Reinforced Concrete
............. Styles of Architecture

Brutalism in Buffalo, NY

Brutalism features:

A short-lived architectural movement of the 1960s that set itself in opposition to the picturesque Scandinavian-influenced mainstream of the period, and instead advocated the brutally frank expression of the nature of modern materials, characterized by unadorned concrete and the blunt detailing of joints and openings.

- Archiseek  (online Nov. 2012)
   Brutalism  (1960 - 1975)
(online June 2016)

Coined in 1953 to describe the architectural work of a group of British architects, Brutalism in its early phase (originally called New Brutalism) was a design philosophy, not a style. The idea was to create an aesthetic based on the exposure of a building’s components: its frame, sheathing, and mechanical systems. However, the term quickly began to be applied to buildings that used monumental concrete forms and bulky massing. The style represents a revolt by architects against the corporate glass curtain wall and was often seen as a quick and easy way to construct long-lasting buildings.

The term Brutalism is derived from the French word for rough concrete or “beton brut.” Brutalist structures have a heavy mass and scale, and their highly sculptural blocky shapes are often stacked together in various ways, creating an unbalanced look. Common design features include the “Russian Wedge,” in which a wall plane projects outward on a sloped angle.

Broad surfaces are often interrupted by deep-shadow penetrations of the building’s mass; vertical slots may contrast with broad oblong openings or tall openings with horizontal slots, while “egg-crate” effects are also much employed.

The exterior treatment, as the name suggests, is usually exposed concrete, which is left rough to show the wooden formwork. However, some examples of brick and stucco can be found. Fixed windows are set deep into the walls and are often small in relation to the size of the structure. Another common feature is the use of "Waffle" slabs for floor and roof systems. As the name implies, this cast-in-place building system utilized a continuous pour of concrete with a coffered underside to reduce the weight of the slab. Such slabs were often left exposed.

While the style appeared early in the Pacific Northwest, the best examples date from the late 1960s. The style was rarely used for residential architecture and was mainly used for institutional buildings such as libraries, schools and museums. Small-scale commercial buildings such as banks also utilized the style.

Brutalism brought out the best and worst in what Modern architecture had to represent. In warmer desert climates, many Brutalist buildings have often come to be regarded as works of art. However, under the damp, gray skies of the Pacific Northwest, Brutalist buildings are often described as being unfriendly, cold and dark. The roughness of the exterior concrete soaks up moisture and turns black with age.
Defending Brutalism: The Uncertain Future of Modernist Concrete Structures
By David Hay
Excerpts from
Preservation, Winter 2013 (online March 2013)

Brutalism was a utilitarian approach to construction popular in the 1950s, ˇ60s, and ˇ70s that favored the use of poured-in-place concrete. It did not have many fans at the time. Many suspect it has far fewer now.

Much maligned over the years, Brutalism is acquiring new fans. It seems poised for a comeback.

Brutalism earned its moniker from the French béton brut, literally “raw concrete.”

When it emerged, architects had forsworn their allegiance to the International Style’s steel frames and glass walls and were happy to design buildings using great expanses of concrete. The very strength of the material encouraged a sense of monumentality in their work. In addition, the Brutalist aesthetic demanded overt displays of all this concrete, no matter how rough or crude.

Practically, what made Brutalism so prevalent was its cost. Poured-in-place concrete structures were cheap.

Because the style was relatively inexpensive to build, however, design was frequently sloppy. Many structures from the period—oddities now mocked on the Internet—ended up misshapen, badly proportioned, and drab. It was hardly surprising that Brutalism attracted many critics.

Concrete surfaces often don’t age well, especially in cold, damp climates. Excess moisture streaks the walls, and on occasion rust leaks from the steel rebar inside, staining the surface orange.

Many young architectural enthusiasts believe Brutalism has been unfairly maligned. “This was the last period in architecture where pure creative expression was very much in vogue,” argues architectural critic Michael Abrahamson. “After the late 1970s there was shift toward more self-conscious design. All of a sudden, the idea of expressing yourself freely in a more monumental way was gone. Brutalism was pure Modernism’s last gasp.”
Excerpts from
New York Architecture (online March 2013)

Brutalist structures are heavy and unrefined with coarsely molded surfaces, usually exposed concrete. Their highly sculptural shapes tend to be crude and blocky, often colliding with one another.

The line between brutalism and ordinary modernism is not always clear since concrete buildings are so common and run the entire spectrum of modern styles.

Designs which embrace the roughness of concrete or the heavy simplicity of its natural forms are considered brutalist.

Other materials including brick and glass can be used in brutalism if they contribute to a block-like effect similar the the strongly articulated concrete forms of early brutalism.

The origin of Brutalism is generally ascribed to the architect Le Corbusier, who experimented widely with concrete designs and whose massive plans for highrise block housing were very influential. American architect Paul Rudolph designed some of the most famous brutalist buildings, some of which are often used to define the style.

See also:

Bradley Castiglia, Beauty in Brutalism – The Buffalo News Building

Article about Boston's Brutalist City Hall  (online June 2016)

Examples from Buffalo architecture:

Other examples:

Photos and their arrangement © 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
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