© Jeff Matthews entry
Brutalist Architecture in
term "Brutalist" to describe an architectural style
was coined in 1953 by English architects Alison and Peter
Smithson. It is from the French béton brut, (raw
concrete), a phrase used by Le Corbusier to describe the
poured concrete of many of his post-World War II
buildings. The style was popular in the 1950s through
1970s. The term "concrete block" is a phrase that occurs
to many who try to describe it for the first time and to
whom it may seem "cold", "impersonal", "totalitarian"
and—the worst description I have ever heard!—"Führerbunker
Bauhaus." Indeed, the style is very linear,
although not necessarily so, since poured concrete offers
possibilities for creating curves and various geometric
designs (see photo, below, of the "Sails" of Scampia).
Initially, the style was an outgrowth of modern
architecture from the 1930s; it came into use for
government buildings, low-rent housing and shopping
centers to create low-cost, practical, functional
buildings, but eventually designers adopted the style for
other uses such as college buildings. Critics of the style
point out that the material (concrete) does not "weather"
well and that flat surfaces characteristic of the style
are especially prone to vandalism.
One of the "Sails"
Examples of such architecture in
Naples include the hotel at the Agnano
Thermal baths (photo at top) from the 1960s,
designed by Giulio De Luca (1912-2004), the main terminal
of the Circumvesuviana train line in downtown Naples, the
ENEL Towers, the buildings of the Second Polyclinic
Hospital, and Franz di Salvo's "Sails"
of Scampia (photo, right), put up between 1962 and
I don't pretend to
judge the aesthetics of architecture, but, as they say, I
know what I like. I tend to agree with Tom Wolfe on
some of this. He said in From Bauhaus to Our House (1981)
that "modern" architects who thought that workers should
live in "dwelling units" didn't understand that someone
who works in a factory all day doesn't necessarily want to
go home in the evening and live in one. There is
something, to me, undeniably drab and grimy about a grey,
rain-streaked concrete box of a building. On the other
hand, the materials can lend themselves to non-linear
geometries and even be adorned or painted. (That was the
original plan was for the "Sails," mentioned above. You
would live in a "White Sail," a blue one, etc. etc.) Also,
with more modern technology involving the use of steel and
reenforced concrete, there is additional flexibility,
producing a sort of modified Brutalism that is, to my eye,
not at all unpleasant. Thus, architectural styles change,
but I am not sure if a style can "fail," as I have read of
Brutalism. I know that certain buildings can fail,
as is the case with the "Sails" in Naples (see that link
in the above paragraph). That, however, has little do with
the style of the buildings and more to do with the
expectation that a "futuristic" design will automatically
generate a sleek and modern future. They put the "Sails"
up in the worst area in Naples in terms of crime, drugs
and unemployment and then wondered why the buildings
simply went to hell.
An afterthought: If you look at the architectural
history of Naples, some of the largest buildings were put
up in the 1600s and 1700s. Certainly, extreme Baroque
ornamentation disguised whatever "boxiness" there might
have been in the buildings of Luigi
Vanvitelli; his designs were meant to be regal and
magnificent —and they were. One of his contemporaries, on
the other hand, Ferdinando Fuga,
built at least one very large box with flat surfaces—the
"dwelling units" of his day. He was the go-to architect
for large state structures (although he also designed
other buildings more in the Baroque style of his youth).
The Albergo dei Poveri
(the Royal Poorhouse, photo, right) is a 1750 example of
the 1950s—functional, practical and unadorned, meant to
accommodate thousands of persons. It was so ambitious that
it never got finished. Ferdinando could certainly have
used some béton brut.
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