Editor’s Note: This post is the first of what will be an ongoing column exploring various architectural styles in and around Toronto. Spacing writer and heritage architecture consultant Thomas Wicks will look into the history of that style, the people behind it and where in Toronto examples can be found.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Concrete is just too damn easy to hate.
With the recent launch of Concrete Toronto, a refreshing discussion of Toronto’s concrete architecture was presented, allowing for some of our city’s most visible and often despised structures a moment of clarification, both in regard to their context and their design. Despite this effort, the reality is concrete architecture in Toronto is under-appreciated, often unloved and almost always likely to stir diverging opinions.
Brutalism, as a particularly reviled style of concrete architecture, is also probably one of the most misunderstood. The very name â€˜brutalism’ is often cited as proof that the style is, and meant to be, brutal. But wait just a minute — the name is in fact not a willfully negative descriptor of the style, rather it comes from béton brut, a French term meaning â€˜raw concrete’. It is used to describe concrete with a surface that is naturally textured, often a result of the process of forming the concrete between wood planks. Though architects began to control the finishes of the concrete by using different materials to form the work, the unaltered aesthetic principles of the material’s production remained. The versatility and economy of concrete made it cheap to build with and allowed architects more creativity in the form a building could take.
Concrete became especially popular in post-war Europe offering architects seemingly limitless possibilities of creating new designs for bombed-out cities (check out the Barbican in London as example). Concrete offered not only new design possibilities but also solutions to housing shortages with quick construction times at a low cost. In Britain architects Peter and Alison Smithson coined the term brutalism, inspired by architect Le Corbusier’s term of béton brut. Le Corbusier used it to describe his choice of concrete for such works as the Unité d’habitation (1947-1952) and the Dominican Monastery at La Tourette (1957-1960).
Via England, the style made its way to Canada and would become a popular choice for schools, universities, municipal building and even churches and concert halls throughout the 60s and 70s. Of course none of this means that the style doesn’t have a rougher side, but to describe it as brutal simply isn’t accurate. All over the world brutalist architecture can be seen from Japan to South America to Africa, Australia, Europe and Canada. It is more international than the so-called International Style (that we will explore in a later column). This partially explains why it is so derided. It’s everywhere, is cheap to build, and can be poorly finished (but even the most loved styles of architecture can be poorly executed). It is the easiest to criticize and often the hardest to love.
In Toronto we have exceptional examples of the brutalist aesthetic. In particular Robarts Library, the main University of Toronto at Scarborough building, and the addition to Central Tech are worthy of study and understanding. Approach these structures with an open mind and examine the intricacies of the composition and articulation of the form. The most difficult things in life are often the most rewarding. Brutalism can be one of them. It’s hard to get your head around, but once you’re there it may never let you go.
Photo by See You, Jimmy!