Modernism: Brutalism and Sacred Architecture

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‘It didn’t seek to be pretty; it didn’t seek to soothe.” “And it was soon the object of bien-pensant loathing’ continues Jonathan Meades in his reflection in “Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry” (2014), implementing Brutalism as a movement with its own distinct unapologetic characteristics and most importantly an architecture of effect.

The essay will be centred around the association between sacred architecture or places of worship and Brutalism, while briefly exploring why the negative and unwarranted reputation the design movement has garnered ever since its existence. Despite the majority of critiques on the movement being predominantly negative, this essay aims to suggest brutalism as an architecture style of effect in a more idealistic light through its possibilities, looking into excavating the preconceptions that have greatly attributed to the disquietude of Brutalism and ultimately exhibit and prove the intrinsic value of Brutalist buildings and how these effects are built as well as provide a better pretext to my research question of how Brutalism can be incorporated into sacred architecture to create an effect of serenity commonly found in religious places of worship.

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In the effort to investigate the research question, this essay is structured into, firstly, researching Brutalism from its origins to the downfall and reason behind it, common characteristics of the movement and lastly society’s critics and praise towards it. Part 2 of Chapter 1 however, will be a study of sacred architecture and its true definition in providing a better justification and explanation as to why Brutalism can be incorporated with sacred architecture and how.

The investigation proceeds also with a side by side comparison of two case studies in chapter 2 which are Tadao Ando’s Church of Light in Japan and Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame Du Huat in Ronchamp both great examples of Brutalist sacred architectures from different eras and architects but possess similar qualities in design approach. An emphasised analysis on the architectural elements and design approach as well as reasoning behind it will be done as to provide a useful insight as to how Brutalism can be implemented in sacred architecture and justify the research question of my essay which is essentially the fine line of balance in Brutalism.

Stylistically speaking, Brutalism is derived from modernism as an alternate version of modernism, signifying defiance to mainstream architecture while another argument bases brutalism as a crossover of modernism in conjunction with post-modernism in architecture history. With all these theories, the constant of it all is the pioneer being the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier who’s the project for the Unité d’Habitation in 1952 became the basis of the Brutalism movement, through his extensive use of raw materials, reinforced concrete columns that bore weights of buildings while creating opportunity for load free interior walls for more open spaces. Le Corbusier’s use of unadorned concrete also became a basis and substructure to the movement that will continue through and inspire Brutalist architects such as Erno Goldfinger who is the mastermind behind the Trellick Tower and Balfron Tower as well as more recent examples like Tadao Ando with his spectacular designs such as the Church of Light in which he continuously states in interviews and articles were greatly inspired by Le Corbusier.

Banham’s creation of the term Brutalism is known to be derived from “beton brut” which is French for raw concrete correlating directly to the pioneer of the Brutalism movement, Le Corbusier’s heavy use of raw concrete while expressing the horror of the public towards the predominantly concrete architecture. Today, the term Brutalism is often used to refer a significant part in architecture history namely post-war architecture portrayed in Reyner Banham’s book The New Brutalism(1955).

Brutalism and brutal, a word that is affiliated with barbarism, cruelty, viciousness, atrocity and violence, is, however, a label not meant to mean the connotations above as mentioned before but rather the French word beton brut is arguably a huge factor that led to the misconception of the brutalist movement because of its fundamentally negative implication of designing with bad intentions. Mark Pasnik, Chris Grimley, and Michael Kubo and their book “ Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston” as well as the “ The Heroic Project” describes in detail the unfortunate branding of the brutalist movement and how the term “ heroic”, as the connotation of a hero establishes the innate and original purpose of the design style to bring forth a difference for the betterment of society during that era would be a better fit to represent the unfairly abused movement of architectural past.

According to The Royal Institute of Architects (RIBA), it is described that Brutalist buildings embody distinct qualities such as rough unfinished surfaces, unusual or massive forms, heavy-looking materials and relatively small windows in relation to other components of the building. A considerable emphasis is often placed on materials, texture and construction as well as an equal priority in functionality and equality.

In terms of material, concrete the chosen material of Le Corbusier and one that will be continuously used by Brutalist architects that follow seems to be an embodiment or manifestation of the movement. The material however was not chosen by chance but steered from its natural simplicity and honest quality often associated with the Brutalist philosophy. The application of untreated concrete traditionally used under embellished floral facades or façade skins generally consisting of steel and glass signifies defiance of the norm. In hindsight, the insistence of using the untreated material contributes greatly to creating buildings that harbour such great sense of formality and monumentality which is almost unrivalled by any architectural styles or movements to date. Cost and resilience exemplified as well as constructive strength of said material is also known factors in which contributed greatly to the extensive use in the post-war period of European civil reconstruction.

In spite of the constant repetition of Brutalism and its association with concrete and what constitutes to a building falling under this particular style and movement, it is worth mentioning that concrete is not always the common denominator. In fact, buildings with minimal or no use of concrete can still be considered a brutalist building if qualities such as having a rough and block-like appearance and the exposure of structural materials and forms as well as services such lifts and plumbing on its façade is applied


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