Eco Brutalism

What is Eco Brutalism, and is it Eco-Friendly?

Eco-brutalism is an architectural term that describes opposing concepts related to brutal human forms in buildings and the beauty of nature. Eco-brutalist buildings can also introduce eco-friendly approaches to construction. For many reasons, the opinions of experts and users differ on whether eco-brutalism truly addresses pressing ecological needs or is just another greenwashing tactic. Let us take a look at the whole movement and the conflicting opinions surrounding it.

The Foundations of Brutalist Architecture

Unite d’Habitation apartment building
Unite d’Habitation apartment building. Photo Credit: Andy Wright via flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

Brutalist buildings are fortress-like constructions. They are massive, imposing, and functional, lacking polish and delicate elegance. Reinforced concrete and metal are the materials of choice for brutalists, and their works feature exposed concrete exteriors. The brutalism in the term comes from the French word, ‘Béton brut,’ which means raw concrete.

Architects like Le Corbusier, a french modernist architect, sewed the sees of the brutalist style. He designed the Unite d’Habitation apartment building, which laid the foundation for the brutalist architectural style in urban development. The residential apartment, completed in 1952, used exposed concrete textured wooden panels. He, however, did not use the term ‘brutalism’ to describe his architectural style.

The Villa Goth brick house, with its exposed beams and concrete, may have inspired the coinage of the term new brutalism. 

The new brutalism concept

Pirelli tire building, Connecticut, US
Pirelli tire building, Connecticut, US, (now a hotel). Photo by Pat Krupa on Unsplash

New brutalism was used by British architects, most notably Peter and Alison Smithson, to describe their art. The couple pioneered the British brutalist movement drawing on modernism for inspiration during the 1950s after the Second World War. Some of Smithson's notable projects include the Economist building, later, the City of Westminster’s Smithson plaza, and the Hunstanton secondary modern school.

In North America, brutalist architecture was popular from 1962 to 1976. Paul Rudolph, Ralph Ranson, Walter Netsch, and Evans Woollen III were some of America’s notable brutalist architects. The brutalist architectural style was also common in the former Soviet Union; it fit the collective ideals of communist nations. They had buildings with strange shapes like robots and UFOs.

The brutalism architectural style became a popular choice for university buildings2, low-cost housing, churches, schools, and other institutional buildings. It managed to take hold so strongly because its construction was cheap and fast; in that period, urban rebuilding was urgent. More importantly, its socially democratic/divergent aura was comforting and empowering in the wake of World War II. Beyond institutional structures, private firms also used the architectural style.

Fading interest in the brutalist style

By the mid-70s, brutalist buildings had lost their appeal to emerging homeowners. Associated with urban squalor and decadence, many of the buildings were demolished. Films like A Clockwork Orange formed and established a brutal world image for new brutalism. 

But considering the amount of money and material spent on a brutalist building and its relative durability and history, more than a few brutalist structures stayed untouched as an ode to a past era. 

Some new brutalist architectural ideas were executed in this period as well. However, we observe a softer and greener appearance in later reiterations and renovations of brutalist buildings. The Pyramide apartment in Germany, designed by architect Karl Helmut Bayer, is a great example.

What is eco-brutalism?

Eco Brutalism at Barbican

Brutalist architecture has seen renewed interest, and one of those reasons is eco-brutalism. It adds yet another layer to the stark features of brutalist architecture. It takes nature in the form of greenery and integrates it with the grim and rigid appearance of a brutalist building. The result is an aesthetic juxtaposition. 

The trees and natural light add a natural element missing from earlier brutalism buildings. The building materials remain the same, with lots of concrete; as such, it's a mile apart from natural building techniques. The style of modern architecture is popular in Brazil, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Costa Rica. Eco-brutalism seems to say that there will always be a place for nature regardless of human technological advancements.

Notable eco-brutalism architecture includes the Tiing boutique resort, Bali, with its bamboo cast interior walls; the Casa Meztitlla, with its rain collecting pool and the Mamun residence that drew its style idea from the protective hat that local farmers wore.

Is eco-brutalism the answer?

Eco Brutalist House
Eco Brutalist House, KL

Eco-friendly buildings are important; they help fight climate change and help us live more sustainably. With its raw concrete, pools, and splashes of green, some say eco brutalism is the answer to the pressing ecological needs in building construction. However, there are strong contrary opinions.

