Liquid stone, smooth as velvet

Liquid stone, smooth as velvet

It has nothing to do with Ikea modernism, which some call “defanged.” Brutalist modernism today can be noticed in architecture but also in graphic design (including web design). In architecture, my subject for the day, it is nothing really new. Exploring Portugal, one sees examples of a brutish architecture left and right – buildings that came about long before modernism, long before the term brutalism became accepted. The new brutalism, “our brutalism,” was born halfway our 20th century, then was moved aside for a while but not totally, and returned in full force for a spectacular rebirth in our present day and time. Now contemporary brutalism, brutalist architecture, is abundant in Portugal, and it looks like it is not disappearing, ever.

Brutalist architecture of exposed reinforced concrete –raw, rough, jarring, bold, ugly in some eyes, using immovable concrete blocks, grey and square and “cold”– can be found all over the country. In older days no concrete was applied, of course; that came later. But bold blocks were used to build imposing structures already before the Middle-Ages and proof can be found everywhere, from the imposing aqueducts to the walls and towers of fortresses and the support pillars of churches of all ages. Brutal force must have been used to hack, transport and use the immense rock blocks to form the majestic towering structures that some thousand years later still stand unmovable. Human hands created them without the help of powerful machinery.

First mighty machines came to relieve builders of their heaviest duties; concrete followed even before the 1950s when its popularity first jumped. In France, it was Auguste Perret who became “the supreme master of liquid stone.” Perret was Le Corbusier’s tutor, and Corbu came up with the name that stayed: béton brut. In Portugal, young architects took up the challenge, but the regime of the day, although happy with the new opportunities of creating cheap housing for the growing underclass, did not allow many creative experiments; too often what was built can be compared to what a different authoritarian regime constructed in the USSR – in an imposed official state architectural style of stripped-down monumental classicism.

The results can still be seen in relatively drab neighborhoods around Lisbon, Porto and other Portuguese cities that, otherwise, are such shining examples of what creativity can accomplish — with a little help of money. Yet in the early years, while brutal concrete design of importance conquered the world, it bypassed Portugal; the Estada Nuovo “protected” its economically backward populace from any modernistic influence –and not just in design– from abroad as well as from within the country. In other western countries the style was eagerly developed, in the UK notwithstanding loud opposition from the Prince of Wales (but he hates anything that has a shorter history than his wait for coronation) and hateful revenge from Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond (who named one of his worst villains Goldfinger, after the Hungarian architect Ernö Goldfinger, the creator of London’s brutalist Trellich Tower). Brutalism aroused passion as well as fury; some even talk about “brutal utopias.”

In Portugal, we are surrounded by much architectural beauty. I often hear expats express their love for “the old” and desire to own an old and characteristic, cute Portuguese property (on the condition, of course, that it is brought up to contemporary living standards). I also hear condemnation of “the new” in housing. I do not side with them. I love the modern and brutish style in family homes and apartment buildings, and theaters, museums and office buildings alike. They please my eye; they offer clean and clear living, working and recreational spaces; they are easy to keep up; and, most important, they do not try to compete with the beautiful historic designs with which they are in obvious contrast: they stand in harmonious unity with whatever older architectural styles in their direct neighborhood. What defines most architecture in American suburbia, the unrestricted amalgamation of design characteristics from different periods and styles in one and the same design of a house or housing complex, which in its extreme leads to California-Tudor-with-a-touch-of-Hansel-and-Gretel-with-a-Gothic-entry-and-a-Thai-pagoda-at-the-Greek-tile-lined-Italian-pool, is mostly absent in Portugal. Which, I think, is just wonderful.

