For the past few weeks, I’ve been living in the French ski resort Flaine. It’s a bit different to most ski resorts. Whereas the general aesthetic of a ski resort is picturesque wooden chalets with smoking chimneys, Flaine is a brutalist concrete paradise. The Barbican of the Alps.
The resort was designed by famed Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer in the 1960s. Breuer was contacted by banking billionaires Éric, Remi and Sylvie Boissonas who, via Éric’s friends Réne Martens and Gérard Chervas, had “discovered” a bowl high in the Chablais Mountains. They thought it would make an excellent ski resort, and full control over its design went to Breuer. It sounds like the dream job, with Breuer having final say over literally everything down to the interiors of the buildings, the street lights and even the typeface used on all the signage. And by all accounts, there was little concern about the budget.
Things didn’t go entirely smoothly, but in 1968 Flaine opened to the public to much fanfare. And for a few years, it was the place to be seen for the European skiing set.
Alas, it didn’t take long before brutalist architecture started to fall out of fashion. And as the ’70s wore into the ’80s, Flaine (or “phlegm” as some people started referring to it) slid down the slope of the European ski scene – metaphorically speaking of course – and developed a reputation as a budget ski resort catering mostly to British and Dutch tourists.1
Fortunately for Flaine, Brutalism is once more on the up. In homes the world over, carpets and laminate wood floors are being ripped up and replaced with polished concrete, and perhaps driven by people occupying ever smaller living spaces in urban centres, minimalist furniture and exposed concrete walls are all the rage.
I’ve been on my own journey with brutalist architecture. Like a lot of people, I just thought it was ugly. And the thing is, on the face of it, I suppose it is kind of ugly. It wasn’t until, during a family holiday in the south of France more than a decade ago, I was “dragged along” by my girlfriend Daisy’s father (Andy) to visit a group of buildings. Andy is an architect, and the buildings in question were on the outskirts of Marseille. They were designed by Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. On first glance, they seemed pretty unremarkable; 1950s/60s style concrete blocks of flats.
Andy was fascinated by them, and was pointing out all sorts of characteristics that I would never have noticed. For example, each building was on stilts, the idea being that there was a continuous space underneath the buildings to prevent one from feeling claustrophobic, and to provide recreational space for families and children. The block we were looking at also had a central floor to accommodate all of the conveniences that the inhabitants of the block might need: bakers, greengrocers etc. It was literally a building for living in, rather than just a block of flats.2
Yet the thing that I find most fascinating about brutalist architecture today is what the brutalists were actually trying to achieve. It’s not just about making spaces for living – after all, why do they need to be these giant concrete monstrosities? You can have the characteristics listed above in a regular looking building that’s easier on the eye. No, brutalist architecture was also about a rejection of the entrenched traditions around architecture, and what buildings should be. It was about exposing the thought and structural engineering that went into producing a building. In this sense, brutalist buildings are honest and unpretentious.
There is also a political slant to the movement. Brutalist buildings are anti-bourgeois, and in the pure sense of the word they are socialist. Each flat has the same proportions as the last, and the design of the building encourages communal living.
I have come to love Flaine. I first visited it in 2010, and it’s fair to say I didn’t get it. I came with Daisy as a student because it was cheap. The skiing was good, the resort was ugly. But on closer inspection, it really is quite wonderful. In 2010, I failed to notice the works of art in the Forum by Picasso and Dubuffet. I failed to notice that the resort was car-free, and that everything was intentionally walkable. I failed to notice that the hue of the concrete of the buildings very intentionally matched that of the naturally occurring rocks around the resort. Though, to be fair, it’s easy to miss that in the snow!
All of this is a very long-winded way of saying, you can imagine my delight this morning to discover an article about the emerging brutalist movement in web design. And I have borrowed the title of this post from it. I discovered it via the wonderful Jeremy Keith. Check out this collection of brutalist websites.
- The British/Dutch aspect is probably due in part to its close proximity to Geneva. ↩
- Read more about Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unit%C3%A9_d%27habitation ↩
Although I have very different feelings towards brutalism — despite some of its noble goals — I quite enjoyed this read. (Perhaps one of its fundamental flaws was that it sought to elevate Man above City, the latter deemed lost, instead of reforming City and preserving the essential synergy between both.) (The second flaw might be the thinking that all of architectural tradition was dismissible without acknowledging that at least a sliver of it could check the boxes of a baseline human sense of aesthetics.)
Regarding the linked article on emerging tendencies, most of what I see there I would rather ascribe to Bauhaus, even if the influence isn’t conscious. To me, the brutalist Web is embodied by one of my favorite places:
Thanks for this thoughtful and considered comment Miguel. Despite being a fan of brutalism, I’m certainly not trying to say it’s perfect. A world in which all buildings were brutalist would be a very sad one indeed!
I also agree with you on your point about Bauhaus. Though if I’m not mistaken, the two are inextricably linked. Marcel Breuer was a student of Bauhaus for example, and so much of Flaine is very distinctly Bauhaus. E.g. the door handles, the light fittings, the furniture inside all of the buildings, the artwork on the walls etc.
I’m so glad you’ve linked to that site. I was wracking my brains a month or so ago trying to remember it.
“Good design is as little design as possible.”
– some German motherfucker 😀
Great essay, Jack!
If you ever get the chance, do visit Karlovy Vary, Czechia. Once a spa town for the rich (and predominantly German-speaking) bourgeoisie in 19th century Bohemia, communist Czechoslovakia in the 1960s implanted a spa hotel for the working class right into its heart: https://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_Thermal
I underwent a similar shift of perspective as you did: Upon first visiting Karlovy Vary in 2001, I thought the Hotel Thermal was one of those real-socialist architectural abominations. I’ve later warmed to the contrast that is Karlovy Vary nowadays: ensembles of 19th century villas, colonades, even some baroque churches, juxtaposed with that mighty concrete structure.
This is curiously reflected by visitor demographics: Throughout the year, it’s mostly elderly Germans, Russians, and Arabs that go there. For the first week of July, the town is crowded with (comparatively young) film buffs from Czechia and abroad — for the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The Thermal, with its two large and various smaller theaters, serves as the festival center and buzzes with life and activity during that time.
By the way, Architekturzentrum Wien currently has an exhibition called ‘SOS Brutalism’. https://www.azw.at/en/event/sos-brutalism/ I haven’t yet seen it, but wanted to point it out in case you happen to be in Vienna in summer (it runs till Aug 6).