carlos Souza has a primer up on ArchiNet on how to identify problems in concrete buildings based on crack patterns. Putting aside some bad translation from Portuguese to English* it’s quite good and can help identify damage when used as intended. Mr. Souza does not explicitly state the assumptions that went into his visual […]

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Anna Karenina in Concrete

September 10, 2017

Tolstoy said that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This principle can be applied to buildings: every building in good condition is alike, every failing building fails in its own way. The white paint on the concrete does a great job, in my opinion, of highlighting where the […]

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Sidewalk Vaults and True Obsolescence

August 14, 2017

For people unfamiliar with sidewalk vaults, the illustration above, from 1865, might seem plausible, but it’s actually Daniel Badger’s fantasy of how he could sell more iron. The left-hand side is reasonably accurate for mid-1800s vaults: the facade columns extend down past the plane of the sidewalk, marking the separation of the cellar proper from […]

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A Square Peg In A Square Hole

July 20, 2017

If you wait long enough, every aspect of a given technology will change. Square reinforcing bars used to be fairly common in concrete, but they’re long gone in design practice. Plain reinforcing bars, without surface deformations, used to be fairly common in concrete, but they’re long gone in design practice. Of course, just because we […]

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Floating Structure

July 19, 2017

It can be a little strange to read how outsiders see in-group activities that you are familiar with. This article in Core77 on the annual concrete canoe races sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers is aimed at industrial designers. It holds up the concrete canoe races as an example of combining hands-on experience […]

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Concrete Non-Failure

July 3, 2017

Concrete, as a composite material, has more potential modes of failure than steel. A steel beam can be overstressed (and yield or rupture), rust, or buckle sideways for lack of bracing. Barring some really esoteric failure modes, that’s about it and that’s plenty. A concrete beam (or, as pictured above, a slab) can be overstressed, […]

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Pragmatic Concrete

May 16, 2017

That strange-looking pier above requires some back-story explanation. The New York subways were originally built as three systems – the privately-owned IRT and BMT, and the city-owned IND – which were organizationally integrated in the 1940s. The IRT and BMT were competing with each other but were also joined at the hip by an expansion […]

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