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The term “brutalism” was originally coined by the Swedish architect Hans Asplund to describe Villa Göth in Uppsala, designed in 1949 by his contemporaries Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm. He originally used the Swedish-language term nybrutalism (new brutalism), which was picked up by a group of visiting English architects, including Michael Ventris.
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In England, the term was further adopted by architects Alison and Peter Smithson. The term gained wide currency when the British architectural historian Reyner Banham used it in the title of his 1966 book, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?, to characterise a somewhat recently established cluster of architectural approaches, particularly in Europe.
The best known proto-Brutalist architecture is the work of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, in particular his 1952 Unité d’habitation in France and the 1953 Secretariat Building (Palace of Assembly) in Chandigarh, India. Brutalism gained considerable momentum in the United Kingdom during the mid-twentieth century, as economically depressed (and World War II-ravaged) communities sought inexpensive construction and design methods for low-cost housing, shopping centres, and government buildings.
Nonetheless, many architects chose the Brutalist style even when they had large budgets, as they appreciated the ‘honesty’, the sculptural qualities, and perhaps, the uncompromising, anti-bourgeois, nature of the style.
Combined with the socially progressive intentions behind Brutalist streets in the sky housing such as Corbusier’s Unité, Brutalism was promoted as a positive option for forward-moving, modern urban housing.
Brutalist buildings are usually formed with repeated modular elements forming masses representing specific functional zones, distinctly articulated and grouped together into a unified whole. Concrete is used for its raw and unpretentious honesty, contrasting dramatically with the highly refined and ornamented buildings constructed in the elite Beaux-Arts style. Surfaces of cast concrete are made to reveal the basic nature of its construction, revealing the texture of the wooden planks used for the in-situ casting forms. Brutalist building materials also include brick, glass, steel, rough-hewn stone, and gabions.
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Conversely, not all buildings exhibiting an exposed concrete exterior can be considered Brutalist, and may belong to one of a range of architectural styles including Constructivism, International Style, Expressionism, Postmodernism, and Deconstructivism.
Another common theme in Brutalist designs is the exposure of the building’s functions—ranging from their structure and services to their human use—in the exterior of the building. In the Boston City Hall, designed in 1962, the strikingly different and projected portions of the building indicate the special nature of the rooms behind those walls, such as the mayor’s office or the city council chambers.
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From another perspective, the design of the Hunstanton School included placing the facility’s water tank, normally a hidden service feature, in a prominent, visible tower.
Brutalism as an architectural philosophy was often also associated with a socialist utopian ideology, which tended to be supported by its designers, especially Alison and Peter Smithson, near the height of the style. This style had a strong position in the architecture of European communist countries from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, GDR, USSR, Yugoslavia). In Czechoslovakia brutalism was presented as an attempt to create a “national” but also “modern socialist” architectural style.