Key Points:

  • Homage to Brutalism
  • From the industrial aesthetic of Bauhaus and legendary German engineering, up sprang a noble cement bastard known as Brutalist architecture
  • Cold, dark design logic inspired by WWII battlefield bunkers, caverns, mausoleums, and granite-plated torture rooms
  • Futuristic adaptation and protection of impenetrable boundaries (psychology and desire of)
  • Brutalism provides superb housing for ghosts and aliens

Life is Short, Brutalist Concrete is Forever

Through the factory haze an ideal Brutalist structure stands before us on the outskirts of town. The severity of its profile mocks Le Corbusier’s legacy. Cubist nooks reset the scales of reason. Thick cantilevered wedges disobey gravity and narrowly evade the building inspector’s safety audit. At the center of this fractured sculptural saga only three materials are truly welcome: poured concrete, metal and glass. Concrete is strong in compression, steel is strong in tension. Strength. Fierce beauty in strength. In the aftermath of an unapologetic process, all things organic have been banished.

Nearby, the spirit of a befouled rebar smelting plant has been converted into a lovely seaside home. Its charm reminds us of a permanently-moored hulk that’s been stranded above the tide line, or a derelict medieval prison. Its roof and balustrades—overbuilt and heat-tempered for added hardness—are dusted with seven years’ worth of airborne creosote and coal tar pitch. We see these vagabonds of manufacturing in their molecular drift through the polluted atmosphere. They come to rest on weathered shapes that stir the gloomy imagination of a dystopian sci-fi film director; his location scout’s wish list has been fulfilled.

AM/FM radio bands, microwaves and Wi-Fi signals cannot penetrate. There are no regression equations in it—the architect refused to run another regression of style, leaving inspiration to the imposing edifices of a futuristic central bank. It looks like a fortress, as it should. You’d expect to find stacks of gold bars stored in the basement. The interior décor consists of tall, dank slabs panning your visual field.

What, and where, is gentleness? Caught in a fleeting glimpse of its inhabitants sleeping peacefully in their bulwark against nuclear fallout, that’s where…tucked into a drastic cocoon that would survive vault-like in a crisis—a dull cement lifeboat for the radioactive plume to flow around while the outside world drowns in post-apocalyptic horror.

If there are natural battles against erosion, hurricanes and earthquakes, it will win them. If there are 40 more generations of humans, it will outlive them. It may never fully decompose until the Earth’s crust folds inexorably back into the forge of its molten mantle. Brutalism searches for eternity beyond us. It does not require or encourage the concept of friendship.

This is a place where space aliens would hold a final strategy meeting before convincing themselves to alter our DNA or turn a chaotic minor planet into their next resource or institution, one fated to serve unforeseen celestial needs.

Yet even a master alien race is not entirely comfortable here. In the course of their wanderings, they begin to sense our Brutalism is a looming nonconformist that would prefer to defy visual physics—no shadows or gradients or patterns, no distinct hierarchy. They grow uneasy because the building, itself, is an inconvenient space invader on the landscape. The air moves as if through an iron lung.

Unlike most great architecture, Brutalist structures do not simulate the vastness of the great outdoors. They permanently alter them. The aliens ponder a species that would choose to promote dense austerity against lightness and optimism, and who are capable of pretty amazing things when they put their minds to it. It dawns on them that they might have selected the wrong target to destroy. In retreat, their UFO slips back above the ionosphere to patrol our spacewalks and satellite communications from a calming distance.

If we can impress or frighten extraterrestrials with our Brutalism, we have already won something, or at least delayed our extinction.

[potted plants and small fluffy pets strictly prohibited]

At times the Brutalist home looks entirely abandoned… so harsh, so in-your-face that its users either love it or absolutely hate it. If you threw a party, the intolerance of Brutalism would be there to inspire your guests to leave early. In this manner the architecture is your companion, existing to silently screen your connections in the human world.

[“beton brut” begrudgingly shares its perimeter with the living]

Inside, we observe the chilled lower chamber, how it invites a veiled ghost in wedding attire. She has her back to us. Telepathic, she—it—collects your feelings off the polished marble ceiling. She stands before a vast, altar-like machine that emits an invisible glow the living aren’t allowed to see. It’s an unsettling image, when we don’t know if the spectral bride is destined to be married within the protection of this concrete cathedral of industry, warmed at its massive hearth, or is to be taken into the paranormal furnace itself, having been betrothed to a world beyond human. This is Brutalism.

Joyless Urban Cool, Served on Ice

When it comes to Brutalism, you’ll definitely know it when you see it. It favors starkness over subtlety. It opts for “the kill” over sweetness, but just for show, just to pierce the jaded eye. Is this the Spartan splendor of bad design? Is this intentionally ugly? Conflicting, and also made to hold us away from sunlight. Expensive avant-garde construction features uncalled-for moats stocked with poisonous sea snakes. And good luck trying to find the mailbox; it might has well have been thrown into the ocean. Now that you live here, why do you care where the mail ends up? This is Brutalism dammit, where some choose status symbols of anti-sense that conjure up a plastic sort of sadness. Enjoy. The floorplan is faintly stabilized by a post-modern guilt trip that knows this dwelling readily converts into a hazardous waste repository for spent casks of yellowcake uranium.

