Brutalism is an architectural style, typically characterised by bold, clinical lines; simple, geometric designs; and a surfeit of concrete. It gained prominence during the middle of the twentieth century. By happy coincidence, the emergence of Brutalism coincided with the increased demand for higher education, which occurred after the Second World War. University estates were expanding and, during the 1960s and 1970s, Brutalist-styled campuses were the must-have architectural statement, reflecting progression, post-modernism, and the optimism of post-War utopianism. Whether you consider this synergy a marriage made in heaven or a car-crash of conflicting ambitions, will perhaps reveal your entire attitude towards Brutalism.
Brutalism has always been the Marmite of architectural styles. You either love it or you hate it. And it has courted controversy and debate ever since its inception.
Brutalism on campus
Notable examples of Brutalist university architecture include:
- Royal College of Physicians, 1964
- University of East Anglia Ziggurats, 1966
- Brunel University Lecture Theatre, 1966
- Churchill College, Cambridge, 1968
- University of Westminster, Cavendish Street, 1968
- SOAS Library, 1973
- Institute of Education, 1976
Sir Denys Lasdun
In a discipline, which included such notables as Ernő Goldfinger and Sir Basil Spence, the high priest of university Brutalism was Sir Denys Lasdun.
Lasdun had already designed the Royal National Theatre and the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, both buildings having received criticism and plaudits in equal measure: the Royal National Theatre often appears in the top ten for both London’s Ugliest Buildings and London Most Beautiful Buildings.
At SOAS, Lasdun, “…created a building within a building, a library––the physical as well as the intellectual core of the structure––surrounded by, but not insulated from, an outer shell of offices, teaching rooms, and language laboratories.”
The battle of Woburn Square
Where Cambridge and Oxford may have their English Gothic and dreaming spires, SOAS is fortunate to have its Corridor of Concrete, providing a pleasant pedestrian thoroughfare between the SOAS Philips Building and the neighbouring Institute of Education.
However, Lasdun’s development of the SOAS campus was not without controversy. For an account of the history of the build, read Woburn Square: an unlikely battleground.
The SOAS Library Transformation project, which was completed in 2006, extended the available areas for reading and work spaces, whilst preserving all of the iconic architectural elements of the original Brutalist building, including the external and internal fair-faced concrete; the top-lit atrium; terraces; and original doors.
Grade II Listed Status
The SOAS Library was granted Grade II* Listed Status in 2011, judged to be of particular national importance and special interest, and warranting every effort to be preserved.
So, whether you love or hate Brutalism, there is no question that it is here to stay.
Find out more
- MA History of Art and Architecture of the Islamic Middle East
- Read Taq Kasra: Wonder of Architecture
- Module: Architectural Boundaries and the Body
- Find out more about the SOAS Library