Agendas, Actors and Authorship:
Reconsidering The New Brutalism. Ethic or Aesthetic?
Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)
In the last decade, Brutalism has clearly returned to the forefront of the architectural agenda. The single most important reference for any discussion of this topic has been, and remains Reyner Banham’s book The New Brutalism. Ethic or Aesthetic? simultaneously published in English and German in 1966. Written by a British author known for his work in both architectural history and architectural criticism, the book is framed as a retrospective account of the development of Brutalism punctuated by critical commentaries and personal reminiscences. When considering the book’s origins, scholars tend to refer back to Britain and to Banham’s 1955 Architectural Review article, “The New Brutalism,” establishing a thematic filiation based on the author as the lone actor in this critical discourse. In this paper, I will shift attention from the filiation to the production of the book through a case study that offers a unique occasion to examine the “workings” of architectural criticism within a specific historical moment, cultural context and network of actors.
Recent research has revealed that the genesis of the book had surprisingly little to do with the author’s national context. Triggered by debates about the direction of modern architecture in Germany, the book project was commissioned by a German architectural critic, conceived as a manifesto for an alternative architectural poetics, edited by a German publisher in a collection devoted to contemporary issues in architecture, and subsequently translated into several languages to give it an international resonance. As such, the book was not merely an index of Banham’s vision, but a work whose fundamental character was shaped by a highly engaged group of historians, critics, publishers, editors, and translators. While the genesis of Banham’s book is primarily an issue of 20th-century historiography, its close examination is also revealing of the complex nexus of actors and agendas that give form to the discourse of criticism.
Réjean Legault studied architecture at the Université de Montréal and holds a Ph.D. in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is professor at the École de design of the Université du Québec à Montréal and former head of the Study Centre at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. His research, lectures and publications focus on the historiography of modern architecture, on postwar tectonics, and on the relationship between materials and architectural modernity. His publications include Anxious Modernisms: Experimentation in Postwar Architectural Culture (co-edited with Sarah Williams Goldhagen, 2000) and numerous articles in journals, books of essays, and exhibition catalogues.