Architecture & Totalitarianism

The rise of Brutalism...

How did theaters go from this…

…to this?

Brutalist architecture swept the world in the 20th century, transforming venues like the first from ornate and human, to the dreary inhumanity of raw concrete.

Why on earth did this happen?

How did people have the audacity to put up structures like this?

To understand it, you need to understand something much darker: 20th century totalitarianism…

Rebuild the World

The City of London, 1945

It was 1945. The world had to be rebuilt.

WWII bombs destroyed 116,000 buildings in London alone. Across Britain, displaced families needed 750,000 new places to live.

And it wasn’t just England — from Western Europe to South Asia, countries raced to resurrect their infrastructure from piles of rubble.

With traditional materials like wood and stone becoming increasingly expensive and time-consuming, alternatives like concrete, steel, and sheet metal took over.

These materials were cheap, and they took a fraction of the time to put up. Most importantly, they were industrially available — critical for cities that needed to build back at scale, and fast. So, devastated post-war nations went to work pouring and pounding these materials into place.

The result? A world of new hospitals, new apartment complexes, new libraries, new universities: all made from pastel gray concrete.

From Convenience to Conviction

You might say the post-war construction crisis was the mother of brutalism. It is not hyperbole to say its father was totalitarianism.

After WWII, socialism was already well on its way to capturing the imagination of Western intellectualism. As members of the intelligentsia studied socialist ideology, they looked for opportunities to spread its values in the public realm.

What better way to do so than quite literally building it into the landscape?

For numerous reasons, brutalism was the perfect vehicle for socialist messaging to find its expression in architecture. And over time, economic and philosophical forces combined to advance its construction everywhere.

But can architecture really be ideology?

To understand it, first examine this quote by Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin:

“Only by abolishing private property and building cheap and hygienic dwellings can the housing problem be solved.”

In Lenin’s mind, the entity responsible for fixing the housing problem was not the private sector, but the government. And, of course, the government would have to deploy totalitarian measures to implement that reform.

Here’s where it gets interesting: Lenin’s philosophy, while nominally in favor of a dictatorship of the proletariat, detailed that the proletariat can only be properly guided into power by the workings of a “vanguard party”. Or, in other words, by a group of hyper-class-conscious revolutionaries which guides the proletariat out of their “prejudices” — and into the “right belief.”

This aspect of Leninism belies a fundamental mistrust in everyday people. For starters, the Bolsheviks deemed vernacular architecture (which we discussed last week) “unhygienic”. Lenin was afraid that if people were allowed to build by themselves, they might default to learned bourgeois behavior — and none worse than the crime of beautifying one’s property to stand out from the rest.

For these reasons and more, socialism found its perfect ally in brutalism: cheap, conformist, industrial, and centrally planned architecture that played perfectly into the ruling party’s economic, political, and philosophical considerations.

Concrete and Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier’s Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh, India

The real marriage of communism and concrete was officiated, however, not by Lenin, but by a Western architect.

Born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, “Le Corbusier” was a Swiss-French architect of the early 20th century who fell in love with the blocky forms that would later be known as brutalism. His designs were severe, blank, and angular. And he was convinced they were the only “right” way to build.

Like totalitarian philosophers, he believed the world was enslaved to outdated traditions. For him, classical architecture was based on the “primitive” ideals of beauty. The masses didn’t know what was good for them, and it was up to Le Corbusier to tell them.

So what was good for them? In Le Corbusier’s words: 

“We must create a mass-production state of mind… a state of mind for living in mass-production housing.”

This state of mind viewed objects not as elements of culture, but simply as things to be used. Houses weren’t homes but “machines for living in.” And of course, people were viewed as part of a collective, not as unique individuals.

It’s hard to miss the parallels between his philosophy of architecture and the totalitarian philosophy of life:

  • Reducing people to cogs of the state machine, or state property

  • Viewing the collective as more important than the sovereign individual

  • Measuring people in terms of their material potential, and ignoring their unique human dignity

Le Corbusier was himself a totalitarian philosopher, and dreamed that cities would become the perfect backdrop for a brave new world to unfold. In his “revolutionized city,” undifferentiated houses would prevent any impulse toward owning private property. The blank façades would rebuff any attempt at unique expression.

In fact, like totalitarian leaders, he made clear his intent to erase all cultural uniqueness, including its architectural beauty, just about everywhere:

“Oslo, Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Algiers, Port Said, Rio or Buenos Aires, the solution is the same,” he asserted, “since it answers the same needs.”

Brave New Concrete World?

Le Corbuser’s “Plan Voisin” for Paris, 1925

Le Corbusier’s great ambition was to “clean and purge” cities with architecture that was enslaved to tradition and which rotted with organic material. He would replace these errors with pristine and sterile uniformity.

He believed that the past was tyranny, and that it’s man’s job to be liberated from it: even if the past is more inspiring and ennobling than the present. It was his destiny to destroy the beauty of the old world (unimaginative as it was) and to build a new hyper-efficient society in its place.

Le Corbusier sought to liberate Paris, too. He set out to erase Haussmann's iconic 19th century renovations and to demolish vast swathes of the Seine’s Right Bank. Haussmann’s city planning, he raved, was a system of economic segregation. Instead of elegant Haussmannian terraces, there must instead rise up 18 identical skyscrapers.

Here’s how Paris would have looked if those plans were implemented…

Of course, the city authorities saw sense and Le Corbusier’s plans were thrown out. But that didn’t stop his ideas from spreading — his plans for Paris were read and showcased around the world: in periodicals, manifestos, and at industrial exhibitions.

While his grand plans for Paris may never have materialized, Le Corbusier set in motion a new, “modernist” architecture which rejected the need for outward beauty. Architecture from then on focused not on what an ornamental façade can do for the senses, but instead fixated on space, light and modern amenities at the cost of all else.

Architects simply knew what was good for us.

Art of the Week

Let’s stay in France, but shift gears:

The Raft of the Medusa - Théodore Géricault (c.1819)

Géricault based this painting on the story of an actual ship that crashed off the western coast of Africa in 1816, in which the survivors were carried “to the frontiers of human experience. Crazed, parched and starved, they slaughtered mutineers, ate their dead companions and killed the weakest.”

Géricault portrays these horrors with shocking realism. He had been obsessed with the story of the disaster since it first made headlines in France, and went to lengths to make his painting worthy of its subject matter: he personally interviewed two survivors, and even visited morgues to study the skin color of those who perished in the disaster.

Where it gets more interesting, though, is when you learn how Géricault’s painting influenced a later French masterpiece, Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Liberty Leading the People - Eugène Delacroix (1830)

Completed about ten years after The Raft of the Medusa, Delacroix’s masterpiece is one of the most famous images of the French Revolution. It harkens back to Géricault’s work by imitating a few of its key elements:

  • Stormy color scheme

  • Disturbingly realistic depiction of corpses

  • The triangular shape of foreground figures

The key difference though is that in Liberty Leading the People, the main character waves a flag of victory, instead of using it to call for help.

The similarities between the pictures make you ask: is Delacroix’s painting as victorious as it appears?

When you look at Liberty with Medusa in mind, your eye might be more likely to linger on the corpses under the feet of Lady Liberty, rather than her outstretched arm. What if Delacroix was quietly offering some doubts about the heroism of that bloody revolution?

What if he was subtly comparing the revolution as a shipwreck, and portraying its adherents as being in more danger than they know?

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