Brutal Beauty

Brutal Beauty

Brutalism is one of the most controversial styles of architecture across the globe, but it is also one of the most popular. In the past decade, there’s been a renewed interest in its stripped-back concrete style and lofty, public service ideals.

The movement emerged in Europe in the 1940s, as an expression of a new political era and the impulse to create honest, functional public buildings. Concrete is the primary material used, usually in block-like designs, and the structural workings of the building are often emphasised instead of hidden.

By the late 1960s, Brutalism had become a popular approach across Australia, especially with grand state construction projects, such as the Queensland Cultural Centre, a complex of cultural spaces in Brisbane designed by Robin Gibson. It is also notable in the expansion plans of Canberra through the National Capital Authority, which commissioned a great number of Brutalist buildings.

Australia’s Brutalist legacy is grouped in its cities around the coast, notably in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney, as well as Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane. A few examples can be found as far north as Cairns.

The style is often dismissed as ugly piles of concrete, and many brilliant Brutalist beasts have been demolished. However, recent renewed interest has led to a number gaining protected status, and notorious structures such as Sydney’s Sirius Building have been saved to brighten another day. What’s more, contemporary architects are picking up the aesthetics and ethics of Brutalism to confront a new political and environmental era.

1. High Court Building

Completed in 1980 following a 1972 design competition, Canberra’s High Court Building reaches 40-metres into the sky and is constructed from 18,400 cubic metres of concrete. It’s an example of late modern Brutalism, characterised by bold, geometric shapes and airy, light-filled spaces such as the cavernous, glass-fronted public atrium.

It was built to the design of architecture firm Edwards Madigan Torzillo and Briggs (EMTB). Most of the external and internal walls were conditioned with a technique typical of Brutalism called bush-hammering, in which the concrete is battered to flake the surface and expose the aggregate in the concrete – Brutalism had nothing to hide.

High Court Building

2. Harold Holt Memorial Swim Centre

This swimming pool is considered one of the best examples of Brutalism in Melbourne, though the irony of naming a pool after a prime minister who drowned is lost on no-one. Built in the early 1960s by Daryl Jackon and Kevin Borland, the pool is an early example of the Brutalist form for Australia and soon gained notoriety.

Its diving tower has always been as famous as the pool itself. Both are on the Victorian Heritage list, which commends the centre for its appreciation of both the aesthetic and ethical aims of Brutalism. For example, functional features such as concrete pedestrian ramps and a semi-circular staircase are emphasised visually, and there’s a clear sightline across the entire complex.

Harold Holt Memorial Swim Centre

3. Perth Concert Hall

The clean lines and concrete girth of this huge concert hall mark it out as a confident example of Brutalism. The design, by Perth firm Howlett and Bailey, was radical for the early seventies – it opened its door in 1973 – and was given a National Architecture Award for endurance in 2016.

The hall sits on a brick plinth overlooking the Swan River. Stairs span the width of the building, which hangs from itself, an ideal showcase for Brutalism’s signature poured concrete. It is also said to be one of the best spaces acoustically in the country.

Perth Concert Hall

4. Sirius Building

Sydney’s Sirius Building is one of the most contentious buildings in Australia. It was built as social housing in the late seventies, to a striking design by Tao Gofers. Its modular, geometric style references the Japanese Metabolist style. Still, the result evolved to embody the political ideals of the Brutalist movement, by offering council tenants comfortable modern accommodation with views of the water. “Brutalism never went into the design, it came out of the design,” Gofers said in 2017.

It initially housed residents left homeless by a redevelopment of Sydney’s Rocks area. Recently another wave of gentrification saw these council residents evicted and the threat of demolition. However, the new owner has promised to refurbish and preserve Sirius, even though it has been refused a place on the State Heritage Register of New South Wales.

Sirius Building

5. Total House

Love-it-or-loathe-it, Total House is a bold statement in mid-century Brutalism. Even though it’s a car park and office space, it celebrates the importance of public space in a way only socially minded architecture can.

Its huge undertaking tells of the courage of the Brutalist movement. The office building is cantilevered above the car park so that it appears to float. Between the two is a generous empty space, the sort that would never be ‘wasted’ in a city centre location today, and the concrete is unfinished, a classic trait of the style which sought to bring raw materials to the fore so they could be celebrated.

