Brutalist design can be beautiful

Brutally beautiful

In every German city there is a monster on this or that street corner. Gray, rough, strange and without respect for its surroundings. It gets in your way, even if you just walk past it. Every city has buildings that are so tough and so decided not to fit in. They are marked by traces of the weather on the concrete - but also covered with a strange sheen, an indistinct longing for the short time when this building was found beautiful enough to be built here on this corner.

For example Berlin, at the corner of Wilhelmstrasse and Vossstrasse, the Czech embassy, ​​built in the middle of the late 1970s, a concrete colossus that looks like a UFO that is too heavy to ever leave the earth again. When I stand in front of it and take pictures with my cell phone, an elderly lady stops and says: “Terrible, isn't it? Hopefully it will be demolished soon! "

I think: I hope not, because I've started to love concrete again. It is the same for many. They celebrate concrete in books and Facebook groups, on websites and what feels like half of all Pinterest profiles - with these typical high-contrast black and white photos of sharply contoured, sculptural concrete buildings. "Architecture pornography" is what the curator Oliver Elser from the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt calls this trend slightly joking. In upscale handicraft shops there is now concrete for »creative ideas« in the hobby area, lanterns and so on, at many times the price of the fine professional concrete in the hardware store. The ultimate status symbol of a bourgeois feel-good aesthetic is no longer the parquet flooring and certainly not the carpeting, but the carefully poured and thirty days hardened concrete floor. Or the concrete worktop in the kitchen, which is freely poured by the concrete Michelangelo, who only creates on recommendation.

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What flares up again is the love of brutalism. The name for this architectural style is derived from the building material: raw, unclad concrete is called “béton brut” in French. At the same time, "Brutalism" was a play on words from the start when the English architecture critic Reynar Banham coined the term around sixty years ago: The concrete is raw and tart, so "brut", and at the same time these buildings are brutally pushed into the cityscape. "The new brutalism is characterized by its brutality, its I-don't-care-attitude, its stubbornness," said Banham at the time. "These buildings don't give a shit about what's going on with their surroundings" - that's how the German art historian Karin Berkemann puts it. "They say: I am a building, deal with it."

The traces of brutalist architecture can be found not only in Germany, but worldwide, especially in Great Britain, the cradle of brutalism, in the USA and in the former Eastern Bloc. Only Scandinavia has remained almost untouched by the concrete fist; there, says the English writer and brutalism expert Jonathan Meades with gentle irony, "a tragic lack of insensitivity and an excess of reason" prevented brutalism from taking hold.

There are thousands of these buildings in Germany. Employment offices, community centers, city libraries, residential complexes, churches. The Ruhr University in Bochum, the Bogenhausener Hügelhaus and the Olympic Village in Munich, the Chorweiler residential complex in Cologne, the Cologne building authority, the Marburg post office, schools such as the Katharinen grammar school in Ingolstadt, and above all: sacred buildings, above all the Pilgrim Church in Velbert-Neviges and the Maria Magdalena Church in Freiburg. Although the latter is atypical, the architect Susanne Gross built it in 2004 in a brutalist style.

Actually, however, Brutalism experienced its gray heyday between 1955 and 1975. Architects and builders were able to freely shape concrete much earlier, but until Brutalism began to make raw concrete a principle, it had been a matter of concealing it. Brutalism was the first to celebrate the malleability and properties of its building material; it filled the wastelands of war-torn cities in Europe.

But it also had a utopian streak from the start. Basically, his story is a misunderstanding. Put simply, the architects of brutalism wanted to make buildings for the masses: buildings that were like sculptures for a self-confident democracy, a classless society. The representatives of brutalism wanted to design the cities for everyone, their clients were often the municipalities, brutalism was supposed to sweep away the old, the elitist, the smooth and the noncommittal. Free concrete areas dreamed of social exchange, floating concrete footpaths of short distances and free flowing traffic, staggered concrete balconies of views for everyone, concrete facades in front of comprehensive schools of social advancement.

The English architecture critic Christopher Beanland says that Brutalist architecture was engaged in "fist fights with the planning grid of the metropolises" back in its wild, heroic years. Even in well-meaning remarks about brutalism, the rhetoric is more reminiscent of bar fights than of architectural criticism. The outstanding representatives of brutalism, says Beanland, had "shown the middle finger" to the keepers and belittlers, and even Le Corbusier, the pioneer of brutalism with his "Unité d'habitation" residential complex in Marseilles, spoke of his own actions with eerily awe of his own actions "Concrete Massacre".

Yes, says Beanland, brutalism has always been characterized by a certain aggression, "but aggression against the city, not against the people." His colleague Jonathan Meades says that brutalism expresses a "love of the masses". Just an unrequited one - because the people where the concrete buildings aggressively wanted to create space quickly felt overwhelmed and longed for the prefabricated house on the outskirts, the old apartment, for lightness and friendliness.

Brutalism is always there where something has been created with concrete that does not hide itself and which does not try to hide what purpose it serves. For example, the aforementioned Czech embassy in Berlin, designed by Vera and Vladimir Machonin, the heavy concrete structure seems to float, and his message is clear: This is the administrative building of a self-confident, forward-looking state that wants to attract attention but does not want to Lets look at cards. The building is unmistakable and invisible at the same time.