“It is hard not to caress the concrete,” says Oliver Wainwright. He even wants to stroke concrete walls now their béton standards are so much higher than in its earlier years and concrete “is treated with the care and attention usually given to fine timber paneling, where joints between columns and beams are expressed with the precision of carpentry, where surfaces are variously polished, bush-hammered, washed and brushed, creating tactile textures that range from gnarled rock face to lustrous velvet.” Velvet concrete, yes, you read it right. Doesn’t sound bad to live with or even in, does it? Good life, surrounded by brutalism, can be enjoyed just as well in countryside private homes or in imposing high-rises such as the towering structures showing off “brawny pairs of braced concrete columns that rise to thrusting angled buttresses,” which support soaring octagonals and “steeples looking ready to suck the building’s occupants into another dimension.” Concrete makes it possible to build what Prince Charles might qualify as space-age alien mountains, but in reality it allows the creation of interior and exterior spatial drama. And why has brutalist architecture returned to become an aesthetic craze in our digital moment? Alice Rawsthorn argues that it is because of its “pixelated” surfaces – they help create its velvet performance; and not to forget, colors and shapes look só good on a concrete background.

Concrete facades. No decoration. Low cost and fast effect. From the 1950s into the 1970s, brutalism allowed municipalities worldwide to build social housing and public buildings with a limited budget. For decades, families living inside these grey complexes had mixed feelings about brutalism’s offset angles and dirty attitude. But now all this has changed. In the midst of the digital age, young teenagers and fifty-year-olds alike are excitedly clicking on any concrete pictures the Internet can produce, concludes Rawsthorn. Now, brutalism is recognized as a better marriage of ethics and aesthetics than in its grey period. In a time that “the ruling class and the intellectual elite have never been so far from the needs of common people” (Robert Levit), suddenly a new trust appears, namely that “Contemporary beauty can actually save the world, on a daily basis, apartment by apartment … We cannot stop saying ‘Like’ to these very serious concrete jungles.”

Portuguese brutal architecture has escaped from its obscurity from fifty years ago thanks to fascist control being replaced by social democracy, new and amazing technical developments, and a chain reaction of events set into motion by Álvaro Siza Vieira. Almost single-handedly he created a great following of young, eager Portuguese architects and a worldwide general interest in Portuguese architecture, so “stridently new” (Levit again), with “its smooth abstract surfaces standing out against the rock or masonry of neighboring buildings” and recalling the luminous white volumes and spaces of the 1920s. Together, Portuguese architects created their own version of brutal modernism which is unexpectedly yet sympathetically and sensitively embedded within the complexities it faces at the actual building sites and the undeniable and non-negotiable presence of Portugal’s history.

Funny, though, to learn that in Portugal, with its grand ornamental architecture, even between the 15th and 18th century there grew spontaneously an architectural tradition based on pragmatism and cost efficiency, even austerity, that is now recognized as “Portuguese Plain” and of which all over Portugal, in cities as well as deep in the country, “cute” examples can be found. Their genes are the same that can be found in the younger, modernistic and brutal architecture – maybe that’s why many old and new buildings appear to be such good neighbors in Portugal. Anyway, what some see as eyesores, others including me see – and possibly history will recognize – as masterpieces no less interesting than what was created long ago and attractive to so many of us, tourists and expats alike. Rest assured, brut is beautiful too!

You know, there is an innovative fusion between architects and hairstylists (sic!) in Portugal. It’s called “Hairchitecture” and enjoys prominence in the Portuguese fashion circles. Hairstylist Fulgêncio Augusto joined a group of young architects from Porto to create this concept, which “aims to approach new areas of experimentation in hairstyling with a strong architectural influence.” In 2013 the hair avant garde found inspiration in brutalist architecture and explored some of this trend’s elements – from linear forms and organic structures to sharp volumes. An American friend of mine, author Josh Barkan, recently published an acclaimed (and heartily recommended) book of fascinating short stories that reads like a novel called ‘Mexico’ (here it is), in which one character is offered not a “Donald Trump” but a “Frank Gehry” haircut specifically based on Gehry’s “curly concrete architecture,” which some rather call “bent,” such as his Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain (he never built anything in Portugal). So, next time at your barber’s or hairdresser’s, why don’t you ask (when in Portugal) for a “penteado brutal” for a change? In the US try “brutal cut” but only if you trust your barber with your life.

Ton Haak,
Tomar, November 2017