Symmetry as Death in Brutalist Architecture

by Pac Pobric

Marcel Breuer's Cleveland Trust Tower in downtown Cleveland, Ohio (Coutresy Wiki Commons)

Marcel Breuer’s Cleveland Trust Tower in downtown Cleveland, Ohio (Coutresy Wiki Commons)

“It is more important to fail spectacularly than to achieve mediocrity.” Allison and Peter Smithson, 1954


It’s easy to give a sociological reading of Brutalist architecture as inhuman or cold because that’s largely the consensus. This kind of sociology doesn’t look at form closely enough, if at all. What’s harder than agreeing with it is looking at the buildings themselves. That some of the best ones are asymmetrical is not a coincidence; it has everything to do with Brutalism’s development in post-war history.

Symmetry is pleasing in the simplest sense of the word only because it often asks relatively little in the way of comprehension. It largely fails to put a heavy demand on the viewer’s eye, which isn’t to say that it can’t. That it can be spectacular does not necessarily mean it’s aesthetically strong. Just because something is impressive doesn’t always mean it works.

Painters of the early part of the last century were well aware of symmetry’s problems. Its lack of dynamism was widely associated with death. No doubt the death of painting was actively sought, but only as a way to keep it alive. Symmetry meant a premature end, which is why few modernists believed Rodchenko’s symmetrical red, yellow, and blue monochrome triptych was actually the last painting. They ignored it and continued to paint.

Architecture developed separately, but cross media dialogues were not absent. Corbusier was of course a gifted but by no means profound painter. Still, painting’s effect on architecture remained mediated. Mondrian’s break with van Doesburg makes that clear. The former felt that painting had to solve its own problems before it could lead architecture; van Doesburg didn’t.

The asymmetrical forms that characterize much of the best Brutalist architecture don’t necessarily take their cue from painting’s aversion to symmetry, especially since Brutalism didn’t develop until after the war. It is the same period in which symmetry returns to painting. Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella led the way in proving that it could be used in good art.

This trajectory only makes the question of why symmetry was so often avoided in Brutalism more immediate. The need to rebuild post-war Europe, especially Britain, put a particular demand on architects. It’s not a mistake that Brutalists employed active forms for things such as urban housing projects. Dynamic form was supposed to be in step with a dynamic world. It meant the exact opposite of death.

Brutalism did not succeed, however. The world it envisioned is not the one we live in. It’s symptomatic that symmetry characterizes the institutionalized Brutalism seen in many governmental office buildings. Brutalism regressed when it lost its critical sense of purpose, and that’s more than evident in its more recent forms. That Brutalist techniques remain within the vocabulary of contemporary architecture is therefore more of a failure than it is anything else. Brutalism largely voided its own death, which is of course its most spectacular failure.

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About Lynn Maliszewski, Contributor-at-Large

Lynn Maliszewski is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She curated and composed work for ArtWrit, BOMB Magazine, HAHA Magazine, Hyperallergic, LatinLover, Modern Painters, No.3, Whitehot Magazine, and Whitewall. She is currently the Contributor-at-Large for ON-VERGE, an arts journalism blog sponsored by CUE Art Foundation, until 2013. She hosts her own blog, Contemporaneous Extension, as a compendium of aesthetic interests, archived exhibitions and artists, and uncensored inferences. She has contributed editorially to the College Art Association, the Bushwick Film Festival, Like the Spice Gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art.
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One Response to Symmetry as Death in Brutalist Architecture

  1. David Stelluti says:

    Building first evolved out of the dynamics between needs (shelter, security, worship, etc.) and means (available building materials and attendant skills). As human cultures developed and knowledge began to be formalized through oral traditions and practices, building became a craft, and “architecture” is the name given to the most highly formalized and respected versions of that craft.

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