Deerhunter released their latest album on a limited edition ‘Brutalist Grey’ vinyl.
Skepta rapped his way through the Barbican Estate in his video for Shutdown.
Damien Jurado featured an abstracted brutalist staircase on his New Horizons album artwork.
Bristol noisemongers Idles named their debut album Brutalism.
A Cologne-based dance label operates under the moniker Brutalism.
Little Mix are busy working on a concept album about Ernő Goldfinger’s time in Balfron Tower.
Image via Cianboy [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Sleaford Mods rent a pug to take on tour called Le Corbusier.
Photo by Fabrício Lira from Pexels
And Sir Tom Jones has recently launched an aftershave named Béton Brut.
Image via Wikimedia Commons Ben Salter from Wales [CC BY 2.0]
What is it with musicians and this architectural style?
The plan is to find out: to chip away at these connections like a brush hammer at a slab of concrete.
First, some context.
What is Brutalism?
Brutalism is a form of architecture that emerged in the UK in the aftermath of WW2. The style had its roots firmly in modernism, in particular in Le Corbusier’s modular concrete forms.
In the post-war years, it thrived. There was an immediate need for bomb-damaged buildings to be quickly replaced. There was also a surfeit of energy. Nuclear power promised endless supplies of cheap, if not free, energy for all. This meant that concrete was available on mass to architects as an affordable material. It could be used to create large-scale buildings – bold in their geometric juxtaposition and a striking display of both their materials and the construction methods.
The architects – Basil Spence, Denys Lasdun, Alice and Peter Smithson, Erno Goldfinger – realised grand, utopian visions with their creations, seeing them as a step towards a more harmonious society. Children were supposed to play safely in ‘streets in the sky’, university students were meant to socialise, informally developing intellectual ideas to shape a developing world, neighbours were supposed to bond, communities come together. Frills, adornments and unnecessary embellishments had no place in these post-war years and were banished in favour of a conscious celebration of materials, energy, positivity – a much-needed symbol of hope for a better future.
Brutalism reached its peak in the 1970s, being widely adopted for schools and universities, council buildings, churches, hospitals and social housing. Some of the best-loved and most-hated examples stem from this period. From Berlin to London, Paris to Boston, Brutalist structures emerged boldly onto the horizon.
Long story short: some people liked it, some people moaned, Prince Charles moaned. The concrete aged poorly when it was not properly maintained. More moaning. Soon enough more people came to see these buildings as ugly and oppressive, symbols of societal decline. Brutalism became synonymous with piss-stinking stairwells, graffiti, urban decay, drug addiction, desperation rather than optimism.
Like Owen D. Pomery explains in the Authoring of Architecture: ‘Perception and the subsequent assumptions we make constantly inform how we feel in a space. It is hard to accurately locate the origin of an emotion and it makes very little difference whether the perception is real or not; if it exists in your mind, then it is real.”
It’s easy to then see how brutalist architecture got a bad rep; quick to twist in the minds of observers as well as its inhabitants. The curse of a changed perception, the high rise and spall of a concrete empire.
Fast-forward to the mid-2010s and hipsters with little hats and Instagram accounts came to save the day – trumpeting Trellick, giving cyber shout-outs to shuttering, bounding around the Barbican like beagles intoxicated with the scent of raw uncut brut. Brutalism was in.
Southbank shuttering – Denys Lasdun. Photograph by Tom Spooner. All rights reserved.
It was soon to become an in vogue aesthetic, making its way onto our cinema screens, TV screens and phone screens. Gritty cold war dramas, dystopian presents, futuristic otherworlds – there it was, a symphony of sharp angles and rain-soaked repetition. From fashion shoots to art installations, from plant pots in Urban Outfitters to…music, brutalism was rearing its handsomely chiselled chops once more.
But what of it? What’s it got to do with music?
Let’s start with some quick de-chaffing. We can dismiss those musical acts (or the marketing teams behind them) that have borrowed the term or aesthetic in an attempt to cash in on its current sub-cultural trendiness. We can brush aside those PR execs that saw the Instagram hashtag #brutalist reach peak influence and signed off some concrete creative. We’re not interested in those pilfering cultural capital and tapping into a hipster scene for ‘edge’ and profit. This has nothing really to do with music and architecture.
