Ugly is the new pretty. On Instagram, niche accounts have popped up documenting photographs of mattresses abandoned in suburban streets and questioning the beauty of Australian architecture. Given this aesthetic shift, it is unsurprising our relationship with Brutalism, one of the “ugliest” styles of 20th-century architecture, is also being reassessed.
Controversial Brutalist buildings, such as The Sirius apartment block at The Rocks (built in 1975–1980) and the UTS Tower at Broadway (1979–1982), are attracting new admirers.
It’s a theme of this weekend’s Sydney Architecture Festival; there are two tours and a talk on its program. One of the tours will act as a launch for a map of Sydney’s Brutalist buildings, released in April by London city map publisher, Blue Crow Media.
Brutalism is the ugly duckling of modern architecture. Its older cousin, Modernist architecture, is far more popular with tastemakers and influencers. At Sydney urban-renewal sites such as Green Square, the thousands of new apartments going up are examples of diluted Modernist architecture.
The term Brutalism has its origin in the French béton brut, meaning roughcast concrete. Post-war governments under pressure to replace infrastructure and build housing for booming populations turned to pre-fabricated concrete because it was inexpensive to produce and easy to erect. Worldwide, the material was used in the construction of public housing, town halls, schools, universities, community centres and other civic buildings. Brutalism is a truly global architectural style and there are examples of it in cities on every continent.
In the popular imagination, Brutalism is defined by the blunt, brute force of its unadorned and uncompromising forms. It is often associated with Soviet Bloc-style housing or the towers of British council estates. One suggested rationale for the deadly cladding on Grenfell Tower in London was that local authorities wanted to cover up its Brutalist exterior because it was considered out of place in an affluent area.
The prototype for Brutalism is the Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s Unités d’habitations. These self-sufficient housing complexes, built in cities such as Marseilles and Berlin in the 1940s and 1950s, are now recognised by UNESCO as sites of outstanding cultural heritage. They attract pilgrims from around the globe, and are considered icons of world architecture.
As a 20th-century architectural style, Brutalism captured the aspirations of postcolonial and post-war welfare states and their desire to build strong collective civic cultures and public sectors. For this reason, architecture critic Owen Hatherley has suggested the social and political objectives of Brutalist architecture are out of step with the contemporary city. Hatherley argues the dislike of Brutalism is not based purely on taste. It is undervalued, and even despised, by urban planners and developers because it is not a product of neo-liberal thinking.
For every vocal critic of Brutalism, there is an equally vocal defender. Instagram accounts such as @new_brutalism and @sosbrutalism have tens of thousands of followers. They showcase the strange beauty, as well as the craft and technique in Brutalist buildings. Many of Sydney’s finest Brutalist buildings challenge the common perception of Brutalism as monolithic and austere. For example, Town Hall House (1975), home of the City of Sydney Council offices, integrates walkways, public spaces and greenery into its design. Other buildings use board-formed, rope and bush-hammered finishes to add texture and detail to concrete interiors and exteriors.
Whether antipathy to Brutalism is based on aesthetics or on politics, Brutalist buildings are an easy target for urban redevelopment plans. The NSW State Government’s refusal to protect buildings such as Sirius for their architectural and cultural heritage leaves them vulnerable to demolition, or at the very least, to unsympathetic remodelling, such as cladding them.
Local architect and expert on Sydney Brutalism Glenn Harper views his research as advocacy for the style. Harper has identified more than 30 noteworthy Brutalist structures and buildings in the Sydney region that are “critically endangered”. At least nine of these buildings are on Sydney University’s Camperdown-Darlington campus. These include International House (1967) –designed by Walter Bunning, who also designed the National Library of Australia in Canberra – and the award-winning Wentworth Building (1972), which, like Town Hall House, is the work of renowned architects Ancher Mortlock and Woolley. As Harper says, “Given the demolition of so many Brutalist buildings across Sydney, their assessment and recognition requires our immediate attention.”
Harper was consultant on the recent map of Brutalist Sydney, mentioned above. Some of the buildings on the map have already disappeared. Others, such as the Sydney University Law School in Phillip Street, are in the process of being demolished. There is an urgency to the current interest and appreciation of Brutalism – as highlighted in the current threat to the iconic Sirius apartment block. The race to save Sirius is not just about the destruction of urban cultural heritage. It’s also about the rapid disappearance of Sydney’s Brutalist landmarks.
Kristen Seale is a postdoctoral fellow at UNSW Art & Design and is the author of Markets, Places, Cities (Routledge, 2016). .
Sydney Architecture Festival runs from September 29 to October 2.