Total House

6. Campbell Park Offices

The headquarters of the Australian Defence Force is an example of classic 1970s Brutalism, demonstrating how effective the form is for large municipal buildings. All the surfaces are off-form concrete, the trademark Brutalist finish where the material is struck from its mould and left as it comes. Some have also been bush-hammered with vertical timber rods to create a random but consistent pattern.

Campbell Park Offices sit by the woodland at the base of Mount Ainslie, Canberra. It was the largest building of its type when it was built, and remains home to over 2,000 personnel.

Campbell Park Offices

7. Geelong Arts Centre

This energetic Brutalist structure, Geelong’s state-owned cultural centre, opened in 1981 after the previous building was demolished to make way for something which embodied the artistic temperament and ideals of the time. The designers worked hard to fit in a blend of performance and public spaces. The concrete and glass facade stretches around the corner plot, hugging an inner courtyard with shady overhangs and nooks to sit in.

In November 2019 the arts centre opened its $38.5m Ryrie Street Redevelopment, a major expansion of the performance spaces.

Geelong Arts Centre

8. Cameron Offices

These former government offices were designed in Brutalist Structuralist style by John Andrews and built between 1970 and 1976. They were the first major buildings to be built in the Belconnen area of Canberra, but only three of the original nine wings remain. Two are student accommodation, one government offices.

Andrews’ intention was to build a large-scale building suited to Australian conditions which could accommodate up to 4,000 public servants. Pre-cast and in-situ concrete was used for the building, and the complex Brutalist design features economical use of materials, sun-shading for the office wings, and huge, column-free spaces with spans of up to 17 metres. The columns to support these spaces are housed in the courtyards between each wing, which were themed with vegetation from different parts of Australia.

Cameron Offices

9. Concrete bus shelters, Canberra

If you’ve been to Canberra, you’ll recognise these bus shelters, a Clem Cummings design and an icon of modern Australia.

The cylindrical shelters were installed from 1974 into the early ‘90s. Over 450 remain and locals call them ‘bunkers’. The off-cast concrete is typical of Brutalism as is the simplicity and functionality of the design – public transport users could easily see an approaching bus while sheltering from the sun’s glare, and they are almost indestructible. The only design complaint has been that the windows are easily vandalised and broken, so the shelters can be cold and draughty during winter.

Concrete bus shelters, Canberra

10. National Gallery of Australia

14 years of planning and construction led up to the opening of the National Gallery of Australia, over 20,000 square metres dedicated to Australia’s most important works of art.

 Architects Edwards Madigan Torzillo and Partners, who also designed the High Court of Australia, used mostly bush-hammered concrete for the facade and walls, believing concrete as authentic as stone. Concrete is also used structurally and to hide services. The gallery areas work as a twisting progression of spaces, of different heights and sizes, to lend themselves to any sort of exhibitions, and there are few windows in these areas so visitors aren’t distracted from the art.

National Gallery of Australia

11. Public Transport Centre, Perth

Also known as the Westrail Centre, this example of late twentieth century Brutalism by Forbes & Fitzhardinge set new design standards for public transport buildings.

The five-storey office tower is constructed from dark brown brickwork, off-cast concrete and glass, which offers an imposing welcome to the many travellers arriving in Perth. The large, multi-level railway concourse is articulated by columns, and the whole length of the platforms are covered, a thoughtful nod to the needs of the train traveller.

Public Transport Centre, Perth

12. Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

This huge structure, known as QPAC, is part of the Queensland Cultural Centre (QCC) on Brisbane’s South Bank. It was designed by local architect Robin Gibson and under construction from the mid-70s until it opened in 1985. His aim was to draw the eye towards Brisbane’s centrepiece, the river.

It opened with three venues, and a fifth is currently in the planning stages. Its expanses of concrete are evidence of Gibson’s Brutalist ethics while the slick, modular design shows the style reaching towards the end of the twentieth century. The QCC gained heritage status in 2015 and is considered Gibson’s most important work.

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

13. State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

The State Library has existed in a variety of forms since the 1800s, but in 1982 it moved to its Brutalist home in the Queensland Cultural Centre (QCC) on Brisbane’s South Bank. The whole complex was designed by Robin Gibson, who wanted to create an artistic legacy for his home city.

