Eco Brutalism, A Look At The Architectual Style

The term Brutalism has a rough, jagged tone to it. It sounds evil, insidious, and not at all anything you would think of when you hear the word “eco.

Eco-brutalism is a form of modern architecture that pulls inspiration from Brutalist architectural style and makes it more appealing and eco friendly by adding greenery to the buildings.

This modern style has received plenty of critique, both positive and negative. Among the most important questions raised is whether this architectural style is actually progressing the conversation on sustainability.

With that, let’s take a deeper dive into Eco-brutalism and how it truly fits into our pressing ecological needs.

Eco Brutalism styled building
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Photograph by Ed Lederman

What is Brutalism?

Before we can genuinely understand eco-brutalist style, we have to understand what Brutalist architecture is in the first place.

Brutalist structures emerged as a post-World War II, mid-century trend in architectural design. These buildings are typically characterized by concrete finishing, steel, and an overall sense of pragmatism that is most often necessary in a post-war society.

Brutalist buildings became popular for a couple of key reasons.

The first one is heavily rooted in practicality. In any post-war situation, resources are scarce, and there is a dire need for rebuilding housing, government institutional buildings, etc.

After the second world war, many nations needed to churn out buildings—and they needed to do it fast. To do that, there needed to be a relative disregard for aesthetic design and more of a focus on function.

And at its core, that is what Brutalism is—a design approach that prioritizes function over all else.

Another reason why Brutalism became popular in that time period was that it aligned with the collective ideals of communist nations. Extravagance and opulence are generally frowned upon in communist societies as they can stray from the general concept of equality in society.

Brutalism’s association with communism has also contributed to how these buildings are now linked with concepts of authoritarianism. If you take a look at some brutalist facilities, you’d understand that they evoke a certain sense of harsh austerity.

But while function and ideal remain core tenets of brutalist style, much of the discourse around it has a lot to do with the aesthetics associated with brutalist buildings.

Many Brutalist buildings are made with raw concrete and steel, and these materials have now become core features in most brutalist architecture.

Although a brutalist building can be made of anything so long as it’s functional, it is the concrete aesthetic that has become most prevalent.

Brutalist Style Architecture

Let’s take a look at some examples of Brutalist architecture.

The Breuer Building

The Breuer Building can be found on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, nestled between streets of brownstone buildings.

Opened in the late 1960s, this building is a true testament to the concept of Brutalism. Its concrete facade and minimal design offer a sharp contrast with the surrounding buildings in the location, generating a sense of divergence that embodies contemporary art.

The Breuer previously housed the Whitney Museum of American Art and now acts as a MET outpost.

The function and design of the building can best be described through the words of Marcel Breuer himself:

“Its form and material should have identity and weight … in the midst of the dynamic jungle of our colorful city. It should transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity and profundity of art.”

Unité d’Habitation

Le Corbusier’s 1952 Unité d’Habitation in Marseille may be regarded as one of the first buildings that paved the way for Brutalism in architecture. In fact, it is this very building that many architects consider the birth of Brutalism (although some will contest this claim).

This structure was one of several communal buildings made of similar design—with the intention of creating a new way of living in a self-contained community.

The Unité d’Habitation can house 1,500 people, and the interior was initially equipped with an entire shopping strip as well as restaurants and sports amenities on the upper floors.

The Barbican Estate

Formally opened in 1982, the Barbican remains one of London’s most sought-after residential complexes.

Despite being surrounded by skyscrapers and the steel and glass that architects of today use in modern design, the Barbican retains a grounded appearance that simply cannot be found elsewhere.

Although it might not seem like it at first glance, this estate is very much one that its architects and designers patterned after Brutalism following the war.

While it was opened in the early 80s, the design of this building began two decades prior, during the 50s, in the wake of WWII, when London was trying to repopulate the city.

Until today, the Barbican is a testament to how ideas and culture can represent the rise of a city after devastation.

What is Eco Brutalism?

If you’re on any form of social media, there’s a good chance you’ve seen photos of large concrete buildings with plenty of green plants integrated within the structure itself.

One of the most popular examples is downtown Ivry-sur-Seine, as seen below. The style has also gained prominence in Costa Rica, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, among many other nations.

Eco-brutalism is the amalgamation of brutalist style and the green we often associate with eco friendliness.

