Musique concrète

The raw beauty of brutalism

BRUTALISM IS THE Yoko Ono of architecture: love it or hate it (and most people land firmly on one side or the other), you can’t deny its power. For Paris-based photographer Pierre Châtel-Innocenti, brutalism’s imposingly utilitarian aesthetic – the sharp angles, the exposed concrete, the unapologetic absence of flourish – is part of what makes it so compelling. His striking photo series Lost Utopias invites us to see some of these mid-century monoliths through a new lens. Châtel-Innocenti talked to Griffith Review about setting social ideals in concrete and finding the beauty in béton brut.

CARODY CULVER: Tell us about your career as an architecture photographer – how did you get into this line of work, and what do you look for in a building when you’re capturing it on camera?

PIERRE CHÂTEL-INNOCENTI: I was born in Saint-Pierre and Miquelon in 1982, a very small and very unknown French island near the east coast of Canada. I moved to mainland France at seventeen to study...and never looked back. I’m a computer scientist by training, but I recently left integrated circuits for photography. I’m now a full-time architecture photographer and work across Europe for various types of clients. I spend most of my time working on personal photography projects where I have more freedom to find my own voice on subjects that really matter to me. This is why I left my job in the first place. So, in practice, it’s more an author’s work on the urban landscape than one of an architectural photographer in the traditional sense. In fact, I had my first solo gallery exhibition, called (De)Construction, in Paris in 2019. Then Covid happened...

I was probably always drawn to urban settings, and I’ve been fascinated by modern and contemporary architecture for many years now. Part of the fascination for me is about how architecture is so embedded in our lives and yet almost no one is really paying attention to it. In my photography work I focus on the interaction of these buildings with their environment, with light, rain, clouds…and with people.

CC: What drew you to the specific buildings featured in ‘Lost Utopias’?

PC-I: Undoubtedly, their very liberal use of concrete. But also the ideology behind them: the beautiful idea that a real utopia is possible and that society and life can be shaped by their surroundings. Of course most of these ideals came and went – some were probably a bit naive to be honest – but these buildings stayed behind as testimony of a past hope that never materialised. Hence the title of the series. I guess the inherent nostalgia and irony that emanates from these buildings spoke to me really strongly. Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that brutalist buildings have a strong presence.

CC: What does brutalism mean to you?

PC-I: The original brutalism is the projection, in concrete, of strong social ideals. It’s also the architectural sedimentation of a given period: the hopeful ’50s up to the ’70s. But to me more personally, it’s a totally alien form of architecture: in my hometown, most of the buildings are small and made of wood. So raw concrete, sign me up! I was hooked very early on: I remember very fondly some of the brutalist buildings in Halifax, Nova Scotia, from my travels in Canada as a kid. In fact, you could say they look similar to some notable pieces you have in Australia, such as the St Leonards Centre [now the Oxley Business Centre] by Kerr and Smith or the Surry Hills Police Centre by Richard Dinham, both in Sydney.

I guess my particular interest in architecture came from this early contact with brutalism. Of course, at the time I had no idea what it was and what it stood for. But the sentiment was strong enough that I decided to specialise my photography practice to architecture.

CC: Despite brutalism’s admirable philosophy – embodying socialist ideals, embracing function over form, rejecting hedonism – many brutalist buildings have rust and water damage on the outside and confusing layouts on the inside. What do you think would characterise a truly utopian style of architecture?

PC-I: There is no consensus of what exactly constitutes what came to be known as brutalism. German architect and editor Jürgen Joedicke said in 1969 that it is ‘an evolutionary not revolutionary movement’. The original brutalism was born in response to a particular historical context: the need for cheap and effective housing after the Second World War, most notably in postwar Britain, in a world looking for new progressive values and permanence. Today, a much more pragmatic and economy-driven approach prevails and cannot be separated from the global context we live in: on the one hand, a pervasive liberal economy that doesn’t leave much room for ideals other than the free market, and on the other hand, the dissolution of the architect’s central role to the benefit of real-estate developers and the weakening of the state’s role in housing initiatives. Many big projects today are driven by the private sector and are divided between so many stakeholders that these social ideals can only be a very low priority, except for marketing purposes, of course. Brutalism evolved with the times, as have the contemporary architects who put sculptural concrete at the forefront of their projects: Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, OMA, Ensamble Studio and Pezo von Ellrichshausen, to name a few.

I don’t think architecture should be about utopia in the first place – or at least the restrictive vision of utopia that prevailed at the time of modernist and brutalist architectures. This created more problems than solutions, which was studied as early as 1985 by Alice Coleman in her book Utopia on Trial. Indeed, who’s to say that my utopia is not the next man’s hell?

CC: Is brutalism enjoying a revival at the moment after decades of being dismissed as ugly or soulless? If so, why do you think this is?

PC-I: There’s surely been a fundamental shift in the perception of brutalist buildings by the general public. This has mostly been fuelled by fetishisation on social media for the last few years. I think the reason is simple: these buildings are really striking and compare to nothing else in our cities. It’s also easier to step back and re-evaluate over time: some people would argue that if you had lived in a brutalist compound in an impoverished suburb throughout the ’80s, then you would see things a bit differently.

If we are talking about the original brutalism, in form and ideals, I sincerely doubt there is a concrete revival (if you allow me the pun) in new architectural projects. Or maybe this is still to come, but there would be many obstacles: the underlying ideology would be met with rightful scepticism, and outside an ever-widening circle of connoisseurs and aesthetes, béton brut still enjoys a mostly bad rap. Moreover, concrete production is now criticised for not being very eco-friendly.

The brutalist resurgence we see today from the aforementioned leading architects is more brutalist-inspired than purely brutalist: a brutalist shell devoid of its original socialist ideals, if you will. And that’s okay!

CC: Some architects have pushed for brutalism to be renamed ‘heroic architecture’ because they feel that the term ‘brutalism’ has negative connotations. What’s your opinion of this?

PC-I: I’m not an architect, just an observer, but my opinion is that the very soul of brutalism is embedded in its name. If it stuck so well for so many decades, there’s probably a reason. Maybe ‘heroic architecture’ has its place but is more suitable to qualify new concrete projects. Why try to rebrand the past when you can look forward? This forward thinking is exactly what drove brutalism in the first place.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review