Top Ten Brutalist Buildings


Brutalism is among the more contentious architectural styles. People tend to either love it or hate it. Whichever camp you fall into, it is fascinating to look at the thinking behind these projects. Brutalist buildings tend to be united by a geometric quality, usually cast in concrete and left unadorned. The result is sleek, if sometimes stark, works of architecture, which take on deeply original formats. Some are urban jungles of stacked concrete modules; others are industrial sites reimagined for modern living. We’ve rounded up ten of the best examples of Brutalist architecture to shed a bit of light on the style and where its merits lie. Join us for a deeper look at the steely beauty of Brutalism…


Habitat 67 – Moshe Safdie

Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie, Montreal


Habitat 67 has become a key architectural landmark not just for the city of Montreal but for Canada as a whole. Moshe Safdie designed the housing complex for Expo 67, though the concept was not new to him at the time. It initially started as his university thesis project, garnering considerable attention. He went on to graduate and ship off to Philadelphia to work with famed architect, Louis Kahn. He was then approached by his old thesis advisor to make an architectural contribution for Expo 67. He was a young and inexperienced architect with the chance of a lifetime – a turn of events which he described as “a fairy tale, an amazing fairy tale”. He seized the opportunity to offer a new take on high-density housing, creating 146 residences formed of stacked prefabricated concrete boxes. True to the era, they were fitted with moulded plastic bathrooms and modular kitchens. Habitat 67’s unique edge was the architect’s emphasis on quality of living. Safdie ensured each unit had access to a private landscaped terrace with plenty of fresh air and greenery, reimagining suburban living for an urban environment.


Wotrubakirche – Fritz Wotruba

Wotrubakirche by Fritz Wotruba, Vienna; photographed by Rosa Menkman


This strikingly modern church is best known as Wotrubakirche, though officially called the Church of the Most Holy Trinity. It sits in a leafy Viennese enclave, stirring a sense of contrast between the sheer concrete geometry and the soft natural environment. The architect, Fritz Wotruba was, in fact, a sculptor first and foremost. There’s a sense of the building as an object, made to be considered in the round. It’s formed of 152 concrete blocks, left raw and untreated. This is a quintessentially Brutalist approach, whereby the architect seeks a certain honesty of materials and purity of form over extraneous ornamentation. Wotruba died before the church could be completed in 1976 and the planning architect, Fritz Gerhard Mayr oversaw the remaining work, staying true to the original vision and leaving behind a now iconic piece of Brutalist architecture.


La Fábrica – Ricardo Bofill

Interior of La Fábrica by Ricardo Bofill, Barcelona


Ricardo Bofill’s La Fábrica is one of the best known and most widely celebrated Brutalist buildings. It’s a repurposed cement factory which sits on the outskirts of Barcelona, redesigned to serve as the architect’s family home and studio. Bofill first encountered the factory in 1973, just before it was intended for demolition. He decided to give it a new life – all 31,000-square-meters of it. He stripped away the clutter, opening up its vast interiors and letting the light pour in. The skeleton of the building is left on full display, with a very functionalist aesthetic. There’s also an aspect of Surrealism to the place, with staircases to nowhere left suspended throughout. Bofill also introduced an element of wild urbanism, allowing the building to be engulfed in ivy, eucalyptus, and cypress trees. He breathed new life into a building which was destined to fade into the past, along with Catalonia’s industrial heyday. Instead, Bofill used it to create a bridge between the region’s history and his own hopeful vision of its future, paving the way for a post-material shift towards freedom of expression and quality of life.


El Colegio de Mexico – Teodoro González de León & Abraham Zabludovksy

El Colegio de Mexico by Teodoro González de León & Abraham Zabludovksy, Mexico City


Mexico is brimming with architectural intrigue, with a rich offering of Brutalist designs. Mexico City’s Colegio de Mexico is an excellent example, with sleek concrete lines and blocky geometric forms. It was a team effort between native architects, Teodoro González de León and Abraham Zabludovksy, completed in 1976. González de León worked with Le Corbusier in France for a year and a half, mainly focusing on the famous Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, and elements of the European master’s style certainly seem to have had an influence. The site itself presented a unique challenge, positioned on rough, sloping terrain, cloaked by the lava that flowed from the Xitle volcano thousands of years ago. The building was designed to bring students of different disciplines together, creating opportunities to cross paths and convene. Ultimately, the multi-tiered design brings each level together in a harmonious manner, creating an easy flow of movement and fostering academic cross-pollination.


Geisel Library at UC San Diego – William Pereira

Geisel Library at UC San Diego by William Pereira; photographed by O Palsson


The Geisel Library at UC San Diego was designed by William Pereira, an American architect known for his cutting-edge, often futuristic style. This particular design, completed in 1970, sits at the confluence of Brutalism and Futurism. It marries the crisp forms and clean-cut glass of Futurism with the concrete geometry of Brutalism, producing something that feels fresh to this day. Initially Pereira wanted to build a steel-framed structure, but high building costs incited a shift to reinforced concrete, which ultimately allowed him to work in more sculptural terms. Rather thematically, he designed the building to resemble hands holding up a stack of books. The result is a building with an inflection of whimsicality and wonder, perfectly fitting of its benefactor, the author known as Dr. Seuss.


