By: Stephanie Taylor
It is one of the most unmistakable and reviled architectures of the modernist style. Even the word, brutalism, evokes a gag-like reflex of disgust and has become the poster-architecture of all ugly buildings. And at first glance it’s not difficult to see why. These gigantic concrete monoliths do not exactly conform to traditional aesthetic tastes. But that’s the point, brutalism is designed to be honest, not beautiful.
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In recent years, brutalism has become an increasingly important topic in the architectural world. As cities expand, populations rise and buildings deteriorate, the question on the minds of city planners, architecture advocacy groups and the public, is what will happen to these aging brutalist buildings everybody hates? The future of the Public Safety Building (1966) was the latest example of this debate in Winnipeg.
The problem with saving reviled architecture is people do not care. The fate of ugly architecture is a familiar story; a building everyone hates will be neglected until it eventually deteriorates and is demolished. Consequently, the city forfeits part of its architectural and cultural identity for the sake of commercial expansion or what is more commonly the case, a new parking lot.
Whether or not it’s concrete and ugly, brutalist architecture matters to Winnipeg. Why? The brutalist design embodies our city’s on-going struggle to revitalize a deteriorating downtown. The context of brutalist architecture emerges with the reinvention of modernist design in the 1940s and 1950s in Europe. Brutalism coincided with the rise of post-modernism and developed out of the cultural skepticism that arose following WWII. The severity of the Brutalist form visualizes anxiety and challenges the authority of tradition in both architecture and society. Brutalism re-designed modern architecture to respond more accurately to the social conditions brought on by modernity.
What is brutalism?
The word brutalism, is derived from the french word Breton Brut- and means the usage of ‘raw concrete’ as an architectural building material. The brutalist design is characterized, but not strictly limited to- the direct expression of rough materials, an exaggerated sense of weight in masonry walls, a clear exhibition of structure, angular design, geometric irregularity and an enclosed interior with interlocking spaces.
Beginnings of brutalism
The roots of brutalism can be traced back to the architecture, urban planning and philosophy of the Swiss architect- Le Corbusier. The technique of Breton Brut was developed by Le Corbusier in his designs of massive concrete buildings that resembled warehouses. In the 1940s and 1950s, when brutalism was conceptualized concrete was a modern material and a driving force of avant-garde architecture.
Until the arrival of architectural concrete in the 1940s, modernist design remained largely unchanged from the steel and glass buildings pioneered by the International Style in the early twentieth century. The induction of concrete to design created new possibilities for the representation of space and shape in the architectural form. Young architects forsworn the ‘glass curtain’ of early modernism for the harsh materiality of brutalism. New architects were drawn to the new monumentality and timelessness concrete gave their designs. As a result, brutalism began a new chapter in modern architecture.
Brutalism was born out of the social difficulties of postwar England. A housing crisis, a disastrous national debt and the rising threat of nuclear weaponry in the Cold War, acted as the setting for the formation of brutalism. The earliest and most famed brutalist buildings are found in Britain, designed by architects Alison and Peter Smithson. ‘The New Brutalism” was the term coined by both architects to describe the overt display of rough materials in a bold, logical design.
In his book, The New Brutalism- Aesthetic or Ethic, critic Reyner Banham argues that brutalism is foremost an ethic and then a style. Honesty is the essence of the brutalist design. The solidity, largeness and direct expression of material reflects an attitude that values simplicity, honesty and rationality. Brutalism rejects the early modernist ‘glass curtain’ and the white-washed interior as being too idealistic and artificial. Rather, exposed in the rough, rugged concrete of brutalism, is an aesthetic that mirrors the harsh realities of its environment.
Brutalism in Winnipeg
The year was 1967. The city was booming with postwar optimism and economic prosperity. It was an era of hope and modernization; polarized by bell bottoms jeans, psychedelic drugs, second-wave feminism and universal suffrage. The postwar years promised a new hope for Canada and a renewal of familial and national values occurred. The ’60s was a decade of cultural landscaping in Winnipeg. Our city was bustling with anticipation for the Centennial celebration that coming July and prepared to host the Pan American Games that same summer. Yet, in the midst of celebration, Winnipeg was dealing with the unsettling reality of a dying downtown. The city issued several reports that year on the dire state of downtown, which confirmed what everyone had already expected. Fortunately, postwar prosperity created a building boom that began mid-century and in the ’60s Winnipeg underwent a major urban renewal.