Most brutalist buildings have their intentions clear. The notorious Ruhr University in Bochum, between the parts of the building you can't walk around without thinking “learning factory, learning factory”, says clearly: Yes, exactly, if as many as possible are supposed to learn, then the place in question doesn't look like an ivy Fancied fantasy of a Shire campus university, but like a learning factory. A terrace-like residential complex made of concrete, like the hill house by Walter Ebert in Munich-Bogenhausen, which at first glance looks uncomfortable, says: Many people live here who want a balcony and an apartment that is as sensible as possible in a small space, and if you have many If this wish is fulfilled, then in a favorable case this is what you get.

Or a particularly blatant example, Gerd Hänska's building for the “Central Animal Laboratories” of the Free University of Berlin. It has been called the "mouse bunker" since it was completed in the early 1970s. Sloping walls with tiny windows and dozens of ventilation pipes protruding far from the facade, an absolutely strange sight, and that's what it's all about: What happens in this building belongs to the society and the world in which we live, but it breaks the boundaries of what we imagine in everyday life. In other words, with its rugged strangeness, the building addresses a contradiction that every society has to endure. "The best Brutalist architecture transforms necessity into something sublime," says the architectural historian Barnabas Calder. During Sunday walks along the canal in the late seventies, the mouse bunker terrified me and my sister, its image stayed in my head longer than anything else we saw on these walks.

Sunday walks are an important keyword: the reassessment of brutalism has a strong nostalgic component. The British architecture critics who started the revival often report in their books and articles about how the brutalist buildings in Birmingham, Gateshead or London were the background for their childhood, their first love, their departure into studies, for music videos, record covers or Films that they longingly remember. The art historian Berkemann speaks of the "concrete generation". The internet architecture magazine that she co-edited modern REGIONAL gets a lot of feedback on topics close to brutalism such as exposed aggregate concrete: "exposed aggregate concrete is an incredible bearer of identity," she says. "When I think of exposed aggregate concrete, I immediately think of the floor slabs on my parents' terrace. The material has literally impressed itself on me, it is part of my identity."

From Berkemann's point of view, there is another reason why the generation around forty suddenly thinks concrete from back then is beautiful: “When they were at the age at which they began to perceive architecture, the first reassessment of concrete architecture began, in a sense their decline. The energy crisis, the environmental movement: Suddenly the concrete architecture, which in the sixties had stood for new beginnings, the future and so on, stood for enmity and environmental destruction. So we grew up knowing that concrete is bad. ”On the walls in the early eighties it was said,“ It's a shame that concrete doesn't burn, ”basically the continuation of an old slogan:“ Concrete spoils character, ”was still used in the 1950s in books about building materials.

And so the generation that grew up with concrete is now violating a taboo of their childhood - by praising the beauty of concrete and celebrating the building sins of that time as outstanding and courageous architecture. Brutalism love is therefore the perfect storm of the nostalgic overall weather situation that has prevailed for several years: Those who are around forty today and profess brutalism can revive their childhood and at the same time delimit themselves, make themselves interesting because they are still Most people live by the old consensus that concrete and its brutal structures are terrible and depressing.

Oliver Elser from the German Architecture Museum is working together with the Wüstenrot Foundation on a major brutalism exhibition that will open in autumn. Its motto is »SOS Brutalism«, which the museum and the architecture magazine go along with uncube have been maintaining a website since last year and have launched a hashtag of the same name under which one can point out threatened brutalist buildings. Elser sees a very practical reason for the current interest in brutalism: "After forty or fifty years, these buildings have often reached a state where the question arises, demolish or renovate?" Many brutalist buildings have been poorly maintained over the years because they became unpopular so quickly.

In Berlin-Spandau, the post office on Ruhlebener Strasse is to be demolished after many years, and the tenor of the reporting is: "Vague hope that the eyesore will be torn down" (Daily mirror). When the AfE tower, the eye-catching concrete skyscraper of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, was blown up in February 2014, the joy about the live broadcast was far greater than the worry about the destruction of a brutalist monument. Or the post office in City Nord in Hamburg: an almost pyramid-like office building, the shape of which is reminiscent of the huge buildings of the Tyrell Corporation in the science fiction film Blade runner reminiscent, composed of prefabricated concrete parts, now painted in a strange light yellow. For years the whole complex was seen as a failed office world, and anyone who had to work in City Nord was pityed rather than congratulated in Hamburg. Now that the building is empty and waiting to be demolished, one can ask oneself: why? The intricate pyramid shape means that the building looks different from every angle, it is a tower that has many different faces, oblique and strange. Above all, however, it is clearly an office building, a place to work, it is inconceivable that something so modern and possibly as devastating for our souls as the mixing of work and private life could take place here. The building looks as if you could have left work here on Friday afternoons.

According to the art historian Karin Berkemann, this attitude, cast in concrete, is the reason why the next generation around twenty, who are not suspicious of nostalgia, is enthusiastic about brutalism: »I hear more and more often from students that they Tired of high gloss, those polished facades that have no flaws. «This style would be equated with a working world in which you have to function much more than in the past, build a facade and avoid contradictions and derailments. "Hence this longing for these bricks, these austere, uncompromising buildings that seem so mismatched." Of course, it's brutal when a building says from the outside: Well, this is all about work. But isn't it also honest?

Photos: Denis Barthel