Has Brutalist Architecture Hit the Saturation Point?

Its name doesn’t inspire a sense of coziness, comfort, or even glamour, yet Brutalist architecture—the postwar style that pinned its hopes on the possibilities of poured concrete—seems to be back in the zeitgeist. Of course, it never really left: For decades, its detractors have been waging a war of attrition against its somewhat severe and aggressively modernist aesthetic with a policy tactic known as “active neglect.” Boston’s City Hall has been controversial since it was unveiled in 1968. (According to 99% Invisible producer emeritus Avery Trufelman, government officials chose to ignore the building, allowing it to gradually deteriorate, which has only served to make it less attractive and thus an object of more focused scorn.)

But staunch anti-brutalism may now itself be a period piece: architects, students, critics, and scholars alike are increasingly demonstrating growing admiration for the style. What was once described by August Journal editor Dung Ngo as “the Edward Scissorhands of architecture” is suddenly finding new appeal in the most unexpected of places. 

You might have recently noticed this shift in the home accessories aisles at your favorite stylish emporium. Concrete is having a moment, and brutalism is basking in the glow of its (admittedly muted) radiance. You’ll find smooth concrete side tables at West Elm; rugged outdoor fountains at Pottery Barn; concrete desks, lamps, and mirrors at CB2; and even Kim Kardashian has launched a line of concrete accessories as part of her Skkn By Kim line of personal care products, including a tissue box and vanity tray, all of which match the minimalist product packaging and the subdued aesthetic of Skkn offices. 

If it triggers a bit of cognitive dissonance to realize that Kardashian is the latest champion of the building material most closely associated with college dorms and apartment blocks that still dot the landscape of the former Soviet Union like gigantic and forlorn legos, it may help to think of brutalism’s history and what it symbolized when it debuted eight decades ago. Its name refers to the material that makes it possible: béton brut, which translates to “raw concrete.” Le Corbusier used cast concrete to build the Cité Radieuse apartment houses in Marseille (they were built between 1947 and 1952), and this launched a wave of modernist building projects around the world. The hope was that following the ravages of the Second World War, poured concrete would allow cities to build new housing cheaply and quickly, giving displaced people a decent place to live. 

You wouldn’t know it from how brutalist architecture seems to haunt the characters in films like Blade Runner or 1984, but when it was first embraced by the public, it was as optimistic a design intervention as the swooping arches and starbursts of the Atomic Age. Kate Wagner, the writer and creator behind the beloved site McMansion Hell, points out how science fiction movies still feature brutalist structures today, including the uncredited Yugoslavian monuments in Wakanda Forever.