Earlier this year, Balkrishna V Doshi made history by becoming the first Indian to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the Nobel equivalent for the field. Although he is known for his housing projects, influences from mentor Le Corbusier manifest in works like the Tagore Memorial Theatre in Ahmedabad — the stark lines, raw concrete and monolithic feel stemming from the Brutalist school of thought.
This style of architecture from across the world is documented in the Atlas of Brutalist Architecture, the latest publication from London-based Phaidon. Even in its heyday (1950s to 1970s), Brutalism was never considered something to aspire to. Virginia McLeod, commissioning editor, says, “We wanted to put together a comprehensive volume that captured both the traditional canon of Brutalist architecture, but also widened it out to include the many hundreds of buildings that people today consider to be Brutalist.” To meet this brief, she spent two years compiling the material for the book (see box), and there are 23 buildings from India.
This project was sparked by the revival of interest in the style, at least for preservation, if not in new architectural projects. Books like This Brutal House by Peter Chadwick (2016) compiled photographs of existing buildings, while the German online movement #SOSBrutalism organises preservation efforts and maintains a global archive. The fact that India still has so many surviving structures, most of them still in use, was certainly a revelation, says McLeod. “Brutalism was adopted as a symbol of a country newly liberated from British colonial rule and the bloody aftermath of the Partition. Le Corbusier’s work subsequently influenced a generation of local architects, including Shivnath Prasad, Raj Rewal and Kuldip Singh.”
While India has some fine examples of the style (we have the seventh largest number of buildings represented in the book) — including Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List — Mumbai-based architect Ashiesh Shah feels that there is little hope that they will be considered monuments. “We are not a country that celebrates concrete. Stone and wood buildings are more relatable as heritage,” he says. Architect and photographer Bharath Ramamrutham agrees, saying, “We like to embellish and decorate; native architects were still trying to figure out what our young country’s signature style would be, when Corbusier entered the picture. And things went in a completely different direction.” As architect Dean D’Cruz describes it, “Usually this sort of architecture is quite self-centered, responding poorly to climatic conditions as well as the use of local materials and craftsmanship.”
Spot the Brutalist building
- Concrete, unpainted and raw. This is not the only building material in the book, but it is very much the dominant one
- Look out for graphic repetition and bold, geometric qualities – Brutalist buildings often have an arresting visual power that you just cannot miss
- Thirdly (and this is harder to spot just from the exterior), look out for buildings — mostly government and public-oriented ones — that were intended to change the world for the better. The architects of Brutalist buildings very often had social ambitions that were intended to improve people’s living and working conditions
While dozens of contemporary architects may be championing the style internationally, both men do not see it happening here. Ramamrutham says there are other practical issues as well. “Concrete has a lifespan of about 60 to 70 years, after which it starts crumbling. This makes preservation quite an expensive challenge,” he explains. Shah’s solution? “The best way forward is to maintain them well — keep strengthening the concrete, restore the damage periodically.” And if those blank grey walls seem like the perfect spot to channel your inner Banksy, he asks you to refrain. “It’s vandalism!”
McLeod seems to agree. “Nothing noteworthy has replaced the style in India. I hope that the powers that be look after its extraordinary Brutalist architectural heritage because it has some of the best examples of the style anywhere in the world, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
On the book
The book — featuring 850 buildings and more than 1,000 images — was a mammoth undertaking. McLeod, an architect by training and a self-confessed fan of the style, says it her took about two years to research and finalise the list. “I delved into archives in the ex-Soviet bloc, tracked down elusive photographers in Africa and the Middle East, explored the dusty corners of architectural libraries and the faded pages of long out of print journals,” she recalls.
The pictures are all in black and white — from the 1923 hat factory in Germany to the 2017 De Krook public library in Belgium — and each is accompanied by a short history, as well as an indication of its present condition. While it is oft cited that Brutalism went out of style sometime in the 1980s, McLeod says, “Perhaps controversially, we are claiming that the style never tapered off, that it’s alive and well in the 21st century. Brutalism has never been so fashionable, but it transcends trendiness. So while its fetishisation may wane, its real power and presence will always attest to its importance.”
Architectural photographer Bharath Ramamrutham credits the “strong, identifiable geometries” of Brutalist architecture for making them so visually arresting. No surprise then that #brutalist has over 2,30,000 posts on Instagram. Despite this, one of the difficulties McLeod faced was finding publishable images. “In some cases, no photographs of now non-existent buildings survive, and the only contemporary photography is too poor quality to publish.” She sets a friendly challenge to professional architectural photographers: “Take great photographs of Brutalist architecture whenever and wherever you find it. The world wants to see them!
The Atlas of Brutalist Architecture can be pre-ordered on uk.phaidon.com at approximately ₹9,600 and will be shipped from October 17.