Sunday 19 July 2009

Paris Brutal t-il?

Almost all architectural styles are visible in Paris, but I've long wondered if there are any authentic examples of the truly brutal. Coming from the United Kingdom I share my birthplace with a style of architecture that was harsh and cold, and which marked my upbringing. On Saturday afternoons we parked the family car in damp multi-story car parks then trudged around windswept concrete shopping centres watching the rain form large patches of moisture on the blank, grey exteriors.

I've since come to associate these images with the United Kingdom and had found nothing similar in Paris - until one day when I was walking across the 13th arrondissement and discovered this office block at 64-68 Rue du Dessous des Berges. The rarity of such structures could be considered surprising, as although the school of architecture was British-based, the origin of the term brutalism comes from the French béton brut, or "raw concrete". It was the English architects Alison and Peter Smithson who first coined the term in 1954, and two of their influences were also French based; one that could be safely mentioned, Le Corbusier and his love of concrete, and one that was almost unmentionable - the German sea-defences that had been built along the western coast of France.

In France where cooking is king, it is hard to imagine a material being left completely raw. And yet here is a building that is truly coarse and unrefined. This is perhaps not true brutalism as it is just too much of a regular block form, but it does have several design tricks that make it lean towards that school. The two basement levels are cut away from the street level enabling light to seep into a small plant-filled courtyard. The main building above is supported by pilotis or stilts from this level, and the only entrance into the building is through a bizarre, almost children's game-like tunnel which flies over the courtyard below.

Mostly though it is its use of plain, raw concrete that suprises in this city. Like many buildings of a similar 60s/70s vintage, especially in damper, northern climates, the concrete has suffered and is streaked and specked. The letters spelling out the address have slipped off the wall one-by-one, and yet as I walk by new residents are moving in. It is an address that is still obviously in demand and for me, oddly comforting to come across something so reminiscent of my youth.

Are there any other examples of brutalism in Paris? In reality it is a city that had no use for the style. Large parts of Britain were flattened during the war and quickly and cheaply rebuilt afterwards whilst Paris was very largely spared during the conflict. Large-scale construction projects were mostly limited to the suburbs, and it would be in some of these new towns that I would need to go if I really wanted to track down the brutal. However, whilst it can be comforting to return to your hometown, sometimes you find that after discovering new places, the previously familiar in fact becomes banal and ugly in comparison. Finding this building is sufficient for me!


Thérèse said...

I like very much your thoughts about your encounter with « brutalism.» I saw those kind of builings (unappealing to my eyes) before but did not know anything about them. My feeling is that renters usely don’t pay attention to anything else but being able to pay the rent at the end of the month.

ArtSparker said...

Do you know of Roosevelt Island in the States, attached to Manhattan by a tramway? Brutalism run the film Dark Water for a 360 degree view.

Starman said...

I think it's the contrast between these "brutal" building and those lavishly decorated that enables us to enjoy the diversity of the city's architecture.

Gina V said...

If you are familiar with the work of Louis Kahn, his son made a lovely documentary in 2003 "My Architect", sentimentalizing his father's brutalist oeuvre...definitely worth seeing even if you are not turned on by enormously thick, hard and dull grey concrete buildings!

Adam said...

Artsparker: I wasn't aware of that place, but the photos look...interesting!

Gina: Yes, I know Louis Kahn, but mostly for his connection with - why brick of course! "What do you want brick?"
I'll try to track down the documentary.

Unknown said...

Check out the Unesco building by Marcel Breuer near the Ecole Militaire and Corbu's Salvation Army building.

Adam said...

Seth: Le Corbusier's Salvation Army building (as well as his Salvation Army boat) are mentioned in my Contomporary Architecture walk (, and I've spoken about the UNESCO building before. Yes, these are some of the seminal concrete modernist structures that inspired the brutalists, but brutalism for me is something even more uncompromising.

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