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'Les rapports émouvants?' Brutalist materiality and its detractors

Calder, Barnabas (2011) 'Les rapports émouvants?' Brutalist materiality and its detractors. In: Society of Architectural Historians, 2011-04-13. (Unpublished)

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Abstract

"Les Rapports Émouvants"? Brutalist Materiality & its Detractors Rarely has explicit and clearly-defined use of materials been as explicitly important to an architectural movement as it was to Brutalism. Brutalism, the heavy-concrete style of the 1950s-'70s, was a movement that took as-found materiality as its defining characteristic, and derived its expression from that materiality. This paper will test Le Corbusier's definition of architecture - ‘avec des matières brutes établir des rapports émouvants' - against the movement which arose in part from the influence of that definition. If materiality is of such importance to the experience of architecture, and Brutalism is the architecture of materiality, this paper will investigate why it is precisely the materiality of Brutalist buildings - on which Brutalist architects spent so much of their effort - which has been singled out by the many detractors of the movement as the thing they dislike most about it. Why do so many people find that the relationships established by Brutalist materiality move them only to depression, hostility or unease? The paper will take a case-study approach, centering round an ordinary piece of Brutalism by a reasonable middle-of-the-road Glasgow practice, the Newbery Tower at Glasgow School of Art, by Keppie, Henderson and Partners, 1970. It makes a particularly interesting case study firstly because it is like so many other examples worldwide in the period, secondly because it is prominent and therefore much discussed by the public and by art and architecture students at the GSA, and thirdly because in the next two years it is scheduled to be demolished and replaced by a Steven Holl project of utterly contrasting materiality - a smooth, milky-glassed light-box. What does public and expert opinion about these contrasting materialities tell us about the relationships between construction, material and popularity?