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A notable characteristic of modernism is self-consciousness and irony concerning literary and social traditions, which often led to experiments with form, along with the use of techniques that drew attention to the processes and materials used in creating a painting, poem, building, etc. Modernism explicitly rejected the ideology of realism and makes use of the works of the past by the employment of reprise, incorporation, rewriting, recapitulation, revision and parody.

Another common theme in Brutalist designs is the exposure of the building’s functions—ranging from their structure and services to their human use—in the exterior of the building. In the Boston City Hall, designed in 1962, the strikingly different and projected portions of the building indicate the special nature of the rooms behind those walls, such as the mayor’s office or the city council chambers. From another perspective, the design of the Hunstanton School included placing the facility’s water tank, normally a hidden service feature, in a prominent, visible tower.

Brutalism as an architectural philosophy was often also associated with a socialist utopian ideology, which tended to be supported by its designers, especially Alison and Peter Smithson, near the height of the style. This style had a strong position in the architecture of European communist countries from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, GDR, USSR, Yugoslavia). In Czechoslovakia brutalism was presented as an attempt to create a “national” but also “modern socialist” architectural style.

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