Donald Trump might now forever be associated with classical architecture, just not necessarily in the way he would have wanted. The image of rioters storming the Capitol building in Washington, DC, this month, snapping selfies and stealing souvenirs, will be the indelible final memory of his tempestuous presidency.
But one of his last acts in office was to issue an executive order that new federal buildings must be built in a classical style. What they should not be, it specified, is Brutalist. This is how it was defined:
“Brutalist means the style of architecture that grew out of the early 20th-century Modernist movement that is characterised by a massive and block-like appearance with a rigid geometric style and large-scale use of exposed poured concrete.”
For a big builder, Trump seems to have misunderstood the moment. Brutalism has been over as a way of building for about 40 years. No new US government buildings are in danger of being Brutalist. Perhaps he was thinking of the J Edgar Hoover Building, the FBI HQ a block away from the Trump International Hotel. The chunky concrete building has always been unpopular.
Not only is Brutalism no longer an applicable style, but hundreds of its best buildings are in danger of being lost forever through neglect, ignorance and laziness. Many have been demolished or are currently threatened. Trump’s executive order ingrains (at least temporarily) a prejudice against modern architecture’s most maligned moment, a utopian approach which aimed to reconcile the monumental with modernity.
The housing estates and libraries, town halls and theatres, parking garages and apartment blocks that were the fruits of this concrete explosion are being lost at an alarming rate, in the US and beyond.
However, in the midst of this visceral destruction and loss, Brutalism has been enjoying a revival of interest in other media. There has been a cascade of books, tea towels, bookends, mugs, maps and models made as gifts for Brutalist groupies and a stream of images on social media featuring tower blocks, bleak former Soviet hotels and striking Yugoslav war memorials, the previously unloved and often now decrepit concrete monuments of late Modernism.
The word Brutalism has recently become a catch-all for almost any Modernist architecture, at least anything in concrete, but the first houses described as Brutalist are not at all what the description has come to signify.
The Villa Göth in Uppsala, Sweden, designed by Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm in 1949, is a friendly-looking brick house with a nice, white-painted timber porch and balcony.
The Sugden House in Watford, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson five years later, is similarly unthreatening, a brick box with a pitched roof — it even has timber beams on the ceilings. I suspect most people would be hard pressed to distinguish it from the bland 1960s brick houses that litter the edges of every UK city.
It was the critic, academic and ludicrous self-promoter Reyner Banham (1922-1988) who promoted the use of the word so that Brutalism became more widely associated with the concrete blockbusters we’re familiar with.
Influenced by Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s designs and mixed with the remains of ruined German wartime bunkers, Brutalism (derived, after all from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete”) became an architecture of the public realm, buildings for the people.
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Its most enduring landmarks, such as London’s Southbank Centre — designed in the late 1960s by the architects of the Greater London Council, then the biggest practice in the world — the Barbican and New York’s Whitney Museum (designed by Marcel Breuer), were almost fortified in appearance, citadels of culture and housing resisting the city but also revelling in renewing it.
There were Brutalist theatres, churches, schools, cultural centres, town halls and, most of all, housing. All were designed to give dignity, solidity and urban presence to a newly educated, suddenly more affluent working class.
It didn’t last. As Brutalism was reaching its apogee in the late 1960s and 1970s it was already being derided as monstrously inhuman, out of scale, ugly and dangerous — though most of these issues had far more to do with maintenance and policy than any failure of design.
By the mid-1980s Brutalism was over and, although some architects have referred to it in admiring sideways glances, it has never truly returned. Yet here was Trump, in the dying embers of his presidency, trying to stop Brutalist buildings being built.
So expressive is that name, it seems, that it has become a cipher for everything a populist’s audience might not like. Brutalism is, as it has been for decades, a soft target — albeit one wrapped in reinforced concrete.