Form Follows Function
Written By Eddy Rhead - Co-founder the Modernist Society
Forget everything you thought you knew about Brutalism!
Unless, of course, you do know something about Brutalism and therefore forgive my patronising tone and carry on with your excellent life.
I’m here to perhaps bust a few myths about Brutalism and attempt to draw a seemingly unlikely parallel between this often-misunderstood architectural style and quality sportswear. I know it seems implausible but stick with me here guys.
As with many-isms there is no one single origin story. It is more of an amalgamation of different timelines and influences coming together into something that initially didn’t have a name, or even thought it needed one. But once it gained popularity and recognition it became a worldwide, and for a brief period, seemingly unstoppable phenomenon.
Brutalism was an unruly and slightly subversive offspring of Modernism and, as with most things related to Modernist architecture, you have to look back at both the ‘founding fathers’ at the Bauhaus and the omni present influence of Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Acres of print have been written about both and this humble blog post will not attempt to cram a potted history of Modernism in to it. To put it in the proverbial nutshell however - the Bauhaus was an architectural school in Germany that not only put forward new and radical ideas about architecture, design and art but also attempted to blur the lines between those disciplines and draw on influences from industry, technology, and engineering. The latest technologies were brought to bear on architecture and design and as such new building forms and production techniques allowed architects and designers to completely rewrite the rules on what was and wasn’t possible in those fields.
Le Corbusier, likewise, attempted to redefine not only the architecture of individual buildings but he wanted to radically change how we live our lives and reimagine the homes and cities we live in. The Masters of Bauhaus and Le Corbusier were destined to exert a huge influence on a whole generation of young, idealist, British architects who, in the 1950's and 1960's were tasked with rebuilding the war-torn towns and cities of the UK and to build the infrastructure of the new Welfare State.
Amongst these new generation of architects were a husband-and-wife team - Alison and Peter Smithson - and it is they who are often seen as the originals of the style that was to become know as Brutalism.
In the summer of 1950, a group of British architects travelled to Sweden on a research trip. One of the buildings they saw was a new modern brick house by Hans Asplund called Villa Goth. Asplund had described the style of this house as ‘Nybrutalism’ which translated into English as New Brutalism. Debate still continues of the origin of this term but Le Corbusier, writing in 1923 in his seminal book Toward An Architecture is quoted as saying “L’Architecture, c’est, avec des matières bruts, ètablir des rapports émouvants’rnouvants.”
“Architecture is, with raw materials, to establish moving relationships with new ones”
The key word in the quote is ‘brut’ - to mean ‘raw’.
Le Corbusier and other Modernists beloved that good architecture should be true to the raw material and that the building materials and techniques that compose the structure should be celebrated in the architecture and not covered by elaborate and unnecessary decorative features. This was at the core of the Modernist movement - which was in part a reaction to the highly elaborate and decorative Neo Gothic style of the previous century. The Modernists were more interested in the starkly functional nature of industrial buildings than they were in grand civic buildings or cathedrals. Modernists liked the simple and minimal nature of industrial architecture and infrastructure and that always ‘Form Follows Function’. The Modernists, and subsequently the New Brutalists, believed that, where possible, the building material should be expressed and even celebrated, ideally in its rawest state.
In the immediate post war era, when steel, wood and other ‘traditional’ building materials were still in short supply one of the cheapest and most accessible building materials was concrete. Le Corbusier had been using raw concrete in some of his projects in mainland Europe during the 1950’s and the term ‘Breton brut’ (raw concrete) along with Asplund’s coining of the phrase in Sweden gave the radical clique of architects in the UK a name for themselves and the work they were doing - The New Brutalism.
So hereby let us shatter one preconception about Brutalism - it doesn’t refer to the adjective ‘brutal’ to mean savage and cruel but does in in fact refer to the French for ‘raw concrete’. There was even a case made by a group of architects in the late 1960’s to rename the movement to something more heroic and romantic and less ……well…. erm…… brutal.
At the time however, in the mid 1950’s, the group of New Brutalists had no qualms about their new name and when the noted architectural critic Reyner Banham wrote an article in 1955 on the emerging style the name became embedded in the language of architectural circles if not in the minds of the general public.
