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Brutalist book club: colossal compendiums of concrete architecture


The imposing and austere Leningrad Electrotechnical Institute in St Petersberg

Completed in 1972, the Christchurch Townhall designed by Warren and Mahoney comprises a 2600-seat main auditorium, the 1000-seat James Hay Theatre, a stage box, two conference rooms, a riverside restaurant and pre-function foyer area. When it opened, it began a new era for modern civic architecture in New Zealand

The Birmingham Central Library, which stood between 1974 and 2016, was designed by architect John Madin – the building failed to get listed status in the UK

Designed by Italian architect Rinaldo Olivieri, this high rise named La Pyramid in Abidjan, Ivory Coast has now gone into disrepair

Hefty monographs about concrete were everywhere in 2017. Once a marginalised and maligned genre, brutalism has burst back onto the design scene, cited as inspiration by a new generation seduced by the authenticity and heroic ambitions of this impressive architecture.

Yet as well as being fetishised for its rough and ready qualities, there’s also a growing desire to preserve the best examples of concrete architecture in the face of widespread indifference and downright hostility.

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The end of 2017 saw three big books tackling different aspects of buildings built of concrete. Photographer Simon Phipps’ Finding Brutalism is perhaps the most straightforward.

Phipps presents a less glamorous take on British concrete architecture, unafraid to portray this architecture rather less than glamorous by lingering over the stains, streaks and brooding massing that – depending on your point of view – make concrete architecture either boldly authentic or bleakly awful. Close cropping and framing also reduces these buildings to a series of abstract forms, removing their scale, monumentality and occasional oppressiveness.

Boston City Hall, designed by Kallmann, McKinnell, & Knowles was completed in 1968 

From rich imagery we move on to incisive analysis, courtesy of another book for the brutalist bookshelf. Simon Henley’s Redefining Brutalism seeks the bits of brutalist architecture that are still relevant in order to reclaim them for contemporary practice.

As an award-winning architect at London practice Henley Halebrown, he knows a thing or about a materials-led approach but most importantly of all, Henley’s brutalism isn’t fixated on raw, board-marked concrete, but on the social idealism that underpinned so many of these buildings. The best brutalist buildings were an aesthetic and programmatic response to a more egalitarian society, free from the hierarchies of traditional architectural design. Now, more than ever, we need this kind of approach.

Hotel Rus, St Petersberg, built between 1980 and 1988

Finally, we have SOS Brutalism, a monumental survey of the more esoteric expressions of concrete architecture around the world, with a special focus on those that are threatened by alteration or demolition.

This impressive book, which grew out of a collaboration between the Deutsches Architekturmuseum and Wüstenrot Foundation and was edited by Oliver Elser, Philip Kurz, Peter Cachola Schmal, is a treasure trove of unsung buildings and oddities, including works in Russia, the Middle East and Asia. Covering the period between 1950 and 1970, it uses new photography and archive imagery to rally for preservation and recognition, making it a must for lovers of architecture’s more far-flung fringes. Lovers of raw surfaces, bold forms and naked concrete are spoilt for choice.

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