Brutalism

Brutalist architecture, or Brutalism, is an architectural style which emerged in the mid-20th century. It is characterized by simple, block-like structures and bare building materials such as exposed concrete and brick.

The term “Brutalism” was coined in association with béton brut, meaning raw concrete in French. The style descended from the modernist architecture of the turn of the century and embodied an architectural philosophy which was often associated with a socialist utopian ideology: by a desire to improve the condition of every member of society, by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments.

Close to home for me, examples of the Brutalist style are Queensland Art Gallery and more famous global icons include the Barbican Centre and National Theatre in London, UK and Boston City Hall, USA.

It gained momentum in the United Kingdom during the 1950s as economically depressed, World War II-ravaged, communities sought inexpensive construction and design for housing, shopping centres, and government buildings. However, the movement as a whole, has drawn a range of criticism including from Charles, Prince of Wales, who denounced Brutalist structures as,

“piles of concrete”.  

Indeed the style is unappealing due to its “cold” appearance, and association of the buildings with urban decay. The forms can project an atmosphere of totalitarianism while the concrete easily becomes streaked with water stains, moss and lichens, and rust stains from the steel reinforcing bars. Cladding can be applied to improve the appearance of the exterior however has increased fire risks; as exemplified in the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire disaster.

How can architecture modeled on a philosophy of utopian desire to improve society, become so dystopian?

In his essay ‘The Feeling of Things: Towards an Architecture of Emotions‘, Peter St. John writes,

The choice of a building’s construction, its material and its structure, has a direct effect on the emotional character of its spaces. Although discussions of construction often centre on issues of performance and technique, ultimately construction is about appearance. 

Brutalist architecture is an interesting study of the intersection between philosophy, politics, history, economics and art. We humans are affected by the building we inhabit, and which make up our towns and out cities, the stories and ideologies they embody and the emotion and character of their space.

When we decide what is right and wrong …[spoilers within].

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. 

Genesis 3: 4-6

In May 2019, the epic HBO TV series Game of Thrones came to an end. The 8 season, 73 episode series was first aired on April 17, 2011 and the finale aired this year to a staggering 17 million viewers worldwide [not including illegal downloads]. Despite controversy and fan protest about the series conclusion, it has shattered all records for being one of the most watched TV series of all time.

The now famously controversial final season was reduced from the normal 8-9 episodes to only 6 intense episodes full of battle scenes and epic special effects. At approximately $5 million-$10 million production budget per episode, the final season was ‘epic’ indeed.

In a poetic soliloquy to sum up epic series, Tyrion Lannister declares:

What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?

…. Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.

And epic story it is. In an earlier post, I discussed the series in a post Game of Faiths, analysing its rich world of spiritual and religious ideas. Jon Snow is styled by George R R Martin to be an epic hero of mythic narrative. A Christ-like figure of messianic proportions.

It is Jon Snow who demonstrates he is a true leader, one worthy of this cosmic battle. He sacrifices for his men and gains their loyalty and trust. He is betrayed at the hands of his friends and murdered, but he returns from the clutches of death to prompt the Priestess of Light to declare him  Azor Ahai, the one prophesied to bring balance between light and dark, to end the Great Battle with the forces of darkness and death.

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However, the final series falls shy of such predictions. Jon does not kill the Night King, ending the long winter, nor does he take the Iron Throne to rule Westeros in peace. Instead he stands by and watches the demise of his love, Daenerys, maddened by grief and power-lust.

She falls prey to the same fate as her Targaryan ancestors, becoming a ‘mad queen’, torching the city that should be hers, mercilessly, and beckoning Jon to join her in creating a new future world, styled in her version of ‘goodness’.

With imagery allusive of post World War II destruction, Daenerys looks over a destroyed city, covered in a white layer of ash including human flesh incinerated. Unrepentant of such necessary evil, she summons Jon to join her to ‘break the wheel’ of tyranny and rule a new world together.

Daenerys ~ ‘It’s not easy to see something that has never been before. A good world.’

Jon ~ ‘How do you know? How do you know it’ll be good?’

Daenerys ~ ‘Because I know what is good. And so do you.’

Jon ~ ‘No I don’t’.

Daenerys ~ ‘You do. You do, you have always known. ‘

Jon – ‘What about everyone else? All the other people who think they know what is good?’

Daenerys ~ ‘They don’t get to choose.’

Daenerys words hearken to one of the oldest stories of human history, a narrative in which humans first fall when they wish to decide what is good and what is evil.

Alongside Nazi Germany and many other of history’s horrible despots, Daenerys goes the way of wicked men and women whose power consumes them and their humanity when they decide their standard of goodness in unique and superior.

Jon Snow, does not sit on any throne, but instead honours a greater standard of good to serve his family and his nation sacrificially.

Whatever you think of the final series of Game of Thrones, the 8 season epic drama has truly set new standards of televisions epic fantasy story telling.

For a good examination of why the final season so disappointed fans of the series, read this excellent article in Scientific American, by Zeynep Tufekci.

Out of Africa

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,”

And so in the lilting Danish accent of Meryl Streep, opens Out of Africa, a 1986 film directed by Sydney Pollack.

With sweeping plains of East Africa in view, an attractive cast including Streep and Robert Redford, bolstered by a beautiful musical score by John Barry, ‘Out of Africa‘ went on to win 7 Academy Awards and box office earnings of over USD $227 million.

Based on the memoir with the same title by Danish author Karen Blixen, [Isak Dinesen] the original book was first published in 1937, and recounts events of the seventeen years when Blixen made her home in Kenya, then called British East Africa. The film script was adapted with additional material from Dinesen’s book Shadows on the Grass and other sources.

The book’s title is probably an abbreviation of the famous ancient Latin adage,

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.

Pliny, The Elder

Out of Africa, always something new.

The book and film are a lyrical meditation on Blixen’s life on her coffee plantation, as well as a tribute to some of the people who touched her life there. It provides a vivid snapshot of African colonial life in the last decades of the British Empire.

Noted for its melancholy, nostalgic and elegiac style, biographer Judith Thurman describes Out of Africa using an African tribal phrase:

clear darkness.

The tale covers the deaths of at least five of the important people in Blixen’s life, and is a meditation on her feelings of loss and nostalgia. She describes her failed business, and comments wryly on her mixture of despair and denial, of the sadness she faces there. A brave and hard working woman for whom almost nothing flows smoothly: marriage, love, business, health. Everything is challenging, even crushing.

Why then is such a story, so sad and so melancholy, yet so enduringly popular among movie goers and readers?

Perhaps in true modernist and existentialist style, Blixen captures the feeling of living, the sights, smells, and sensations of a foreign land and the strange and diverse people she meets there. The bitter-sweetness of existence is shared with us through her experience, marked by love, loss, desire, knowing, holding and surrendering.

Blixen was admired by her contemporaries including Ernest Hemingway, who is reported to have said on winning his own Nobel prize in 1954,

I would have been happy – happier – today if the prize had been given to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen.