Towards a Newer Brutalism

In the early 1950s, Alison and Peter Smithson, along with their friend and colleague Reyner Banham, announced their arrival with a call for “a new brutalism”—a polemic sketched out over several years through a series of texts and building projects. Describing new brutalism as an ethic, not a style, the Smithsons aimed to restore the early promise of modern architecture through the use of a direct and reductive architectural language, “architecture built to the specifications of a good warehouse”; “the dead hand of De Stijl […] lifted from our backs.” In Banham’s analysis, the tenets of the new brutalism were: “1. Memorability as an image; 2. clear exhibition of structure […] 3. valuation of materials for their inherent qualities ‘as found.’” While the moment of the new brutalism was brief, its discourse and its protagonists were key to subsequent architectural experiments in Britain and elsewhere, including Brutalism, High-Tech, Pop, and the urbanism of Team X.

Today, the imperatives of the new brutalism almost perfectly articulate a latent theory of architecture that connects a number of contemporary practices (none more notable than 2021 Pritzker Laureates Lacaton & Vassal) and that is animating the work of a new generation of students at the GSD and elsewhere (one thinks, for instance, of the pedagogy and projects of recent GSD-affiliated practices such as Bruther, Karamuk Kuo and Ultramoderne). Among other terms of contemporary discourse, an architecture of the new brutalism might be defined as an absolute architecture, a light architecture, a literal architecture, an ordinary architecture, or an open architecture. Investigation of the new brutalism engages fundamental questions of architectural discourse and design, including relationships of architecture to technology, image to performance, and one generation of architects to another. This seminar explores the contemporary relevance of the new brutalism as a design methodology predicated on economy, flexibility and clarity, as well as its potential ethics in a time of social and environmental crisis.  

The seminar unfolds in three parts, with students working individually or in small groups. In the first, students will critically examine primary texts and projects from the Smithsons, Banham and others, through seminar discussions and a visit to the Smithsons’ archive, which is held in Loeb Library. In the second, they will comprehensively research the work of a contemporary practice, distilling and communicating its principles through a concise set of diagrams and declarative texts, and contributing to a collective atlas of practices that are exemplary of the “newer brutalism” that the seminar proposes. In the third, students will use the critical positions refined through the first two exercises to develop a paradigmatic architectural model, in the mode of projects such as the Maison Dom-Ino or 50’x50’ House, that reduces the structure, material assembly and spatial organization of architecture to a clear set of principles. The course format will include seminar presentations and discussions, including with outside guests, as well as regular critiques of work in progress. The atlas and the models will be exhibited and discussed during a concluding review.