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The Unexpectedly Tropical History of Brutalism

Long associated with European cities, the style has plenty of history in other parts of the world, too. In Brazil, it reached a surprising apotheosis.

Last October, the Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, who was nearing 90, was interviewed by the Spanish newspaper El País about his six-decade career. By then, Mendes da Rocha — whose buildings include São Paulo’s subterranean sculpture museum, Museu Brasileiro da Escultura e Ecologia (MuBE), completed in 1995, with its 197-foot stretch of gravity-defying concrete that spans the open plaza, and the levitating concrete disk of the city’s Paulistano Athletic Club Gymnasium, built in 1957 — had been canonized as not only the most important living architect in Brazil, or perhaps in all of Latin America, but also as the world’s most significant practitioner of Brutalism — a word, ironically, that he has always disavowed. “Ask an intellectual what they mean by Brutalism, and the majority won’t know,” Mendes da Rocha told the reporter. “Brutalism is nothing.”

The term “Brutalism” has never been well liked among architects, nor well defined among the critics who invented it. Beginning in the 1940s, builders in Europe and the United States began turning away from high Modernism in favor of what the Swiss critic Sigfried Giedion and the American architect Louis Kahn referred to as a New Monumentality: a muscular architecture that “conveys the feeling of its eternity,” as Kahn put it in his 1944 essay “Monumentality.” Near the end of that decade, the French-Swiss Modernist Le Corbusier began building monolithic structures in raw concrete — béton brut, in French, one of the sources for the word “Brutalism.” In 1949, the Swedish architect Hans Asplund coined the term nybrutalism, which the British journalist Reyner Banham popularized in a 1955 essay called “The New Brutalism,” in which he used the blocky brick-and-steel Hunstanton School, built in 1954 in the county of Norfolk, England, by the architects Peter and Alison Smithson, as a case study. “One can see what Hunstanton is made of, and how it works,” he wrote, “and there is not another thing to see except the play of spaces.” Banham’s New Brutalist buildings, in other words, extended the functional logic of Modernism, leaving surfaces untreated and joints, seams and pipes exposed, privileging transparency over proportion and style. Where Modernism was poised and polite, often incorporating white plaster and walls that concealed the buildings’ internal logic, Brutalism evolved into something bold and confrontational, its heavy, rugged forms forged of inexpensive industrial materials that disguised nothing at all.

Having emerged in the early 20th century from the Bauhaus, the German school that lived at the intersection of art and technology, Modernism was a well-established movement that corresponded to other advances in art, music and literature: a way of building that was intended to express the conditions of the machine age as eloquently as, say, Virginia Woolf’s novels — but by the 1940s, the aesthetic was being called superficial, anodyne and placeless. In a 1959 interview, Peter Smithson described Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier’s iconic 1929 house on the outskirts of Paris, with its white walls and ribbon windows, as “a single object, turned out on a lathe,” whereas the rising Brutalist buildings were being composed of disparate machine-made objects stacked, stitched and cleaved together. While Modernism expressed a blithe faith in its own power to manifest the future, Brutalism — a term that exists only in architecture — would look like work.

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