Now, the decline of downtown began twenty years earlier in the ’40s- when economic depression hit with the ‘great suburban migration’ of downtown’s residential population. Parents of the baby-boom generation increasingly migrated from the inner-city to raise new families in Winnipeg’s blossoming suburban neighborhoods. The opening of Polo Park in May 1959, Winnipeg’s largest shopping mall, added further loss to downtown’s economy. Less and less, families traveled from the comfort of the suburbs to venture west down Portage Avenue to a downtown that had lost both its economic power and its social capital. Like most North American cities, Winnipeg’s wholesaling, manufacturing and warehousing industries were steadily declining and downtown suffered too great a loss to compensate with a floundering service industry.
The stark reality of downtown in the 1960s signified that Winnipeg was indeed a ‘modern’ city. Modern in its societal ills of crime and poverty, brought on by urbanization and the prevalence of inequality and unemployment. The decline of downtown was a direct effect of an economic shift, crime and poverty were merely symptomatic of modern change. The mid-century building boom acted as an urban revitalization to clean-up the decay of downtown and re-envision the heart of the city as clean and prosperous. Even so, renewal could not change reality. Winnipeg had to be honest with its state of deterioration. And the ethic of brutalism, to be honest with present social realities, made it the appropriate style for many of Winnipeg’s newest buildings.
Brutalism arrived in Canada between the 1960s- early ’70s. Brutalist buildings were mainly built for function and revived the principle of ‘form-follows-function’ in modern architecture. Affordability, durability and versatility made brutalism the chosen style for numerous universities, art centers and government buildings across Canada. Winnipeg’s brutalist architecture is prolific and varied. The Pan Am Pool (1966), Robson Hall at the University of Manitoba (1969), the Manitoba Teacher’s Society (1966) and the Winnipeg Transit Garage (1969) are only a few of the examples of brutalism throughout the city. The Public Safety Building (1966) and the Royal Theatre Centre for the Arts (1969-1970) best exemplify the brutalist design in Winnipeg. Both buildings were designed to be in Winnipeg’s burgeoning Exchange District, which was a thriving hub of cultural activity, to attract more people downtown and regenerate the area. The expression of raw concrete and stone in both structures imposes on the personal space of the building’s viewers and demands attention. The sheer enormity and solidity of the PBS blatantly confronts Main Street and the reality of living and working in a downtown.
From the moment brutalism arrived it was misunderstood. Today’s complaint of brutalism has not changed in sixty years; concrete is still as controversial as ever. The presentation of raw concrete on such massive scale evokes feelings of uneasiness, confusion and even stress for many onlookers. And this is true- insofar as brutalism is the only modern aesthetic inspired by the atmosphere of the streets. Brutalism mimics both the physical appearance and the tempo of the city in its density, roughness and bluntness of texture. Unlike the early modernist ‘glass curtain’ that attempts to transcend its materiality, brutalism embraces its form as material. This forcefulness of material imbues brutalism with a quality of strength, capable of withstanding the power of crime, poverty and civil disorder. One confronts a brutalist building; aggressively and forthright. For brutalism is an architecture born out of the turbulence of modernity.
As Winnipeg is in the midst of another urban resurgence, we must remember to celebrate our city’s unique architectural past as we enter the future. Indeed, practicing responsible design means committing to preserving our city’s heritage in contemporary urban planning. And what conservation means is an education about the history of brutalism in Winnipeg.
The Winnipeg Architecture Foundation (www.winnipegarchitecturefoundation.ca) is an local organization dedicated to educating and engaging the public about brutalism in our city and is a worthwhile starting point.
So does brutalist architecture matter to Winnipeg? You tell me.