The contrast between harsh concrete and the greenery adorning the buildings creates a unique clash of ideals, concepts, and underlying ethos.

Where Brutalism in architecture is about austerity, eco-brutalism is about bringing life to these structures, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. The two elements combine together, resulting in a beautiful space that celebrates life with the backdrop of brutalist architecture.

As a result, eco brutalism has been associated with sustainability. Adding greenery to these otherwise drab and unfriendly buildings allegedly improves their environmental footprint.

This, along with the pretty aesthetic that comes with eco-brutalism, has created a renewed interest in concrete architecture. All over the world, we are witnessing the revitalization of brutalist architecture, albeit with a new perspective.

Examples of Eco Brutalism in Architecture

Eco Brutalism is prevalent in many locations across the globe, most notably in the global south in countries like Costa Rica or Brazil.

Here are some interesting projects that merge the utilitarian perspective of Brutalism and the vibrancy of life in nature.

Jungle House

Built on the southern coast of Brazil, Jungle House is an elevated structure with a utilitarian exterior but has a couple of wellness areas with pools.

The walls of the Jungle house are beautifully adorned with sprinkles of greenery, directly contrasting with the gray concrete.

The overall aura of the propery is very much that of life erupting from nowhere, giving its residents a sense of peace even amid austerity.

Casa Meztitla

Taking a quick break from just greenery, Casa Meztitla has a mountain as a backdrop, all while bathed in the intense warmth of tropical sunlight.

Casa tepoztlan
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Seen as an intervention of nature, this uniquely built house perfectly merges introverted interiors with the vast openness of nature.

With stone casting a connection with the behind mountain, this property stands unique even when contrasted with other similar property styles.

Critique on Eco Brutalist Architecture

However, eco-brutalism is not without valid critique.

The architectural style has often been charged with being a greenwashing scheme. After all, relying mainly on aesthetics as the main driver for sustainability is the exact kind of lip service large brands have gotten backlash on.

As with anything in sustainability, eco friendly architecture needs to be about substance rather than form.

Concrete, in a vast majority of cases, is not an eco friendly material, and using it in new buildings is not the sustainability win eco-brutalism may present it as. Though concrete may come from natural sources like limestone, the process of making cement is not eco friendly at all.

While adding greenery to an already-existing brutalist building may be a good way to make the space more lively and eco friendly, it doesn’t exactly address the goal of a sustainable future.

Instead of focusing on concrete as the material of choice, we need to shift our attention to more eco friendly materials for our projects. This way, we not only address aesthetics but also touch more profoundly on the unsustainability of using concrete for all our buildings.

In reality, there isn’t an inherent issue with eco brutalism. After all, most buildings these days are made of concrete, so does it really hurt to put some green plants on these structures and call it a day?

While a tempting answer is to simply say no and take it for what it is, we have to acknowledge that superficial solutions do more harm than good.

More than just greenwashing, these green solutions give us a sense of complacency that isn’t grounded on actual facts. The idea of eco brutalism banks on the fact that we associate the color green with environmentally friendly elements.

And while greenery is essential in earth-friendly concepts, it’s not always the most appropriate solution for everything. We have many more tools that we can use to address climate issues on a deeper level.

Are Eco Brutalist Buildings Eco-friendly?

Of course, it’s not all bad things. There are people within the eco-brutalist movement that are actually pushing for the use of sustainable materials in new buildings, which is leaps beyond just adding some plants to concrete havens.

Eco brutalism in architecture is not an inherently terrible thing. Though execution might be a bit off, the architects responsible for these projects likely have the best interest of the environment in mind.

For instance, this paper on geodesign in Portugal proposes how waste products can be chemically altered to create new and sustainable materials—which is precisely the direction sustainable architecture should be taking.

If the conversation around eco brutalism focuses on environmentally-friendly materials, then we think it can be eco friendly! However, at this moment, it does not seem like this is the case.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, it is always substance over form. While eco brutalism in itself isn’t inherently wrong, it isn’t good for the environment either. The beauty of green plants is one thing, but its actual contribution to making architecture sustainable is another.

If anything, what we can take away from a nuanced conversation on eco brutalism is that greenwashing is everywhere.

While it is true that sincerity and love for nature may be present in how architects create these projects, there is still much more to be done.

And we hope that by being honest in how we approach green solutions, no matter what form they take, we can achieve a better future for our planet.

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