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Brutalist Design

Text: Linas Gabrielaitis

The Brutalist architecture movement, named after the French term “Béton brut” (meaning raw concrete), has similarities to trends in other design fields, like website and product design. This does not mean that your websites or products should be made out of raw concrete. Rather, brutalism reflects the type of thinking and the materials used when creating new things.

Brutalist Architecture

After WW2, there was a dire need for order and structure to battle the chaos and uncertainty in societies. The Brutalist trend in architecture, which started in the 1950s, was usually used for big, monumental projects for social housing, government buildings, libraries and universities. This rational building up of new utopias was focused on the masses and society, rather than the individual.

Utopian’ image from https://yadi.sk/a/6-yAO_T53ZP5yf

Brutalist architecture willingly uses materials in rough and expressive ways where concrete was usually the material of choice to build utopias of the past. Purposefully unfinished seams and textures that are imprinted on the concrete during its drying, is now associated with honest and unpolished aesthetics. Exposing materials and structures which are usually hidden, the techno music of architecture is unpretentious and strips away any cover-ups of decorations. This reveals the essence of materials and the building- that’s where the inner beauty lies.

The movement became less popular in the 1970s and criticized as unwelcoming and un-human. In comparison, Atlas was built in 1963, Laplace in 1972 and De Bunker in 1969. Interestingly, the website http://www.sosbrutalism.org lists De Bunker as one of the endangered Brutalist buildings.

Locally known as „the bunker“, this massive exposed concrete building is an example of the fascination with military architecture that played an important role for many architects during the evolution of Brutalism.

While it will be demolished, the building that will replace De Bunker (shown above) will keep some of its original aesthetics. Since 2015, Brutalism has been regaining fascination, as many books mapping Brutalist architecture around the world are being released. In newer buildings or renovations of older Brutalist buildings, the style has been made softer and less extreme, the concrete was given patterns or made to look stone-like. It is entirely possible that if Atlas was renovated a couple of decades ago, the distinct Brutalist features would have been hidden.

©2019 Atlas Gebouw T.U. Eindhoven NL Team V Architectuur

Perhaps, the revived fascination is a reaction to Brutalist buildings reaching their end of life cycle and need to be demolished or renovated. Perhaps, there is a reignited search for utopian aesthetics in our  rapidly crumbling world. Perhaps, the aesthetics of utopian perfection will be used push smart-city and smart-home technologies into our lives, even if we don’t necessarily need them.

Brutalist Web Design

While Brutalist architecture reflects a top-down government construction of societies, Web Brutalism attempts to go against previous constructions and norms. The unpolished and raw use of technology has been borrowed from Brutalist architecture and brought over into web design to make unfriendlier and rougher websites than what we are used to. 

Front page of http://www.bewe.me/

Web Brutalism is described as a reaction to the lightness, optimism and perfect life facades of today’s internet. Bold and lacking concern to look comfortable or easy, Brutalist web design goes against what seems to be the only logical way to create usable websites- Google Material. 

 “ Material Design is a visual language that synthesizes the classic principles of good design with the innovation of technology and science.”

‘Utopian’ Google culture tells us

Brutalist web design attempts to reconnect to the technology of the internet and questions styles that are seen as simply good design without other alternatives. It brings back the feeling of the early days of the internet, where only possibilities of infinite alternatives existed.

https://brutalistwebsites.com identifies many more example websites that have Brutalist elements that are interesting to discover (when was the last time you looked for or were surprised by a cool feature in a website?). The site also interviews website creators:

Q: Why do you have a Brutalist Website?

A: Because content is form

Q: Why do you have a Brutalist Website?

A: To cut out the bullshit and appreciate the core elements of this technology

Q: Why do you have a Brutalist Website?

A: Because it’s easier to code

Q: Why do you have a Brutalist Website?

A: Raw elements of the internet are beautiful

Q: Why do you have a Brutalist Website?

A: I like large buttons

Q: Why do you have a Brutalist Website?

A: We’re more interested in telling a story and creating a presence than maximizing conversion rates

Unfortunately, since January of 2018, the front page of https://brutalistwebsites.com is covered with a big bold sentence ‘BRUTALIST WEBSITES ARE DEAD’, which makes navigating through it quite inconvenient; but maybe it’s only a stylistic choice?

While writing this article, in the summer of 2019, the ‘BRUTALIST WEBSITES ARE DEAD’ text was removed. Does it mean Brutalism in the web is cool again? Or did it now become acceptable and profitable? Corporations like GLOW, DDW and Twitch have adopted Brutalist elements into their branding and visual language, however the reason for this isn’t clear. Just like most websites on https://brutalistwebsites.com aren’t aimed at everyone (they are mostly portfolios of designers and exhibitions) so is Twitch- aimed at creators and streamers.