Major refurbishment this century has doubled the size of the library, but its Brutalist origins remain: huge blocks of off-form concrete, large public spaces and open, functional interiors.

State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

14. UTS Tower, Sydney

Decried as the city’s ugliest building by both the Sydney Morning Herald and architect Frank Gehry, the University of Technology Sydney tower reaches 27 storeys into the skyline – a view critics find too close to Soviet-era menace.

The original design, from Michael Dysart in the New South Wales’s Government Architecture Office, proposed three towers, but only two were built. The second, much smaller, tower was demolished recently to make way for a glossy new extension to the university campus, a 17-level glass structure which arguably enhances the tower’s Brutalist glory.

UTS Tower, Sydney

15. WTC Wharf

This example of Early 1980s Brutalism was built as a World Trade Centre for Melbourne on the banks of the Yarra.

The striking red of its lower floors shows that Brutalism doesn’t have to mean monochrome and that the form can stretch from municipal institutions to busy retail centres and eating and drinking hubs. WTC Wharf appears to stretch out onto the river, taking diners as close to the water as possible.

WTC Wharf

16. Maptek Office, Adelaide

It is unusual to find buildings of this scope and scale in the suburbs, but this Brutalist beast is home to the Australian Mineral Foundation Centre in the Glenside area of Adelaide.

Designer Antanas Lapsys visited Japan in 1971 and was inspired by its Modern aesthetic. He brought this approach home and incorporated it into the Maptek office with smooth, white, off-form concrete, exposed supporting pillars and floor-to-ceiling stretches of tinted glazing. In 1972 the design won the Excellence in Concrete award.

Maptek Office, Adelaide

17. Atlantic Tower Motor Inn, Adelaide

This cylindrical tower was Adelaide’s tallest residential building for 20 years and is known for housing the city’s only revolving floor plate, which allows the revolving restaurant to do one full rotation every 90 minutes.

Although construction on the Inn began in 1968, it stalled for eight years and wasn’t completed until 1980. It displays typical Brutalist aesthetics with its concrete exterior and clean lines, though it was intended as a playground for rich city workers.

Atlantic Tower Motor Inn, Adelaide

18. Footscray Psychiatric Hospital, Melbourne

It isn’t known who designed this psychiatric hospital, completed in 1977, even though it’s become a respected part of Melbourne’s Brutalist history.

From the outside, it appears as a series of off-form concrete blocks with no windows, but there are in fact many small, slit-like windows. Ventilation ducts form part of the overall design, housed in the wide shafts which run the height of the building and tip over onto the roof.

It hasn’t been used since the hospital closed in 1996, though there is a campaign underway to preserve it.

Footscray Psychiatric Hospital, Melbourne

19. Gelencser House, Adelaide

A unique private home designed by Iwan Iwanoff in the early 1980s and commissioned by the sculptor Peter Gelencser for his own family.

The distinctive Brutalist brickwork on the outside of the building is a cement brick mural created by Gelencser himself along with the architect. Bulgarian Iwan Iwanoff was well known in Western Australia for his striking work in concrete blocks – it is Brutalism, but the Iwanoff take on it.

The home, a three-bedroom duplex in Cottesloe, was used by family until coming on the rental market in mid-2019.

Gelencser House, Adelaide

20. Northam Town Library

From the outside, this public library may appear a monolithic concrete block, but venture closer, and you’ll see the architect’s signature cement brick design. Opened in 1971, it is one of Bulgarian Iwan Iwanoff’s best-known buildings, even though it’s outside of Perth proper, and the intricate brickwork extends around the building in many shapes and forms.

Inside it’s all large, airy spaces, pleasing shafts of light and functional layout, the ideal home for a library and council offices.

Northam Town Library

21. Eddie Koiki Mabo Library

Eddie Koiki Mabo Library, a three-storey off-form concrete block formerly known as the Townsville Campus Library, was constructed in 1976 as the heart of Queensland’s James Cook University.

Architect James Birrell designed the overhanging steel-framed copper roof to complement the area’s connection with copper, and it hovers above the building to create a feeling of light and space. The circular openings around the facade, Birrell claimed, are to add some playfulness to the design, hopefully relieving some of the stress of studying.

