10 Iconic Brutalist Buildings You Should Know
Best Practice insights
Brutalist buildings are famously characterized by its use of concrete with its monolithic, and rigid appearance. Brutalist architecture started with the Edman and Lennart home, the Villa Göth in 1950. It had since gained popularity because of its affordable building materials - almost exclusively with exposed concrete and brick.
Here are the 10 iconic Brutalist buildings you should know.
1 - The First Brutalist Building: Villa Göth (Edman and Holm, 1950)
Widely considered to be the source of the term “brutalism,” the Villa Göth was designed in 1950 for Elis Göth. Architects Bengt Endman and Lennart Holm would rely on the simple use of brick and concrete for the majority of the structure. The home will not win any innovation awards for its design, as it’s a basic, rectangular three-storied structure with an incredibly muted facade. However, it is precisely in its simplicity and utilitarianism that Villa Göth occupies such an important place in the historical discussion of Brutalist architecture.
Villa Goth Design Choices
The brutalist interior design of the home also accentuates this simplicity. Upon entering, you will notice the building materials on full display. For example, the poured-concrete, which offers the building its structural integrity, is visible throughout most of the interior’s ceiling.
The same bricks one would find on the exterior walls are used on interior walls too. With the Villa Göth, the traditional distinction between exterior and interior building materials was abandoned. This laid the foundation for the coming decades of Brutalist architecture
2 - The Proto-Brutalist Building: Unité d’Habitation de Marseille (Le Corbusier, 1952)
In many ways, Le Corbusier can be considered more of a proto-Brutalist architect. Most of his buildings and designs are done in Modernist styles rather than the Brutalist style. Still, his Unité d’Habitation de Marseille was among one of the most popular Brutalist buildings, which was originally conceived in 1920 - much earlier than any concept for brutalist architecture.
Why was the Unité d’Habitation de Marseille built?
The goal of the Unité d’Habitation de Marseille was to alleviate the growing problems of the commons in France by designing a modern housing project. One that could address overpopulation and lack of housing in urban centers which ultimately made Brutalist Architecture adopted through the 50s to the 80s.
This building represents microhistory for the reason Brutalism became so popular in postwar Europe. Corbu wanted to use reinforced steel beams for the structure but as it was deemed too expensive. Steel was also in light supply following overuse during the war.
The Radiant City would end up being composed primarily in béton-brut, or rough-cast concrete. To further address the new demographic realities of postwar France, Corbu would ensure that the housing complex would be a truly mixed-use structure.
With 337 apartments, the Marseille building could potentially house thousands of citizens. Additionally, bookshops and other shopping areas would be designed into the unit to address the everyday needs of the residents. The design represented a true watershed moment in the history of Brutalist Architecture and would change the architectural landscape forever.
3 - The Start of Formal Brutal Architecture: Smithdon Highschool (Peter and Alison Smithson, 1952)
Peter and Alison Smithson’s contribution to Brutalist architecture stands on its own. While Villa Göth may have represented the first brutalist structure and Le Corbusier employed proto-Brutalist design techniques, the construction of Smithdon Highschool ushered in the formal and academic use of the term “Brutalism” and “Brutalist Architecture.” Located in Norfolk, England, Smithdon Highschool, or as it was referred to at the time of its construction, the Hunstanton School was completed in 1952.
What Makes Smithdon Highschool Unique
Like many Brutalist buildings of the 1950s and 1960s, the design intended to make a cheap, easy-to-use building for institutional purposes. The structure primarily consists of concrete, but unlike some of the other Brutalist buildings on our list, also has a fair amount of glass. The rest of the structure would be made from pre-welded steel, while the foundation, roofs, and floors were made from concrete.
While relying slightly more on non-Brutalist building materials, such as glass, Smithdon Highschool is still a great example of postwar English Brutalism. As with most Brutalist architecture, the raw materials used in construction were largely left unchanged, unpainted, and unstained.
Natural finishes were left on all building materials, and the only changes to be found were on the bricks on the building’s facade - which was lightly painted yellow, but this too was for a practical reason: to reduce their porosity.
4 - Striking Design: Litchfield Towers (Deeter and Richtey, 1963)
The “Towers,” as they are often referred to by residents on Campus, are found at the University of Pittsburgh. Designed by architecture firm Deeter and Richtie in 1963, the Litchfield Towers serve as the main residences for students at the university.
Made up of three separate concrete towers (A, B, and C), the Towers all have different capacities and together can house almost 2,000 students. Standing at 22 stories, Tower B remains the largest tower.
All of the brutalist towers were built on a three-story base, which would allow space for a large mess hall, or cafeteria, which could feed 14,000 students at a time, and also include a parking garage on its base level.
With its cylindrical design, the design for the Litchfield Towers benefits from its use of concrete. The imposing towers include very narrow windows on every level for student dormitories. From a design standpoint, the Brutalist architectural design style is present from the striking-yet-sterile presence the Towers convey.
5 - The Most Unique: Habitat 67 (Moshe Safdie, 1967)
Perhaps the most unique looking building made in the brutalist style on this list, Habitat 67 looks more like a model of a Jenga game than a housing complex. Habitat 67, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, is one of the most recognizable buildings not only in Montreal but in all of Canada as well.
What inspired the building of Habitat 67?
The original idea of Habitat 67 was to take aspects of suburban dwellings, such as gardens and privacy, and introduce them to the fast-growing design fabric of the modern housing project. Built-in 1967, Habitat 67 would rely heavily on typical Brutalist building materials. The complex itself consists of unevenly-stacked prefabricated-concrete boxes sitting atop one another.
