Towards a Newer Brutalism

In the early 1950s, British architects Alison and Peter Smithson announced their arrival with a call for a “new brutalism”—a polemic sketched out over several years through texts and building projects. Describing new brutalism as an ethic, not a style, the Smithsons aimed to meet the changing needs and desires of postwar society through an architecture that directly expressed the material conditions of its time. Their friend and critic Reyner Banham defined a new brutalist building by its “1. Memorability as an image; 2. clear exhibition of structure; 3. valuation of materials for their inherent qualities ‘as found,’” and argued for “the threat and the promise” of such “bloody-minded” work within an increasingly staid culture of modern architecture. In contrast to the style that came to be known as brutalism, the new brutalism anticipated diverse and fertile trajectories: playful, ironic, and critical uses of found objects and materials in the manner of Dada, Pop and art brut; both high-tech and crude explorations of the limits of functional, technological and/or ecological determination and expression; close attention to ordinary and economical forms of construction and use.

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). Working through the associative logic that characterized the Smithsons’ practice, this seminar appropriates the new brutalism as a “found” theory of the present, exploring its relevance as a design methodology rooted in material economy, spatial flexibility, structural expression, and disregard for prevailing aesthetic conventions. What do the ethics of these working methods offer architects at a time of acute social and environmental crises? How do such ethics relate to the stylistic affections of an image-saturated architectural culture?

The semester will begin with a close reading of primary texts and projects related to the new brutalism, including a visit to the Smithsons’ archive, which is held at Loeb Library. Working individually or in small teams, students will then define and interrogate a contemporary manifestation of a newer brutalism at work in the field today. This research and speculation may be oriented around a specific design practice, cultural context, construction method, building type or even single building. This research will be supported by course readings and lectures that focus on how architectural form relates to authorship, tectonics, labor, use and the environment. Students will also be expected to share relevant readings and references with their colleagues as they discover them in the course of their work. Projects will develop through a cumulative series of exercises that involve collecting materials and images, developing simple diagrams, and writing short texts—this work will be organized and communicated in a small pamphlet, to be presented at the conclusion of the course.

The seminar is open to students of any background or program, and may offer a particularly useful opportunity for those students who are considering related questions in upcoming thesis work.