by Pac Pobric
“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.