Loved by some, hated by many, no style of architecture has been more controversial than Brutalism.
You always know a brutalist building when you see one. Often characterized by angular geometric shapes made of heavy concrete, they’re not conventionally beautiful but are undeniably striking. Much maligned in recent years and frequently threatened with demolition, there’s now a newfound appreciation for a style of architecture that went out of fashion over forty years ago. As cities around the world continue to fill their urban areas with soulless glass towers, is it time to rethink our attitude to some of the most imposing yet remarkable structures ever built? From California to India via Paris, here are some of the world’s finest (and craziest) examples of a syle many love to hate.
WHERE: San Diego, California
Opened in 1970, the University of San Diego’s Geisel Library is perhaps not what first springs to mind when picturing a sun-drenched California scene. Its vast concrete arches open like a flower and are designed to look like hands holding a stack of books. The clever design has endured and has now become a recognizable part of the campus.
Bank of Georgia Headquarters
WHERE: Tbilisi, Georgia
Here’s an example of stacked architecture that resembles the game Jenga more than it does a serious financial headquarters. Completed in 1975 when Georgia was still part of the Soviet Bloc, this bizarre ode to minimalism has surprisingly stood the test of time. The interior was recently renovated and the exterior received a long-overdue facelift with a brand-new glass entrance.
Centre National de la Danse
WHERE: Paris, France
The City of Love has some of the world’s most beautiful and recognizable buildings, capturing the hearts of millions. It also has the Centre National de la Danse. Built in 1972 and located on the banks of the Canal de l’Ourcq in the northern suburb of Pantin, it was originally an administrative center before the CND established itself there in 1998. Such a monstrous mass of concrete would perhaps seem a little inappropriate along the banks of the Seine in central Paris but, hidden in the outskirts away from the tourists, it’s become an established part of the neighborhood.
WHERE: London, England
Trellick Tower in London is probably the UK’s most iconic piece of brutalist architecture, an anti-hero in a city of world-famous sights such as Big Ben, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Tower Bridge. Soaring up to a height of 321 feet, the Grade II listed concrete apartment block located in London’s Notting Hill area is visible from miles around. Its service tower is detached from the rest of the apartments, giving it a distinct look that has contributed to the ongoing affection for it from locals.
Boston City Hall
WHERE: Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Globe columnist Paul McMorrow wrote in 2013 that Boston City Hall was “an atrocious waste of space” and should be torn down. Opinion has been divided on this brutalist landmark in downtown Boston ever since its construction in 1968, its upside-down cantilevered structure an imposing figure at the heart of the city’s Government Center. Despite the ongoing criticism, Boston’s mayor announced comprehensive renovation plans in 2018 so this debate is set to continue for many years to come.
WHERE: Toronto, Canada
The second university library on this list is just as remarkable as the first one (San Diego’s Geisel Library). There are unlikely to be many buildings around the world that took their inspiration from the animal kingdom but Robarts Library at the University of Toronto is one of them. This bizarre brutalist corner of the campus rises up in the shape of a peacock (or a turkey, depending on who you talk to) with a concrete head at the front and the main building fanning out behind as its plumage.
High Court of Punjab and Haryana
WHERE: Chandigarh, India
Designed by Legendary Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, the High Court of Punjab and Haryana in the Indian city of Chandigarh is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Besides the huge multi-colored columns, the most prominent part of the building is the double roof that acts as a parasol against both the long days of relentless sun and the powerful monsoon rains during the summer. It might not be pretty but its practicality is undisputable.
The Headquarters of the Banco de Londres y América del Sur
WHERE: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Situated on a busy downtown street corner and surrounded by pretty neo-classical buildings, The Headquarters of the Banco de Londres y América del Sur has often been difficult to categorize. Its glass façade and narrow concrete columns snaking down to the ground give it a modernist look, perhaps too elegant to be considered truly brutalist. Given the proximity to its more conventionally attractive neighbors, this building will continue to stir debate about what constitutes true beauty.
WHERE: Sydney, Australia
Sydney Harbour Bridge is arguably Australia’s most iconic image—and no visit to this city would be complete without a walk across it. One caveat though is that this means passing by the Sirius building, its jarring stacked-box look rising up out of The Rocks district to ruin the view across one of the world’s most beautiful harbors. One thing is for sure—the view from inside is better than the one outside.
Tribunal de Contas
WHERE: São Paulo, Brazil
The immense Tribunal de Contas in southern Sao Paulo looks as if it might one day collapse under its own weight. Designed by the firm Afalo y Gasperini and completed in 1976, the vast square offices are supported somewhat precariously by four large concrete columns. The upside-down design does, however, allow for much more space below, which is used for extra parking (although the positives of this are debatable).
Embassy of Russia in Havana
WHERE: Havana, Cuba
Whether it was their intention or not, the Embassy of Russia in Havana looks remarkably like an evil movie villain’s lair. Completed during the final years of the Soviet Union in 1987, the Russian Embassy in the Miramar neighborhood has been compared to, among other things, a sword and a syringe. In a city known for its handsome architecture and vibrant colors, this eyesore towers ominously over everything else in the area.
WHERE: Montreal, Canada
Designed as an attempt to reimagine urban living, Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 never quite managed to inspire the rest of the world to follow in its steps. Built for Montreal’s Expo ’67, Safdie’s concept was apartments as an interconnected web of prefabricated cells but these days they stand as a quirky anachronism. Although the concrete looks tired and it never started the revolution its designer hoped for, there’s no denying the scale of his ambition and that can only be applauded.