Brutalism’s uncanny existence

Ruined modern spaces interrupt the flow of capitalism’s escalated sense of the present tense by creating somewhere a little more desolate, existing outside of one’s everyday city experience. As author and philosophy researcher Dylan Trigg writes, these spaces are haunting in that they insist upon the integration of the past into the present by troubling the citizen with an uncanny effect, evoking a primal sense of “return” to an earlier period. At such “explicitly uncanny” borders “located in the discrepancy between place and time”, there occurs “a creation of a new place from the ruins of the old”.[2] The current city site becomes a temporal hinterland haunted by relics of a previous era as the hybrid of the old and the new combine and change regularly.

While visiting some European cities, one can see that this is exactly what has happened with the architectural style of Brutalism. These buildings suffered the same fate as the Victorian architecture they were built to replace. Standing now as the ghosts of a vanished and failed Modernism, they haunt the city with a memory that many would like to forget, a totalitarian, regimented and collectivist memory, these structures stand on the edge of ruination, in an eerie solitude.haworth-tompkins-robin-hood-gardens-brutalist-estate-london-uk_dezeen_1568_2-1024x731

By the early nineteen-seventies, significant swathes of cities were transformed into either a futuristic Metropolis (according to the architectural elite) or an oppressive, alienating Ballardian dystopia, (according to almost everybody else). As structures, these complexes did not look remotely like any domestic buildings that had come before, even compared to the Bauhaus’s Modernist designs. Brutalists took the Modernist ideal of merging the aesthetics of the industrial and domestic worlds to a new level. There is no single characteristic that one can use to define the style but in general, they shared a bold, sculptural, concrete materiality and a left-leaning Utopian intent in their spatial organisation. Each unique building dominated the landscape they occupied.

Brutalist architects were heavily influenced by Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, a vast concrete housing complex, linked by elevated walkways (or “streets in the sky”), in which shops, leisure facilities, and flats were all contained on-site and within easy access of one another. Completed in 1952 in Marseille, the building took Le Corbusier’s most famous quote – that a house is “a machine for living in” – and applied it to an entire community. The result was a self-contained concrete vessel that is structured like an ocean liner.[3]

This was how the brutalists saw the future, with the city comprised of a continuous series of these sites which looked as if they had been beamed in from an alien planet, positioned on semi-rural urban edge lands or amid urban centres. In the pursuit of an “honesty” about a machine-dependent society they consequentially presented their buildings as almost pathologically repetitive, standardized and automated in their appearance.c7db7195609c74b919e43de37b56b66d

Ideas of symmetry and duplication were now taken to bold new extremes, raw, reinforced concrete, without render, without façade, allowed to stay rough.  “A material both futuristic and primal”[4]. So, if one wishes to know why these buildings seem quite so relentlessly and purposefully ugly, it is because they were meant to be. Brutalists wished to keep architecture functional, striking and honest about both its intent for the public and the nature of the world in which it resided.

Many estates eventually fell into a state of crime-ridden disrepair with underfunding and a poor public unhomely image. Architects and planners moved away from the idea of a uniformed urban grid, and gradually began to drift back towards the disingenuous, labyrinthine and disorientating juxtaposition of myriad styles and vernaculars that the Modernists had once sought to replace.

The Robin Hood Gardens housing complex in London, 1972 was designed by Peter and Alison Smithson and is currently in the demolition stage. A fragment salvaged from the site by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London is to be transported to Italy and displayed at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale titled, Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse.[5]The transformation of a once familiar homely space into something repressed and unhomely accentuates an unnerving truth the metropolis: that all structural “connectedness” is merely an illusion. All built structures, at their heart, will engage with an empty void despite an overwhelming desire for proximity and connection, humans remain fundamentally and irretrievably isolated.

This modern unhomely or unheimlich in the Freudian sense is described as such in his essay, The Uncanny:

It seems obvious that something should be frightening precisely because it is unknown and unfamiliar. But of course, the converse is not true: not everything new and unfamiliar is frightening. All one can say is that what is novel may well prove frightening and uncanny; some things that are novel are indeed frightening, but by no means at all. Something must be added to the novel and the unfamiliar if it is to become uncanny.[6]

These gigantic forms often featured continuous block-like and sometimes disorienting geometrical patterns and elevated walkways with the functional frameworks of the buildings, such as elevator shafts, left exposed as though they were simply mechanical components of the structure shown bare.

In his text, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopia, which formed originally from a lecture he gave in 1967, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) argues that “structuralism does not entail denial of time; it does involve a certain manner of dealing with what we call time and what we call history”[7]  Brutalist architecture then seemed to exist within two worlds simultaneously which  can be described as a Heterotopia, a concept elaborated on by the philosopher.   On the one hand the bold, utopic ideas within the minds of the architects, and on the other the often bleak, post-war reality of the world. There was a large jump between an imagined utopia and the subsequent failure of its realisation. The ruins of brutalism reveal that hidden memory of a utopian modernism which was at one time familiar to the city, creating an uncanny effect.  Freud’s findings tell us that “Heimlich thus becomes increasingly ambivalent until it finally merges with its antonym unheimlich. The uncanny (das Unheimliche ‘the unhomely’) is in some way a species of the familiar (das Heimliche, ‘the homely’).”[8]p0182g89

While most members of the public are vaguely aware that such buildings were once intended as a force of good and intended to house displaced people in post-war times, these ideas now seem very distant. The architectures of the brutalist style were too unhomely for the population at the time. As Modernism fades from our favor, the effect is uncanny, projects that were once considered exciting, shiny and utopian are now decaying, graffiti-covered backdrops in Netflix shows or music videos. Freud’s term “uncanny (unheimlich) applies to everything that was intended to remain secret, hidden away, and has come to the open”[9]

I have found the uncanny to arise most frequently in areas of cities which have remained hidden, denied or left to abandonment and decay. In Berlin for example, on a visit to the few remains of the Berlin wall, one experiences the feeling of uncanniness realising how quickly society moves on from major political events.

These ruins exist barely below the surface of the contemporary city’s life. A common example are the brutalist water towers of Europe (fig.6) placed starkly on the horizon of the city’s most liminal spaces which I am currently photographing in Polaroid format for my studio research. The ability to produce an instant small, physical, framed memento during the on-site experience of an uncanny urban moment feels almost magical in this increasingly digital age of screens. The unabashed truth and representation of dreams of concrete utopia are what attracts some artists to the image of this fading form of architecture as a contrast to what can feel like an increasingly less physical and less truthful experience with the world.

[2] TRIGG, Dylan. The Aesthetics of Decay: nothingness, nostalgia and the absence of reason, New York: Peter Lang, 2006, p.123[3] FREARSON, Amy, Brutalist buildings: Unité d’Habitation, Marseille by Le Corbusier, 2014,, accessed 22/8/18[4] HATHERLY, Owen, Militant Modernism. UK: Zero Books, 2008, p.29[5]MAIRS, Jessica, V&A to recreate Robin Hood Gardens’ streets in the sky at Venice Architecture, accessed 19/07/18[6] FREUD, Sigmund, The Uncanny, translated by David McLintock, London: Penguin Classics, 2003, p.124[7] FOUCAULT, Michel, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias, Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité Journal, October 1984 p.1[8] FREUD, Sigmund, The Uncanny, translated by David McLintock, London: Penguin Classics, 2003, p.134[9] [9] FREUD, Sigmund, The Uncanny, translated by David McLintock, London: Penguin Classics, 2003, p.132

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