Although each concrete box is identical in size and interior space (354 boxes in total), the buildings themselves have various heights throughout the complex. At its highest point, Habitat 67 reaches up to 12 stories. In all, this system of Jenga-styled boxes once created 158 apartments, but have since been reduced with the joining of certain conjoined apartments.
6 - Ugly or Honest? Boston City Hall (Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles, 1968)
By the mid-1960s, perceptions were changing in the design world on what it meant to design a municipal building, such as city halls and courthouses. City planners wanted their public buildings to have a modern look and feel. Standing as a testament to that change in architectural discourse, Boston City Hall ticks all of the boxes for the Brutalist style.
Boston City Hall Building Materials
The building materials for Boston City Hall are primarily cast-in-place and precast concrete. The base of the building is made up of dark brick, which ultimately gives the structure a cold and sterile feel. The use of both materials was also intended to reflect the dual purpose of the building: civic and bureaucratic.
The “Honesty” of Brutalism
The use of brick is significant for two reasons. First, the offices present in the base of Boston City Hall are municipal in nature and encourages pedestrian traffic and public engagement to this more open level.
Second, brick was an obvious reference to Boston’s architectural history and how the city embraced brick-paved streets and brick-dominated structures since its inception. It’s said that the minimal, straightforwardness of the brutalist design is representative of the city of Boston’s pledge to be transparent and honest.
The use of concrete comes to represent something entirely. Concrete dominates the top of the structure, which is home to the bureaucratic arms of the local government. Offices are marked by their narrow and uniformed windows, which further denote a bureaucratic separation between a city and its people.
The Ugliest Building in Boston?
While no modern building is likely as controversial to Boston’s history, Boston City Hall has largely been at the center of countless public debates. Often considered “the ugliest building in Boston,” mayors have attempted for decades to give City Hall, and the surrounding plaza, a more welcoming feel. In fact, as recently as 2017, Mayor Walsh decided to install LED lights to the structure and plaza to beautify the design.
7 - Australian Brutalism - Cameron Offices (John Andrews, 1972)
Widely considered one of the most important Brutalist buildings outside Europe and North America, John Andrews’ Cameron Offices were finally completed in 1972 in Belconnen Canberra, Australia. Typical for the brutalist style, the Cameron Offices were split into nine (9) wings that were to house government offices for various administrative efforts, such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as well as offices for student accommodation in the nearby University of Canberra.
The look and feel of the Cameron Offices are consistent with other Brutalist structures from the time. As far as building materials are concerned, precast concrete and in-situ-concrete are used predominantly throughout the structure. Largely column-free, the Cameron Offices sees its column support in the landscaped courtyards found around each wing.
Speaking on the architectural significance of the design, Australian architect Jennifer Taylor once said that it was more than just a building, that it was “a varied streetscape of walks, gardens, and pavilions. Its triumph lies in the interlocking unity of its concept and the diversity within it.”
8 - Most Iconic Brutalist Building - Robin Hood Gardens (Peter and Alison Smithson, 1972)
Likely the most iconic structure on this list, from an architectural history perspective, was the Robin Hood Gardens. Coining the term “streets in the sky,” the Robin Hood Garden represented Peter and Alison Smithson’s most influential work. An attempt at taking what Le Corbusier would bring to urban housing developments with the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, and ultimately turning it on its head.
Known for its expansive aerial walkways in massive concrete blocks, Robin Hood Gardens would not only serve as a synthesis for the Brutalist architecture which preceded it but also redefines what it meant to live in an urban housing development.
In the most significant departure from traditional Modernist design, the Smithsons would not develop Robin Hood Gardens on the rectilinear grid, which had been the case to account mainly for vehicle traffic.
Instead, the pedestrian would be the actor the Smithsons wanted to account for, so the overall layout of the housing complex would be designed around the various pathways the pedestrian could use on their walks.
Uniting the inside and outside
From both the Habitat 67 and Robin Hood Garden examples, the trend within Brutalist design was to seamlessly unite the outside with the interior. It also meant that living in a postwar housing complex did not need to be bleak, and when properly designed, could allot you the same luxuries from more affluent compatriots who could afford a single-family home.
9 - Undistracted Design - Buffalo City Court Building (Pfohl, Roberts, and Biggie, 1974)
The Buffalo City Court Building was designed by Architecture firm Pfohl, Roberts, and Biggie and was completed in 1974. The building serves as the judicial nerve center for the city of Buffalo. It is home to the 8th Judicial district Housing Court; Small and Commercial Claims Court; Criminal Court; and houses some members of the New York Supreme Court for the County of Erie.
As common with the Brutalist style with extremely narrow windows and a façade made up of Precast concrete. The design decisions made by Pfohl, Roberts, and Biggie were quite commonplace for the time.
Free of distractions
For example, narrow windows are prevalent throughout much of Brutalist architecture. The idea behind narrow windows is to limit the outside world from distracting the civil institution housed therein - in this case, western a municipal legislative building.
10 - Like a Gate - Western City Gate/Genex Tower (Mihajlo Mitrović, 1979)
Located in Belgrade, Serbia, Western City Gate/Genex Tower is one of the most popular Brutalist structures in former-Yugoslavia. Originally designed as a “gate” welcoming visitors from the airport into the city, Western City Gate is a very sleek take on Brutalism.
Made up of 36 stories, Western City Gate consists of two concrete high-rise towers connected by a two-story bridge and a revolving restaurant on top. The two towers are split between commercial and residential.
The first tower (26 stories) was formerly used by the now-defunct Genex company as their organizational headquarters, while the second tower (30 stories) was and is still occupied by thousands of Belgradian residents.