With all this talk of concrete it is somewhat ironic that the first substantial building build by the New Brutalists was mainly glass and steel. Alison Smithson had used the term Brutalist to describe a small house she had designed in 1953 but it wasn’t until she and her husband Peter designed and built Hunstanton School in 1954 that their own reputation was sealed and Brutalism announced itself to the wider world. Alison was only 21 and Peter 26 when they won a competition to build a secondary school in a small town on the Norfolk coast. They were truly the Enfant terribles of the architecture world but the school they designed was to reshape the course of British and global architecture. Built using a steel frame, with large expansive windows it heralded a new, brighter design for schools and ,in line with the New Brutalists credo that you should be true to the materials, steel roof panels and plumbing work were left exposed. With its revolutionary architecture the Smithsons' were not only trying to change the field of architecture but they were also trying to change society and that buildings in which we work and live, and our hospitals and schools needed to be, and could be, very different from what had gone before.
Where The Smithsons' led many others followed and in subsequent articles we shall look at a couple of architects who came in the wake of the New Brutalists and took the movement in different directions but also helped to make Brutalism a global force.
So, after all this, what has this got to do with quality sportswear and why are you (hopefully) reading an article about Brutalism on the blog of sportswear brand? Well, because to understand Modernist architecture, and by association Brutalist architecture, one has to appreciate the beauty of simplicity and that attention to detail can elevate almost all things that had some sort of design and manufacturing process involved. There are, of course, bad Modernist and Brutalist buildings but to dismiss all buildings built under these banners singles you out as ignorant and lazy of thought.
The fact you are visiting this blog suggests that you are a fan of quality clothing and therefore appreciate good materials and attention to detail. The same goes with good architecture. The best architecture is that which uses quality materials in an interesting and meaningful way but doesn’t use fancy and over complicated decoration to divert the viewers attention away from the fact the building in itself is pretty mediocre. With clothing the most enduring pieces over the years are often the simplest and least flamboyant. Think of a simple canvas pump or a Harrington jacket. A plain t-shirt and the humble sweatshirt. These simple pieces endure for a reason. The same with good quality architecture. Styles come and go and as I have admitted there is a lot of bad architecture but when Brutalism is good then it is awe inspiring and soul enriching. I should also try to reinforce my seemingly tenuous link between Brutalism and what Admiral Sporting Goods are trying to do by, quite literally, focusing on the details. The Modernist movement has been guided by several notable axioms. “Form Follows Function” was an early rallying cry and informed much of what the Modernists were trying to achieve but it is to Ludwig Mies van de Rohe, one of the founding directors of The Bauhaus and considered by many to be greatest of all the Modernist architects, who we look to for two of the most important principles that should (if you are fully signed up member fo the the Modernist club that is) dictate what we look for in our buildings and, indeed, in our clothing. Mies said ‘Less is More’ and ‘God Is In The Details’.
With Less is More he is explicitly saying that if you have to strip away the superfluous decoration and paraphernalia that can go with building and only then can you achieve the true expression of what architecture should mean. The same can be applied to almost any aspect of our lives - in my humble opinion. With “God Is In The Detail’ he is telling us to not be seduced by the big picture, we need to look much, much closer at the details of how a building is put together for us to really understand it and appreciate it. In a buildings case this could be a well-executed stair hand rail or a door fixture. It could be a finely finished material or the point where two elements meet. This is where the magic happens. Likewise, you dear reader, will, I’m sure, appreciate a well stitched garment or one that washes and ages well. The most enduring garments are those where the details have clearly been thought about. Maybe not on first wearing but maybe further down the line, when you notice a sweatshirt is still fitting as well or better 6 months on from first wearing it.
These sort of details, in the age of fast fashion, may not be important to everyone but to the true connoisseur these things matter.
So with this in mind, if previously you weren’t knowingly a fan of Modernist and Brutalist architecture I ask you to seek out the details on some the better examples. Look beyond their sometimes lumpen mass and try and appreciate the simplicity and elegance of the forms and look a bit closer at the finishes because it is here, in the detail, that the real good stuff is.