[includes brackish ponds for urban electric eels (too cool for koi)]

If you grew up in a city of moderate size, anywhere, then you probably grew up near an example of Brutalism, because the style dominated public spaces in the second half of the 20th century. Brutalist buildings started popping up everywhere across the world in the early 1950s, and reached their peak between 1964 and 1966, with the overwhelming number being used for educational facilities, then housing, offices, churches, libraries, government buildings, and museums. One in every five professional-architecture degrees in the United States is now earned, themselves, inside Brutalist buildings, including those from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley.

[inside the author’s mountain retreat (and then his alarm clock went off)]

When we think about the post-war generation who developed Brutalism for its practical and visual needs, we comprehend the nostalgia for an optimism that a lot of these buildings embody. Really, it’s the optimism of our parents’ parents. It’s a sort of a belief in the future.

[a dreamlike space invader claims dominion over the backwoods]

In 2018 we are seeing a resurgence, a trendy revival of midcentury Brutalism in mansions, towers and government projects. Many have come to despise the concrete building spree that has taken over parts of Europe, America, Australia and Asia lately. It’s not that they have a problem with concrete itself, but with the stony, box-like and monolithic presences it imposes. The critics are discouraged by Brutalist minimalism on steroids, especially when it surfaces off the grid and away from the nearest municipality. Even in the nature preserve, in the deep forest, they’ll say it has the appeal of a boot camp shower block from Full Metal Jacket. There’s a rudeness and conspiracy to give any surrounding neighbors a perpetual middle finger. Certain designs aren’t meant to be polished and clean; they are rough, ragged and jarring.

Brutalism’s admirers, meanwhile, pursue it in everything. Devotees covet the uncluttered integrity of a Braun watch and fuss over mitered glass corners or the rakish angles of a distressed copper downspout. Micro-analyze patina chemistry betwixt metals and aged concrete. Even that which was not intended to be brutalist can become Brutalist.

“We want soul-scouring industrial chic lying down on the edge of metropolis now,” they say, not those silly, happy wooden homes wrapped with lush landscaping. “We desire a form of self-punishment—unemotional environments typically associated with work is where we want to live.”

Crypt Luxury, Disconnected and Dissolved

Brutalism never said it would honor its maker, but stand as an insult to its maker’s ephemerality and the fragility of bone. The true aim of Brutalism is to sterilize the perfectionism of its creator. Its immaculate exactitude is earnest and heavy in a way that stops us dead in our tracks. Brutalist elements overlap, but seem unintentional, with a lack of symmetry or balanced spacing. It revels in the forfeiture of money as an escape from reality—a stylized crowd-pleaser, epitomizing the hermetic nature of a dreamed-up world if there were no people in it.

Behold how we dared to craft habitats in a deconstructed void, how we attempted to glorify a tumultuous age with infrastructure that made the comforts of corporeal life possible. We take this all for granted now, but its origin is extraordinary.

Beyond the sight lines an echo resonates in the cult of the machine, the cult of precisionism that we see so often in a world where the pace of technology has gotten far ahead of our collective ability to adapt to it. Perhaps when we immerse ourselves in a new landscape of machines and powerful architecture that’ll outlive us by centuries, we are getting premonitions of the singularity as we try to touch the white-hot central fragment that will go on without us someday.


From a psychological standpoint, Brutalism’s meticulous disconnection from scale and form symbolizes how human connection can breed contempt. Social research has found abundant evidence that the more close contact we have with other people, the more we become irritated by their different ideas, preferences, and habits. High population densities are unnatural and cheapen life. That’s why big cities beg for an antipode—gardens of solitude. And in cyberspace, the constant avalanche of online self-disclosure creates an oppressive sense of “digital crowding”—making people prone to lashing out at those who overshare. More than two decades into the internet revolution, we now know that technology is an amplifier for humanity’s worst traits as well as our best. What it doesn’t do is make us better people. The global village, it turns out, is a nasty place.

You might think that such a Blade Runner-esque society, characterized by rabid consumption, lonely people, and a lack of any kind of mutual care, would be very well captured by an architectural style whose very name suggests brutality. But this would be to drastically misunderstand the intentions of the original Brutalist architects. Much of the misconception about Brutalism resides in the word itself. The word “brutal” exists in numerous European languages. But the original architects who used the term sought to employ the specific subtlety it has when spoken in French, where concrete translates as “beton brut.” Moreover, “brut” specifically suggests rawness.

Far afield from the congested cities and the nattering billions online, Brutalism says “I’ll be here long after the rest of you dissolve away like a passing cloud.” With its ruggedness and lack of concern to look relaxed or easy, I believe “Brutalism as art” is a multigenerational counter-reaction to lightness, optimism, and frivolity.

The dichotomy of minimalist excess inherent in Brutalist architecture knows what the sage Picasso knew: “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

Parting Shots: Northern California Brutalism

Closer to home, we often discover prosaic things that contain overlooked beauty. Here are a few choice Brutalist examples from San Francisco, Berkeley, the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) line, and beyond.

[BART 1]

[BART 2 / Glen Park Station]

[Berkeley Film Archive]

[ not far from the city’s top Brutalist icon / Transamerica Pyramid ]

[abandoned brutalist escape pod, North Coast]