Eddie Koiki Mabo Library

22. Prahran Hotel

A twenty-first-century Neo-Brutalist facelift put this Melbourne drinking hole firmly on the city’s Brutalist map. The distinctive facade is composed of 17 concrete tubes stacked horizontally into a silhouette that is compared to both a beer keg and a wine rack. The tubes double up as seating pods inside.

Techne Architects drew on the importance of social spaces in Brutalism to reinvigorate a struggling pub with this new extension, and the aesthetic continues inside where there’s a palette of raw concrete, black steel and Australian hardwood.

Prahran Hotel

23. Anz Bank Computer Centre

Forbes & Fitzhardinge gained a name in the seventies for designing iconic business edifices. Perth’s Anz Bank centre is an unusual example of their work because it’s hard to get a handle on the shape of the building until you walk the full perimeter, when you’ll discover it’s an L-shape, with each side a different design.

The building resembles an impenetrable fortress, with its typically Brutalist concrete base, as only two ribbons of glazing snake around the whole building, situated to keep the rooms holding servers as cool as possible.

Anz Bank Computer Centre

24. Stamp House

It might look like the lair of a Bond villain, but this recent (2013) example of Neo-Brutalism is actually a private home in the tropical climate of Northern Queensland. The owners requested a carbon-neutral home that was strong enough to withstand the impact of future climate change – for example, the cantilevers lift the living area out of the path of predicted flooding.

Charles Wright Architects designed a pre-cast concrete home in a futuristic winged shape to work with its stunning location. The simple finish and functional design of Brutalism lends itself well to contemporary challenges: Stamp House is off-grid and home to an on-site sewage treatment plant, solar energy generation and water processing facilities.

Stamp House

25. Biological Sciences Library

This austere concrete block, designed by Robin Gibson and opened in 1976, displays many characteristics of early Brutalism, including huge panels in off-form concrete and narrow window slits running the height of the building.

Like many Brutalist buildings, it’s been criticised for its unwelcoming appearance, and a major twenty-first-century refurbishment added a glass-fronted extension to make the space more open and comfortable for students. The new architects said the building was “essentially a brutal concrete box” which reflected the “outdated attitude that libraries should be only keepers of knowledge”.

Biological Sciences Library

26. Wentworth Building

Architects Ancher, Mortlake and Woolley had to contend with a highway separating the old and new precincts of the Sydney University Campus when they were tasked with designing a huge student union building as part of an ambitious expansion for the university.

They decided to repurpose the existing footbridge between the two sites as the generator, having it run into and through the new building and forming the spine of the structure. Off-form sandblasted concrete, with white tiles as specified by the university, finish the look of the building, which opened in 1972 and covers 5,870 square metres.

Wentworth Building

27. Ku-ring-Gai Teachers College

This education campus is surrounded by the Lane Cove National Park, and the British architect David Turner aimed to keep it as compact as possible to avoid unnecessary construction in the beautiful natural landscape.

The design employs typically Brutalist strong shapes cast in concrete: cylinders, blocks, beams and fins, as well as flat hoods to offer some shade from the strong sun. In order to respect the surroundings and complement the red sandstone, brick was also used across the construction.

Ku-ring-Gai Teachers College

28. State Government Offices

This five-storey Geelong landmark was designed by Laird, Buchan and Bawden in the late 1970s. The upper floors are cantilevered off the base with deep overhangs, showing the construction system of reinforced concrete. The inverse tiered profile displays the sculptural elements of the style of construction, for example, the diagonal concrete bracing which reaches from the top level down to the base.

This building was the first of its kind in the seaside city of Geelong and had a mixed reception, but ‘upside-down building’, as it’s often called, has been in constant use and become very popular.

State Government Offices

29. Plumbers and Gasfitters Union Building

The Australian Institute of Architects describes this Melbourne landmark as “a seminal essay in the development of the Brutalist style”. It was commissioned in 1969 and remains one of architect Graeme Gunn’s most celebrated designs.

Important elements include visible walkways and textured concrete, and the building was emblematic of the strength of the unions in 1970s Australia.

Plumbers and Gasfitters Union Building

Australia followed Europe in its adoption of Brutalism as the winning style for public and state buildings. However, the continent has made this twentieth-century architectural movement its own, connecting its ideals to the abundant natural features of the country and its needs.

Our Brutalism map of Australia shows how wide its influence spread from city to city and coast to coast, through university campuses, town libraries, public transport, right through to the cultural heart of the nation.

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