National Theatre – Denys Lasdun. Photograph by Tom Spooner. All rights reserved.
The next scenario is also one we can be quick to dismiss: brutalism does not mean brutal. Brutalist architecture has nothing to do, etymologically speaking or otherwise, with the word brutal. It’s derived from the French for raw concrete – béton brut. Therefore it’s not an appropriate term to bandy around when describing anything that aspires to be aggressively forceful and dehumanising.
To some minor extent, brutalism has entered popular parlance as a byword for brutal, a slang term divorced from its original meaning. Brutal, and in turn brutalism, is the equivalent of Bill and Ted’s “bogus” – a phrase swallowed up as slang and spat out with no relation to its original meaning.
These buildings are not barbaric or wicked. Neither is your band. They are not an attempt to bring savage violence upon individuals with their form or brutalise people. And neither is your latest download.
Music inspired by the brutalist philosophy
Bristol band Idles and Cologne-based label Brutalism represent different takes on the brutalist ethos and how it can inspire an approach to music.
Idles didn’t just name their debut album after the architectural style, they borrowed from its philosophy to create it.
Guitarist Mark Bowen in an interview with Loud and Quiet explains: “We wanted to take things back to fundamental principles and work from the ground up.”
Idles’ lead singer and architecture fan Joe Talbot expands: “I wanted to use this album to rebuild ourselves in a cheap, easy way… (Brutalism is) an analogy that really works for us – like many great things; it clicked. Honestly, it’s transformed our outlook, the way we write, the way we work together, everything.”
In Clash Magazine, Talbot revisits the theme: “I became obsessed with brutalist architecture, where it came from and that ideology of building something fast and quick that helps a community that has been totally fucked.”
This intersection between architecture and songwriting is in evidence. Rebuilding something that is pure, raw and stripped back in the face of trauma fits with brutalism’s origins in the UK. It’s also a decent way to write and record an album that deals head-on with grief, addiction and is brimming over with righteous anger at a hapless Tory government.
The German dance label Brutalism quote Peter Smithson on their website:
“Brutalism is not concerned with the material as such but rather the quality of the material, that is with the question: what can it do?”
This is a good quote. It’s also smart to quote Smithson. After all, it was in describing the work of Peter and his wife Alison that critic Reyner Banham coined/reappropriated the term Brutalism.
Smithson’s words neatly encapsulate something of the optimism and ambition of the brutalist architects. It’s a rallying cry – don’t get lost in the materials, just hurry up and make something amazing with them.
The quote could just as well apply to the production of music and the format it is released in. When recording music, Smithson might well urge us to celebrate the sound of the instruments, the loops, the beats, the vocals. Don’t dress them up and polish away their vitality. Brutalism is punk; it’s DIY; it’s a free expression.
It doesn’t matter either if the music you make is experienced on vinyl (brutalist grey or otherwise), on a tape cassette, on a streaming service, in a club, in a pub, on a bus, through an open window. Music is music. It is powerful, regardless of its format and how you arrive upon it.
Prince Street Car Park, Bristol – Wakeford, Jarram and Harris – completed 1966. Photograph by Tom Spooner. All rights reserved.
Brutalism materialised after World War Two as an architectural statement of intent, a celebration of the potential of energy and human endeavour, of scale, of rebuilding the future, of utopia after the horror and chaos that preceded it. Music needs to be more brutalist in our troubling times.
Brutalism in music should manifest itself in bold, grand statements. It should be confident, optimistic in and of itself, and unapologetically so. Forget the artificial gloss of production, the autotune and the overdubs. There is no need to be reverential or referential to the past – teardown what has gone before, bulldoze the canon, demolish the vinyl you can buy in supermarkets. Don’t be afraid to show emotion, the blood and the sweat that went into your art. This is something you are bringing into the world – it is you, you are it. One day you will be gone and it will live on.
Make music to stop people in their tracks and provoke a reaction. Create sounds that make people complain. It is not for them, you owe them nothing. Don’t be afraid of the rawness of your instruments – of your voice, of your playing, of analogue equipment and technology. Be memorable, be different. Reveal the functional elements of your sound – don’t hide, don’t apolgise, don’t beautify or fancify. Go big, go raw. Just be.
