Culture  Rethinking raw concrete

Exploring the ideals behind brutalist architecture

Architecture buffs, and probably some of the rest of us too, will get pleasant feelings upon hearing the name Le Corbusier. There is something vaguely noble about that name, something refined that doesn’t only have to do with the beauty of a French name. The architect is well-known for his great contributions to 20th-century architecture – and his sleek and harmonious buildings may not be the first things that come to mind when you look at McGill’s Leacock or MacLennan buildings. Yet Le Corbusier is a pioneer of brutalism, the style in which those buildings, as well as Burnside Hall (also known as “the cheese grater”), are made.

The huge concrete constructions are characterized by uncompromising geometrical regularities, as can be seen in the structure of the windows in Leacock. The technical functions of the building are usually made visible to passersby – nothing is hidden or covered, which has prompted its supporters to call brutalism a very honest style. And although it may not seem so if you have ever scraped your skin against the ridged texture of Leacock’s walls, the name of the style has nothing to do with brutality. Rather, it comes from Le Corbusier’s usage of raw concrete in his later works – in French, béton brut.

You might not be a fan of Leacock’s starkness, but many are. “Architects love brutalism,” says McGill architecture professor Annmarie Adams. “The ideology behind it is closely linked to the free speech movement, so I see it as a great architecture of activism and frankness and expression of free will – all the really good things about the sixties.”

Brutalism’s heyday was in the middle of the last century, at a time when North American universities expanded to make room for the baby boomers of the forties; many new buildings were built in the concrete blocks of brutalism and stood as a backdrop to the student protests of 1968.

The style matched the political sentiments of the time – Adams calls it a kind of architectural protest, breaking with the international style that was so popular earlier. It prescribed the same solution no matter the location, whereas brutalism, she says, is all about the individual, the user, and the actual, individual experience of the building.

“The idea was that [the buildings] would fit into their context. It’s a very humanistic part of brutalism,” she explains, and points at how Leacock matches perfectly with the Redpath Museum. One example is how the roofs of both buildings are made of copper, so that they, in a way, blend in to each other. And it’s true – it’s hard to imagine Leacock not being there. It sits very naturally in its surroundings.

While Le Corbusier was the one who gave name to the style, one of the biggest names in brutalism is Paul Rudolph, who designed the Yale School of Art and Architecture, recently renamed Paul Rudolph Hall. The building was highly controversial from the start. People either loved it or hated it, and when it was partly destroyed by a fire in 1969, some blamed the Fine Arts students, many of whom weren’t exactly fans of the building.

McGill’s brutalist constructions may not have been subjected to fire-raising, but not everyone shares Professor Adam’s love for the style. It is not an aesthetic that welcomes you in a warm embrace – concrete is a stern material, and it is easy to feel alienated and insignificant when it towers over you like Burnside or Leacock do. Sometimes it seems like the only reason that Leacock sits so comfortably in its location is that the colossal building dominates its space.

Housing projects, such as London’s Robin Hood Gardens, that were built in a brutalist vein have become sites of criminality and social misery, developments attributed in part to the unfriendly and estranging character of the houses. Adams, however, says that brutalism was not meant to be applied to housing. “It was just really about these big megastructures that connected nodes in cities. The buildings speak out and ask to be noticed, and provoke people like a student with a megaphone. That’s the way I think about Leacock.”

Brutalist buildings are not meant to be soft-spoken or compliant. They stand unabashed in their raw glory, and appear to leave few unaffected. They might make not make you feel especially at home, but perhaps university shouldn’t make you feel too comfortable and at ease. Isn’t it supposed to move you, inspire you, prompt you to think? If a building can create that feeling in its users, then it seems apt for a school campus.