17 JUL 2015

Dare to be Brutal: Brutalist Design

Words by Caroline Moore

There are few design movements that have created as much controversy as Brutalism. With its characteristic hard edges and raw materials many find it, well, brutal! The name is however very misleading. It actually comes from the French 'beton-brut' which means 'raw concrete' - the material from which most Brutalist architecture is formed.

The movement flourished globally from the 1950s to 70s and although its roots are obviously modernist, its exponents aimed to create a new direction - one which took a stripped back aesthetic and honesty of materials to a new level. Brutalist architecture is typically characterised by sharp angles, repeated geometric forms, an emphasis on functionality and rough, unfinished surfaces.

The same principles applied to the interiors. Concrete walls were left raw and 'unfinished' and methods of construction left visible. These stark interiors were often beautifully complimented with furniture featuring richly grained, polished woods such as our Kai Kristiansen 'Universe' Modular Seating or Milo Baughman Rosewood Case Sofa.

Furniture designers and artists also picked up the Brutalist mantle, resulting in furniture made from raw steel and bronze coated resins, striking metal art and rough hewn objects. The American duo known as Curtis Jere are perhaps the most well known American metal art designers of the period. They created spectacular wall, floor and table sculptures influenced by the Brutalist movement.

It was actually Le Corbusier who is credited with initiating the movement with his Unite d' Habitation, built in Marseille in 1952. The building was influential not only for its aesthetics but also for the philosophy behind it. The Brutalists embraced the concept of social housing and institutions that emphasised functionality while also encouraging human interaction.

The movement, while popular worldwide, was particularly embraced by UK architects. The leading British proponents were Alison and Peter Smithson whose Hunstanton School in Norfolk is considered to be the forerunner of the British movement.

Brutalism has faced severe criticism over the years – Prince Charles once referred to Brutalist architecture as "piles of concrete." Brutalist social housing complexes were also often deemed to be failures, with the high-minded ideals of the designers not always translating well into reality. The Smithson's Robin Hood Gardens in London is perhaps the most famous example. The residences were accessed via "streets in the sky" which was a commonly used concept in Brutalist style social housing. The idea was that people would meet and interact as they would on a normal street but the reality was that these areas became hubs for criminal activity. Communal areas were also rarely maintained and the stark concrete walls were perfect canvasses for graffiti and vandalism.

Not all Brutalist housing was unsuccessful though. The Barbican Complex in the heart of London incorporates public buildings such as the Barbican Arts Centre and the Museum of London along with over 2000 flats that are home to 4000 people. Designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, the complex is epic - consisting of several buildings, including three tall towers and a central square with a landscaped water garden.

The aesthetic did, on the whole, translate much more successfully in governmental and institutional settings where the imposing, monumental concrete forms communicate a sense of strength and solidity. There are hundreds of impressive examples worldwide including here in New Zealand.

Warren and Mahoney were leading Brutalist practitioners in New Zealand and are responsible for the Christchurch Town Hall and Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre amongst many others. Even our most iconic building,The Beehive, designed by Basil Spence, can be regarded as Brutalist. There are also some amazing Brutalist public sculptures in New Zealand such as Terry Stringer's 'Mountain Fountain' (1981) at Parnell's Holy Trinity Cathedral (formerly in Aotea Square) and Greer Twiss' 'Karangahape Rocks' (1967–69) which sits in the Symonds St Park on K'Rd.

Canada is another country to note in the history of Brutalism, particularly Toronto. Here the Robarts Library (affectionately known by students as 'Fort Book') by Mathers & Haldenby Architects, stands over The University of Toronto like a hibernating transformer. The City Hall, by Viljo Revell is another Toronto icon and looks like a scene from a sci-fi film with its curved towers and central dome.

While it may not be for everyone, it is hard to deny the bravery of the Brutalist exponents in their quest to create such bold and imaginative structures. Their influence is also clear today with concrete and metal being key materials in both contemporary architecture and interiors.

- - - - -


1 / Curtis Jere 'Birds in Flight' Floor Sculpture

2 / Curtis Jere Style 'Over the Sun' Sculpture

3 / Brutalist Candlestick Holder (Smaller one available)

4 / Brutalist Brass and Enamel Wall Sconce

5 / Quist Candlestick Holders

6 / BMF Nagel Ninja Style Candlestick Holders

- - - - -


We're constantly adding Brutalist designs to our Pinterest board. If you've been inspired by our blog and the items from our store which are part of this movement, please feel free to check us out over on Pinterest.

View More Brutalist Designs On Pinterest

More inspiration you might like

New Zealand Collection – Preview Event

Delicious cocktails mixed well with iconic furniture at the gallery last night!


New Zealand Modern Collection | Opens October 17, 2019

Join us to celebrate our third annual New Zealand Collection!


The Lines and Forms of Richard Neutra

A few years ago we were lucky enough to have a holiday in California and of course we had to head over to Palm Springs for some architecture tourism.


Celebrating 100 Years of Hans Olsen

Mr. Bigglesworthy is proud to celebrate the work of legendary Danish designer Hans Olsen. We look back through our collecting history and reflect on some new developments from his range of classic furniture from Warm Nordic.