Music inspired directly by brutalism
Some artists and musicians have created music in direct response to brutalist architecture – a symbiotic process, live and direct if you like.
One example is American artist Doug Aitken’s Station to Station that came to London’s Barbican Centre back in 2015. Aitken called on 100 musicians including Stephen Mallinder from Cabaret Voltaire to complete his ‘living’ artwork. The assembled musicians created tracks inspired by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s awe-inspiring towers and it was pressed immediately to wax by the Vinyl Factory’s mobile record press. Audiences got to witness the genesis, recording, pressing and artwork of new music – Smithson would have loved the unfussiness, the speed, the achievement.
Music to appreciate brutalism to
Like pairing a bottle of wine to a meal, there are those out there that like to match music to architecture. In the murky cyber netherworlds of the Facebook group The Brutalism Appreciation society, a post that invited members to suggest musical accompaniments with the architecture warranted 566 responses. People clearly had an opinion on how music and brutalism could complement each other.
Early Sigor Ros was a popular choice and a good one. There is something about the soaring, majestic nature of the music, a sense of scale and optimism as well as otherworldliness that marries up with brutalist architecture.
Synths also featured fairly heavily in the recommendations: Depeche Mode and Human League. Something about that early DIY directness, the crude expressive stabs of synthesisers that hinted at a future both complex and never to be realised.
There was also a good case made for German industrial krautrock pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten. You can hear great tectonic slabs forcing drama into an expansive grey sky.
Orbital and other electronic acts also featured. Mmm Skyscraper I Love You by Underworld, for example. There was also an abundance of moody techno.
Someone else who has made the link between techno and brutalism is Brad Dunning of GQ. In a piece in the magazine, he went a step further and referred to brutalism as “the techno music of architecture, stark and menacing.”
Again, the use of negative terms like ‘menacing’ is not true of all techno and certainly not all brutalism. But starkness is definitely a recurring theme, something that people identify in music and in brutalist buildings.
Dunning goes on to say: “Brutalist buildings are expensive to maintain and difficult to destroy. They can’t be easily remodelled or changed, so they tend to stay the way the architect intended. Maybe the movement has come roaring back into style because permanence is particularly attractive in our chaotic and crumbling world.”
This is a nice concept and the words nicely dress it up. But this is brutalism – we’re not for dressing up our concepts, we don’t want to make things ‘nice’. Concrete structures tend to age quite badly and require a lot of upkeep. They are in fact all too easy to destroy with many fantastic examples being reduced to rubble on a daily basis: Birmingham Central Library, the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth and Pimlico college to name but a few. And techno like any music is not rigid. As with art more generally, it is open to the wild fluidity of interpretation, the unfixed relationship between the piece and its appreciator.
One member of the Brutalism Appreciation Society of musical pedigree is Roisin Murphy, singer with Moloko and solo synth-pop musician. Her love of brutalist and post-modern architecture is well known. Touring the world with her music, she is able to visit fine examples of brutalist architecture across the globe. You can spot the soon-to-be-demolished Welbeck Street car park in her video for Ten Miles High:
An even more unlikely fan of the brutalist aesthetic is Kanye West. The rap-genius-cum-uber-plonker commissioned architect Willo Perron to design the undeniably impressive LA headquarters for his clothing brand Yeezy. Internally it’s all exposed concrete walls, concrete seats, elegant defiant angles. From the outside, it’s bold, simple, austere. Like a reverential gospel sample in a hip-hop track, it is a fitting tribute to the original statement, a timely recontextualising. You can check out the building here.
It doesn’t end there. Kanye’s YEEZY Home architecture practice – another facet of his brand – has been recently linked to a social housing project. He’s apparently been involved in the design of prefabricated concrete structures – a key component in his personal mission to ‘make the world a better place’. In an unlikely twist, perhaps it is Kanye West who will complete the circle, resurrecting the original ethos of the brutalist architects, bringing hope to the world, wrapped up in a concrete dream.
Photograph via Jalil Peraza
Follow me on Instagram for more brutalism and music, check out my guide to brutalist architecture in Bristol or see photos and words on Ronald Sim’s modernist masterpiece – Broadmead Baptist Church.