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.

A Brave New World

Brave New World [1932], by Aldous Huxley is a dystopian novel set in futuristic London. On our calendar it would be AD 2540.

The story opens in the year 632 A.F.—”Anno Ford” or rather 632 years since the year of the first Model T production. This future world is founded entirely on “Fordian” methods of mass production and consumption.

The events transpire in The World State, a benevolent dictatorship headed by ten World Controllers over a stable global society.

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It is to all appearances a successful world in which everyone appears to be content and satisfied. It is a world of advanced technology and science, peaceful and stable. However, upon closer inspection, this stability is only achieved by sacrificing freedom in its true sense. Progressive efforts to eliminate any sorrow or disharmony have also eradicated any individual identity or responsibility.

We are introduced to Lenina Crowne and Bernard Marx, members of the Alpha caste. They both work within the Hatcheries where human embryos are raised artificially. Bernard oversees the hypnopaedic process, a system of subconscious messaging to form growing children’s self-image.

Children are bred to fit into ranked castes with Greek letter names, from Alpha (the highest) to Epsilon (the lowest) each with different economic roles. The lower castes are bred for low intelligence and conditioned not to think but the more intelligent upper castes are socially conditioned by taboos.

Art and culture has ceased to exist, literature is banned as subversive, as is scientific thinking and experimentation.

Shallow and hedonistic lifestyles are promoted; recreational sex rather than emotional ties are celebrated. Any pain is reduced by the freely accessible hallucinogenic drug soma. Moreover, to maintain the World State’s economy, citizens are conditioned to promote consumption and hence production, reciting platitudes such as “spending is better than mending

 

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Bernard disapproves of society and is vocal about his differences and he is threatened with exile because of his nonconformity. On an outing to a Savage reservation outside of civilisation, he encounters Linda, a woman who has a biological son John. She had become pregnant by the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, a societal taboo which leads her to hide away with shame.

Linda has taught John to read, although from only two books: a scientific manual from her job in the hatchery, and a Collected Works of Shakespeare. John, naive to the world, can only expound his feelings in terms of Shakespearean drama.

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It is John’s desire to see the “brave new world” which inspires Bernard to take them to the Director of Hatcheries. Presenting him with his unknown son and past lover, Bernard humiliates the Director who resigns in shame.

Bernard and John are then brought before Mustapha Mond, the Resident “World Controller for Western Europe”. They are told they are to be punished for antisocial activity.

Mond outlines to them the events that led to the present society and his arguments for a caste system and social control. While Mond’s words are designed to convince,  John rejects them and Mond sums up the dilemma by stating that in demanding freedom, John demands “the right to be unhappy“.

John concurs.

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Huxley said that Brave New World was inspired in reaction to the utopian novels of H. G. Wells, especially, A Modern Utopia (1905).  He rejected the enlightenment view that science and technology would progress society only onward and upward. Having lived through the First World War and observing concerning trends in his own industrial and modernist society, he posits a futuristic society grounded in these elements.

The prognosis is grim.

Huxley uses the irony in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, to make his point. He cites the passage in which Miranda exclaims:

O wonder!
How many godly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.

— William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, ll. 203–206

 

The excerpt is drawn from when Miranda, like John raised in isolation, sees other people for the first time, is overcome with excitement and utters the famous line above. However, what she is actually observing is representatives of the worst of humanity, traitors and manipulators.

Like other dystopian novels such as “The Giver” or “1984,” Huxley’s novel explores the relationship between advances in technology and the [in]credibility of creating a utopian society. He highlights concerns for the direction of his own society and hypothesises about the the controls necessary to manufacture a world without pain and suffering.

Freedom, individuality, relational ties, the arts, the ability to question. All of these are linked to feeling pain and suffering. Perhaps the “right to be unhappy” as John, steeped in Shakespeare, realises,  is the greatest freedom we humans have?

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The Giver

The Giver [1993] is a Newbery Medal winning novel by Lois Lowry set in a utopian society in which all pain and uncertainty have been removed. The novel follows a boy named Jonas from the age of 11 to 12, the year of his coming of age.

In Jonas’ world, society has eliminated pain and strife by removing personal choice and unpredictability. The Community is structured around routines; work detail and family units are delegated rather than chosen. Normal human desires and impulses are repressed to maintain social harmony. Children are conceived artificially and given to family units in an ordered manner. Firm rules of etiquette control daily life.

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As the story progresses , the society is revealed to be far less ideal than first implied. Jonas’ world lacks any color, the people have no memory or history, they experience a controlled climate and known nothing beyond the limits of their own community with its ordered terrain. While the community has created structure, order, and a true sense of equality beyond personal individuality, in the process, they also have eradicated all emotional depth from their lives.

The year all the children are given their work delegation,  Jonas is selected to inherit the position of Receiver of Memory, the person who stores all the past memories of the Community history. He is the one the Community must draw upon to access the wisdom of history to aid the Community’s decision making.

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Jonas struggles with all the new memories and emotions introduced to him, from snowflakes to sunsets, to war, suffering and pain. For the first time he is exposed to questions of good, evil, in-between, and whether it is even possible to have one without the other.

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Like other great utopian/ dystopian novels such as 1984 and Hunger Games, The Giver explores the boundaries of human freedom, the necessity of pain and emotion to the human experience and the insidious claims of government which would claim to be acting in the best interest of the people while limiting their freedoms.

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Many of the things we wished we didn’t have to deal with in fact define and refine our lives. Maybe a utopia without chaos or pain is not what we want or need.

Unpredictability, our passions, our memories. They all give us the greatest of pains and the greatest of joys but they also bestow us with the wisdom and memories, to truly live.

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