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.

Why I Write – George Orwell

In a short essay entitled, “Why I Write,” [1946] George Orwell outlines the four motivations that drive all writers.

First, he states, is ‘sheer egotism.’

Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown ups who snubbed you in childhood etc.

This condition is not limited to writers, he clarifies, and is shared by scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen etc.

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Second is ‘aesthetic enthusiasm.’

Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and out not to be missed.

Third, ‘historical impulse.’

Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

Fourth and finally, ‘political purpose.’

Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.

In Orwell’s mind there is no such thing as a book genuinely free from political bias.  The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics, itself is itself a political attitude.

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Orwell confesses that he is a person in which the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. However, for him personally, an unsuitable profession in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, followed by poverty and a sense of failure, increased his natural hatred of authority and made him fully aware of the working class.

Then came the Spanish Civil War and Hitler.

Orwell then confesses,

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.

He cannot believe anyone could live in his a period like his own, and avoid such topics. The challenge is to be aware of one’s political bias and to act politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.

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Orwell continues,

My starting point is always … a sense of injustice… I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

He concludes, however, that he does not want the reader to think him selfless or his writing wholly public spirited. Oh no. All writers, himself included, are vain, selfish and lazy. Yet beyond motives, there lies a mystery.  Writing a novel is …

…a horrible exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not drive on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

However, when Orwell wrote without political purpose, he claims he wrote lifeless books, and…

…was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

So influential has Orwell’s work been on the English language that the term Orwellian is now synonymous with a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past. 

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Orwell’s novels, Animal Farm [1945] and 1984 [published 1949] are now classics of popular and political culture, selling over 50 million copies between them.