Support for eco brutalism 

An improvement over basic brutalism

Undoubtedly, adding greenery, rainwater collectors, increased natural lighting, and other functional, eco-friendly features to a structure is a step in the right direction. It helps that the green aesthetic can sequester carbon, purify the air and provide microhabitats. To a great extent, eco-brutalism aligns with the collective ideals of sustainable architecture. It may even create a model for green buildings in the far future.

The durability of concrete structure

Reinforced concrete is a highly durable material. It is resistant to fire, rot, rust, abrasion, weathering, chemicals, and some instances of natural disasters. Even rats and insects can’t easily create damage to concrete. 

The chief cause of concrete degradation is when the metal begins to rust. But that is usually due to exposure, as the alkalinity of concrete ordinarily protects the metal from corrosion3. A concrete building serves users for about 30 years, although most last for 100 years or longer, even under extreme stress.

Has some eco advantages

The Global Cement and Concrete Association believes a concrete structure uses less material volume, requires little maintenance, and dampens noise. They claim that its quick building pace also reduces dust emissions, and energy use lowers CO2 emissions. All these, plus the trees and their ability to remain in use for a long time, create a sort of green quality for eco-brutalism architecture. 

Better insulation

Due to its cement component, concrete heats slowly. A concrete floor or wall absorbs heat from sunlight and releases it slowly1, so it is cool when the weather is hot and warm when things get chilly. That makes the material a cheap way to insulate a space and regulate indoor temperature. With the style of the angled windows that you'll find in some eco-brutalism architecture projects and the natural ventilation that all the greenery brings, you spend less on artificial insulation.

Functional in emergencies 

Unfortunately, wars are still fought in different parts of the world. Brutalism designers have proved that their buildings are more practical in rebuilding communities ravaged by war or natural disasters. They can be constructed quickly, even in times of scarce materials.

Criticisms of eco brutalism

Thought-provoking but not in a good way

One thing eco brutalists aren't doing very well is selling their idea in a very appealing manner. Many people find the way the green plants are incorporated into the futuristic-looking buildings to appear dystopian. It looks like what you would see in a movie where the human race is nearly or entirely extinct, and trees are claiming the environment back.

This feeling isn't doing an excellent job selling the natural harmony idea that eco-brutalists have in mind.

Pretentious aesthetic

There is so much green on eco-brutalist buildings, like green is the only color a plant could have. Some people find the absence of fruits, flowers, and differently colored plants to indicate that eco-brutalists are selective nature lovers. Or perhaps they lack accurate knowledge of flora and fauna in their environment to incorporate it fully. 

Concrete is not quite the eco-friendly material

In this age, they are so many choices of truly eco-friendly building materials to choose from, and quite frankly, concrete doesn't make the cut. To make concrete, they need to blast rocks for granite, then mine limestone before digging up loads and loads of sand. Concrete making contributes to about 4 to 8% of global carbon emissions. Let's not forget that concrete particles can cause consequential air pollution.

Increased risk of erosion and water contamination

With more hard concrete floors, the risks of flooding and eventual erosion increase. Also, exposed concrete leaches chemicals into rainwater running on it. These chemicals could easily find their way into groundwater that municipal water systems supply.

Additional concerns

To many people, it would seem that eco-brutalism tries to replace the soil with concrete. That is problematic in many ways. A plant does not grow on concrete the way it does in the soil. They fear the strength of the buildings may be compromised as the plants flourish, or the concrete would choke the plants.

Conclusion

While eco-brutalist structures do send the message that the natural world is an undeniable part of our world, Eco-brutalism has a long way to go before it becomes a truly sustainable solution to building projects that some hope it to be. 

We think brutalism architecture needs to start looking to improve its materials to truly eco-friendly options. Because a few or thousands of plants adorning a concrete project doesn't eliminate its environmental costs.

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1

K.S. Al-Jabri, A.W. Hago, A.S. Al-Nuaimi, A.H. Al-Saidy, Concrete blocks for thermal insulation in hot Climate, Cement and Concrete Research, Volume 35, Issue 8, 2005, Pages 1472-1479, ISSN 0008- 846,
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cemconres.2004.08.018

2

Campagna, B. A. (2020). Redefining Brutalism. APT Bulletin: The Journal of Preservation Technology, 51(1), 25–36. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26920641

3

Bryant Mather, Concrete durability, Cement and Concrete Composites, Volume 26, Issue 1, 2004, Pages 3-4, ISSN 0958-9465, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0958-9465(02)00122-1

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Heloísa Oss Boll on Unsplash
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