Prospects for a New New Brutalism

Ask today what brutalism means and many will say ‘concrete’. Or perhaps ‘raw’, maybe ‘honest’. One might cite its derivation from the French term béton brut. Intriguingly, much of this perception can be traced back to the definitive writings on the subject by architectural academic Reyner Banham. In 1955, he penned the article ‘The New Brutalism’ for the prominent British journal The Architectural Review, recognising an approach to architecture promulgated by Alison and Peter Smithson, who valued direct- ness, ordinariness and social equity. At first lauding and eventually somewhat denigrating their practice, Banham not only offered an explanation of new brutalism but he effectively constructed a pre-history for it—brutalism—both etymological and stylistic. It is one that the Smithsons consider largely fictitious.

Banham’s article offers a strange prophecy for brutalism’s ends. Curiously, it opens by questioning the role of observers in con- structing (and distorting) history. Banham identifies two forms of ‘ism’: one ‘consciously adopted by a group of artists’ themselves and one applied to practitioners by critics and historians who locate some commonality among them, perhaps irrespective of the practitioners’ own knowledge or agreement.[1] Such are the coun- terposed roles of the Smithsons and Banham himself.


[1] Reyner Banham, ‘The New Brutalism’, The Architectural Review, vol. 118, December 1955, p. 356.


Image: Nigel Henderson, Photograph showing staircases at Hunstanton Secondary Modern School, [c.1953], Black and white negative, 55 x 55cm © Tate, London 2019


This is a preview of 'Prospects for a New New Brutalism'. The full article can be found in Art + Australia Issue Five.


Dr Beth George is an educator and practitioner in architecture, with a research focus on urbanism, design and drawing. She taught at the University of Western Australia and Curtin University for 15 years, and is now a senior lecturer in the University of Newcastle’s School of Architecture and Built Environment.