Barbican Estate – Chamberlin, Powell and Bon

Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, London; photographed by Maciek Lulko


The Barbican has become a truly iconic piece of architecture. Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell, and Christoph Bon took over a decade to create it, finishing the job in 1976. The project was driven by a utopian vision for redevelopment of an area that was heavily bombed during the Second World War. The architects also looked back further into history for inspiration. They found that the location once played host to the main fort of Roman London, built between 90 and 120 AD. This is where it draws its name from, which is an adaptation of the Latin Barbecana, which refers to a fortified gateway. The site was reimagined as a complex of residential, cultural, and educational venues, though a sense of fortification and utility remains. It’s certainly one of the prime examples of Brutalist architecture in London, if not the whole of the UK.


The SESC Pompeia – Lina Bo Bardi

The SESC Pompeia by Lina Bo Bardi, São Paulo; photographed by Paulisson Miura


São Paolo’s SESC Pompeia was designed by Lina Bo Bardi and completed in 1986. It’s a mixed-use complex which has become something of a cultural mecca. It began as an abandoned factory, which Bo Bardi tactfully repurposed, adding complementary elements to house sporting facilities, for example. One of its key design features is the pattern of perforations in the concrete shell, which reveal bright red sliding covers which can open to create apertures, or close to conceal them. There’s a graphical quality to them, introducing a touch of adornment, which is not typical of most Brutalist architecture. She managed to execute this hint of decoration in a way that feels in keeping with the overall aesthetic, while adding her own distinctive contribution to the Brutalist style. Bo Bardi also took great pains to merge the built and natural environments. She went as far as having the Rio São Francisco redirected through the complex, producing a sinuous stream of water winding its way through the concrete floor – you can even fish in it. The result is an urban junglescape cast in beautifully Brutalist terms.


Le Choux de Créteil – Gérard Grandva

Detail of “Lex Choux” by Gérard Grandva, Créteil; photographed by Paul Fleury


Les Choux (or “the cabbages”) are a collection of ten cylindrical buildings completed in 1974. They make up a housing complex which sits in the Parisian suburb of Créteil. This area was historically a key agricultural locale, growing the produce which would then make its way into the city. Surely this was on architect Gérard Grandva’s mind as he designed these plant-inspired structures. In fact, they were intended to be covered in cascades of plant life, which would create a sense of dynamism as they changed colour with the seasons. Though, that part of the plan was never actualised, placing the bulb-like balconies on full display. We’re left with a truly distinctive example of Brutalist architecture which merges natural points of inspiration with urban man-made materials.


National Theatre – Denys Lasdun

National Theatre by Denys Lasdun, London; photographed by George Rex


Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre has been a point of some controversy since its completion in 1976. King Charles referred to it as a nuclear power plant, echoing some people’s protests to such a strikingly stark piece of architecture. For those with an affection for Brutalist architecture, however, it’s one of the style’s finest examples. The National Theatre is an expression of Lasdun’s conception of “architecture as urban landscape”. Its carefully engineered mixture of horizontal and vertical geometries give way to interconnected staircases, as well as split levels and sprawling terraces. It was designed from the inside out, starting with the theatres themselves. Lasdun had a finely tuned eye for details, taking ownership over every element of the project. He oversaw the casting of the concrete, which was done on-site using wood to create moulds which would impart a rough quality, preserving the marks of its making. He even specified the restaurant’s crockery and silverware, creating a complete environment designed to be experienced in a very particular way.


Pilgrimage Church – Gottfried Böhm

Pilgrimage Church by Gottfried Böhm, Neviges; photographed by seier+seier


The Pilgrimage Church in Neviges, Germany was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Gottfried Böhm. It took nearly ten years to build, with construction finishing in 1972. The scale of the project was enormous, creating the space to accommodate 6,000 visitors. It needed to be so given its purpose as a pilgrimage church, serving a sacred route that dates back to 1676. The exterior is sharp and irregular, reminiscent of crystals jutting up from swathes of stone. Its fractured forms have led some to compare it to a piece of Cubist sculpture, reflecting its highly stylised quality. Although, its ultimately restrained in terms of material and decoration, relying on form to create impact. Böhm was also interested in using light as an element of design. He controlled it very carefully, using it to moderate the experience of moving through the church. For example, the entrance hall is kept dark with a low ceiling so as to create a focal point of the altar beyond, bathed in the light which streams through a stained-glass window. In doing so, Böhm creates a sense of wonder and occasion as pilgrims come to the end of their long journey.




Text by Annabel Colterjohn