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“My friendly concrete... Does one laugh or cry?”, comments Anthony M. Daniels, the brutalist heavyweight critic.
Nevertheless, this “hard-core” style has its admirers all over the globe. Photographers, architects, researchers, historians, and just enthusiasts can see a particular charm in these menacing concrete castles.
So, how on earth did brutalism become so covetable once again? What is hidden behind its “inhuman” exterior?
“The woodness of the wood; the sandiness of sand”. As a matter of fact, the style originally emerged as a low-cost option for house construction in the postwar period.
At that tough time, much of Europe was due to rebuilding in the short-term, thus, needed rationally-refined, rapidly constructed building structures. A new brutalist style became a positive option for forward-moving urban housing. The style rejected all decorations and put the function in the first place.
Le Corbusier, who considered to be a founding father of the style, even called the brutalist house “a machine to live in”. Its primary role, according to him, was to provide low-cost construction and give each resident the same amount of space with equal access to sunlight.
Strong and plain — so concrete was called. No wonder, it became the clearest choice for developing an uncompromising, anti-bourgeois style in which forms always followed functions.
Bold concrete walls, naked appearance, in truth, revealed a closed connection with modernism and its “honest material“ manifesto. It claimed that the nature of materials must be obvious and not hidden behind the many-sided variety of outdoor ornament.
Thus, despite its original mission, brutalism further evolved into a style defined by ideas about materials, forms, and their role in people’s lives.
There is also “mixed brutalism”, which refers to Soviet brutalist architecture. Soviet Brutalism didn’t only feature pure concrete buildings, sometimes it was also reinforced concrete alongside all sorts of impurities. Unlike British brutalism, where “pure concrete” symbolized an honest approach to building, in the USSR there was also a ”grinder of bureaucracy” that blended everything, so, no honesty. Thus, Soviet brutalist buildings consisted not only of bare concrete, but also bricks, silicate, and even wood.
Nevertheless, Soviet brutalism fits the style by all other parameters: the block-like structures, their weight, size, as well as the absence of a facade ornament.
The polarizing brutalist aesthetic
So, is it possible to find an aesthetic in a style that completely rejects all decorative elements?
Yes, if you tie it to the context behind and understand the circumstances under which it was built. If you are able to virtually put yourself into someone else’s shoes.
For example, if we took an average opinion regarding brutalism, it would be something like “awful”, “looks like a threat”, or “very intimidating”.
But what if we recall a historical context for a moment? Imagine a level of insecurity and devastation that took hold around the world after World War II. People were scared, they searched for reliability and inaccessibility. The desperate mood along with the need for fast reconstruction reflected in how the buildings were projected. Emphasized heavy materials and massive elements provided a sense of security on the subconscious level.
The hype wave once again: Post-Soviet countries
Today, with modern and old architecture spinning together in one townscape ensemble, brutalist buildings look a lot like “drama queens”, completely inappropriate in front of other buildings.
The bulky structures of brutalist buildings are arousing new discussions, dividing the public into “haters” and “admirers”. Actually, there are also those whose sky is always blue.
A young generation, though, which has no wires with socialist past, except for maybe old faded photo albums, developed a deep interest in soviet architecture heritage. “Concrete monsters” today are finding their way into fashion magazines, blogs, Instagram feed, experiencing sort of renaissance. Combined with other textures and colors, they create a whole new aesthetic dimension.
Works of Vika Temnova, Ukrainian fashion photographer
The Soviet postwar architecture, especially its brutalist variety is presented by many examples that actually stood aloof from any categorization.
The Ugly Truth
Unfortunately, people, in general, are eager to reject their past, used to avoid complicated issues. It is always much easier to catch up with the mood of society than immerse yourself into studying, researching, and, actually, thinking.
Countries that emerge from USSR rule, deal with Soviet architecture in very different ways. Usually, there is a part of society that is quite aggressive and ready to tear those guards of the past down to the very last stone. The faster, the better. They don’t like the name (that still connote “brutal”, despite being a play on french “béton-brut”), the atmosphere, the history hidden behind the concrete giants’ stocky shoulders.
Alex Bykov, Ukrainian photographer, architect, and researcher is one of the young enthusiasts who are fighting for saving brutalist heritage. He traveled a lot around Ukraine in search of brutalist gems and has captured the most exceptional examples. He believes that Soviet modernism architecture, which is now under the risk of demolition, carries the spirit of its epoch, presenting a historical value for Ukrainian and foreign researchers. Besides, in Alex’s opinion, there must be a strong relationship between historical heritage and architecture programs. Rather than getting rid of brutalist constructions, we need to define, interpret, and manage them well for future generations. His findings ended up in a book called “Soviet Modernism, Brutalism, Postmodernism – Buildings and Structures in Ukraine 1956-1991”, written in collaboration with Ievgeniia Gubkina, Ukrainian researcher, historian, and art-curator.
If you’ve just made your acquaintance with the world of Soviet brutalist architecture, the book will come in handy as it showcases the most iconic brutalist buildings and provides a definition of terms “Soviet modernism, brutalism, post-modernism”.
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