The question remains- what do DDW and GLOW attempt to communicate with their visual language? Who are these events for, designers or the non-designer public? Maybe DDW and GLOW can get away with this only because the Eindhoven population has been raised with design in mind? Or is it an attempt to let the non-designers in on the designer’s inside jokes?

DDW’s ‘If not now then when?’ From https://designwanted.com/design/dutch-design-week-2019/

Design decisions like these, signal who the service is for. The visual language acts as a metaphor for the experience, or in case of a website- it is the experience. An interesting question at this point is, how do these nontraditional and kind of ugly elements affect how we interact with and interpret technology?

Brutalist User Experience

Digital Body Language project from http://billewi.cz/portfolio/digital-body-language/

The email shown above was written as one would usually write an email, however, the way it looks is unusual. Deleted words, typing speed and pauses between words are part of the digital body language that the software captures. This damages the clarity and readability of text but questions the things that have been perfected.

I was thinking about typing. The result of this action does not reflect its process. When you type on a keyboard you don’t simply press key after key, without any hesitation, in a plain flow of letters. There is so much more happening there than what one may read in the final text. 

Even though it slows down your reading speed and makes you second guess if you have read each word correctly, emotions that are usually hard to interpret in technology are brought up in this raw and seemingly unpolished text. Instead of making the experience seamless, the somewhat Brutalist seams bring out a humanity that otherwise wouldn’t be revealed.

Similarly, the Tilting Bowl (shown above), by being a very neutral and familiar everyday item, while also sometimes unpredictably tilting, contradicts traditional logic of what it means to either own or create a bowl. The bowl can happily and independently continue tilting around without any input from people, however the insights generated from it are very much centered around people. As participants lived with the Tilting Bowl, over time, they came to various observations about themselves, the bowl and how they related to it:

Participants expressed how they became concerned with their various acts of surveillance, as they came to see themselves as desiring mastery and control over the Tilting Bowl. When comparing their relationship with the bowl to other contexts, they became very uncomfortable. He stated: “Politically, think about that politically, that’s the way refugees are treated sometimes, the same kind of surveillance, with the bowl, the same suspicion, exactly.”

In order to provoke these observations, the Tilting Bowl does not try to fit seamlessly into the everyday. By first entering, but then disturbing the ingrained routines, habits and the neutrality of the everyday, questions, rather than solutions are found:

“There’s some things we shouldn’t come to see as normal … and it does make me question, I mean the bowl is a bowl, right. But I mean in a grander scale, it does make me question like ok, well if we can get used to this…what else are we used to that is stuff that we shouldn’t be used to, stuff that we should have a problem with that is sort of in the back.”

Wait, so what is Brutalism?

The fact that the Brutalism sounds like the word brutal is a pun and a coincidence. The word came from the French word for raw, untreated and unpolished. This does not mean the product should be unfinished, but describes the carefully balanced state of technology in a product. Removing artificial sweeteners that were added for public consumption, reveals the beauty that is usually hidden.

Q: Why do you have a Brutalist Website?

A: My brutalism is a form of adversarial or uncooperative design: the internet suffers from an excess of orderliness, a streamlining that dictates visual and structural forms too much for my taste. I wanted a website whose architecture was more like the “labyrinth of experience” than the “pyramid of concept.” I like thinking of website architecture as deeply linked with brick-and-mortar architecture— like you guys, clearly. I’m also a sloppy person, who thrives in clutter; my site looks like my living quarters.

From https://brutalistwebsites.com/lifeactionrevival.org/

While Brutalist architecture was the battle against chaos through the construction of utopias, Brutalist web design is, on the contrary, celebrating complexity that is carefully included into the experience. In the labyrinth of experience each user creates their own individual and personal experience. What may seem to be logically un-human, may very well be a way to bring up new, previously invisible and unexpected humanity.

Final Words

The Tilting Bowl nostalgically reminds of the time before I was born, when technology was not perfected, when routines around it haven’t been made yet. This is the same nostalgic fascination that Web Brutalism tries to bring back, before guidelines for ‘good design’ were made, before click-and-drag design templates became popular, when websites were Brutalist because they had no choice.

Of course, it would be tragic if all buildings, websites and products were Brutalist. Undoing the hard work of designers to make technology usable and accessible- everything, and therefore nothing would stand out, we would lose all sense of what is normal, we would lose our habits and our everyday life would lose the meaning that we worked so hard on discovering. But maybe, it’s just what we need?

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