• Rise and Flow

Let there be concrete: my love affair with brutalism

One would think of much more exciting activities for a short trip to Mannheim in the middle of the summer than to gaze at the Neckarufebauung Nord from the artificial bar-beach. However, for me, this is a sort of meditation. The reason behind it is that the NUB, as it is shortly known, is a striking example of brutalist architecture in Mannheim, which I did not expect to find in one of my first visits there, yet, it has already become a favourite spot of mine.

Neckarufebauung Nord in Mannheim, Germany

If there is any architectural style in the world that is associated most closely with the love it-or-hate it narrative, that would be brutalism. I am sure that if you think about it, you can recall at least one instance in which you were astonished by a brutalist gargantuan construction and you were wondering – do I like it or it’s just so ugly? One never knows, I don’t think there is an objective assessment as to whether this is aesthetically appealing or not. Yet, many brutalist buildings were planned as symbolic pieces or as highlights on the skyline of cities. It is precisely for this reason why I admire the brutalist style. I believe it demonstrates how one material can be yielded to the will of the human spirit in order to produce exceptional constructions which disrupt space and boldly send a certain message. Yet, this notion could be applied to any architectural style or to any construction whatsoever.

What differentiates brutalism, in my opinion, is its ideological versatility. I think it is an impressive example of an architectural style which can be found in so many countries around the world, however, constructed under such different circumstances. The Barbican in London is considered one of the most prominent examples of brutalist architecture, built after WWII, to a large extent as a symbol of prosperity, recovery and capitalist progress. It still is quite an upmarket real estate property and an established art-oriented ambience. On the other side of Europe, though, you can find my former neighbourhood in Sofia, called “Zone B-5”, which was constructed also during the 1970s as a symbolic high-density residential development with most-advanced materials to demonstrate the power and progress of the communist party in Bulgaria. There are a number of similar examples for such parallels (which apparently confirms that this won’t be my only article about brutalism).

Another point which I admire in brutalism is its strong spirit of independence. Brutalist architects strike me as braver and unapologetic, stomping with their concrete boots on the ground, saying: it’s my way and I don’t care if you like it or not. I am pretty sure that this is what Le Corbusier, a household name in architecture, thought when constructing the Unité d'habitation. It is arguable whether the Unité is brutalism or just modernism, but brutalism actually originates from modernism as a style in architecture. Still, such bold declarations could be found on almost every continent – built either as an ideologically charged symbol or simply as a praise to efficiency.

In any case, I am always astonished when I unexpectedly come across a brutalist jewel, literally in the most unusual places. Such was the case with hotel Thermal which looks as if someone dropped a giant communist Lego in the middle of beautiful Karlovy Vary in Czechia or the unexpectedly fitting town hall of Terneuzen in the Netherlands which sends a powerful message of authority in the otherwise sparsely populated Zeeuws Vlaanderen.

Hotel Thermal in Karlovy Vary, Czechia

The town hall of Terneuzen, the Netherlands

For more information about brutalism: SOS Brutalism, the Brutalism Appreciation Society, Calvert Journal

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