Foundations of Construction: Taking the brute out of Brutalism                                                             

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roberts library
“Dramatic in scale and design, John P. Robarts Research Library at University of Toronto, built in 1973, is an extraordinary example of Brutalist architecture, centred on exposed concrete.” Robarts_Library,JPG: Dr. K./Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robarts_Library-2.jpg

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

Angular, rounded, or geometric, boasting uniform components of exposed concrete, Brutalist architecture was introduced in Europe in the 1950s. A decade later, the minimalist style was offered in Ontario. The name “Beton Brut” was derived from the French term meaning “exposed concrete,” although some considered that Brutalist architecture was, well, ugly and harsh.

The multifaceted term Brutalism described “an international approach to architecture that reflected social ideals, industrial and vernacular means, and humane goals,” described 20th Century Architecture. The ethical, influential Brutalist movement engaged by avant garde British architectural team Alison and Peter Smithson was short-lived but “came to occupy a central position in the redefinition of the history of the 20th century architecture.”

Brutalist buildings seemed the opposite of refined, smooth buildings, instead appearing “as crude and ordinary, with what critics saw as wilful perversity.”

The Swiss-French architect and artist Charles Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier. designed two buildings in France in the early 1950s that represented the spark of Brutalism: the Unite d’Habitation and Maisons Jaoul. The remarkable architecture spread to Britain, inched across Europe, then appeared in North America within a decade.

“Brutalism was a popular style for institutional buildings in Ontario. As its period corresponded with the reinvestment in public infrastructure,” said Ontario Heritage Trust, the era coincided as well with architecture for “high density housing and a boom in colleges and universities that took place in the 1960s and 1970s.” Religious construction at the time did not use Brutalist designs, but the style’s “use of rough concrete is incorporated into many modern historical buildings.”

Opening new vistas of design with the use of concrete, architects “were able to create any shape and size of room, gardens on roofs, open space underneath buildings, and pedestrian walkways above street level,” noted Jon Scott Blanthorn in “Toronto—A Brutalist City,” The Site Magazine. Building designs “could fit around the functions” instead of function changing to fit the building. Brutalist buildings formed in concrete were a particularly good fit for Canadian needs.

Concrete constructions “afforded an attractive and relatively inexpensive solution to weather and climate control conditions in large buildings,” wrote Shannon Kyles in Ontario Architecture, “as well as a finish that was less vulnerable to vandalism.” Exterior texture was achieved in the forms of the poured concrete, creating individual, rough surfaces, with no extra finishing required. Often, further enhancing the climate control, windows often did not open.

In mid-century, the style of architecture flowed across the province. An awe-inspiring example of Brutalism is the John P. Robarts Research Library at University of Toronto.

Designed by Toronto architects Mathers & Haldenby along with the firm Warner, Burns, Toan & Lunde, the Robarts Library design “was by all measures a crowning achievement of the brutalist movement,” wrote David Langdon in “AD Classics: Robart Library,” on ArchDaily. “At 16 stories and nearly a hundred thousand square meters of floor space, it was a monumental climax and a weighty bookend on the upward arc of concrete architecture.” Completed in 1973, Robarts Library rose at the end of the Brutalist age, and therefore faced piercing criticism, such as “blunder on the grandest scale.”

Universities favoured the style for new buildings, encompassing Brutalism in student residences at Guelph and the Weldon Library at University of Western Ontario, among others. Built in 1967, Brantford City Hall features an exterior resembling rough-hewn lumber; the Johnson Wing of Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston was completed in 1966 and later wings were added with similar style in the early 1980s. These buildings survive as fine Brutalist architecture, but another unique structure is vulnerable.

Opened in 1969, Ontario Science Centre presented Brutalist design with an environmental flair.

Renowned Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama was given specific, unusual tasks for a museum—planners wanted a hands-on learning centre. Not a look-only museum, but one that permitted people to “shout, romp and play.” Visitors would be invited to “interact with and use the exhibit material, so that information is conveyed through as many of his sensory receptors as possible,” said Douglas N. Omand in Museum International, Vol.26, 1974—Issue 2.

Moriyama (1929-2023) created an invigorating space for learning on 100 acres of parkland, designing the Science Centre in three buildings connected by escalators and bridges, and incorporating the nature-filled Don River Ravine.

The Brutalist architecture outside continues inside, with many smooth and textured concrete interior walls that can withstand decades of active visitors and still remain fresh. (The distinctive IMAX dome theatre was added in 1996.)

However, the Ontario Science Centre is under threat of demolition due to redevelopment plans by the provincial government.

By the end of the 1970s, Brutalism gave way to new architectural designs. Tagged unfairly by the English translation, Brutalism refers only to visible concrete, transformed into unique, attractive, and durable buildings, able to weather the ages.

© 2023 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.

1 COMMENT

  1. The Robarts Library was constructed by a joint venture of Robertson Yates and EGM Cape Construction . At that time it was the largest fixed sum contract awarded in Ontario at a staggering $ 40 Million. My father was the general superintendent on the project.
    The project was affectionetly referred to by the builders as the ” Mouse” because in an areal view it resembled a mouse head. The entire structure sits on a massive raft slab some 10 feet thick covering most of the city block.

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