Color, Composition, and Scale: Analyzing Brutalist Photography
Sometimes sculptural and expressive, sometimes monolithic and monotonous, the Brutalist architectural style is equal parts diverse and divisive. From its origins as a by-product of the Modernism movement in the 1950s to today, Brutalist buildings, in architectural discourse, remain a popular point of discussion. A likely reason for this endurance is — with their raw concrete textures and dramatic shadows, brutalist buildings commonly photograph really well.
Experiencing architecture is a spatial and physical affair. Our understanding of many buildings, however — due to the practical limitation of not being able to visit every structure in the world — is gleaned from photographs, something that is heightened in today’s technological reality (take the popularity of image-sharing platform Instagram). Photographers of Brutalist architecture, in the visual and compositional techniques they use, and in the choice of subject matter, have told extremely diverse narratives of this highly evocative architectural style.
With Brutalism’s emphasis on form and materiality, some photographers elect to not shoot in color, allowing the architectural elements of Brutalist architecture to take center stage, in addition to highlighting highly dramatic interplays of light and shadow. Rodolfo Lagos’ photographs of Barcelona’s Brutalist sights are Black-and-White snapshots, for instance, emphasizing the geometric exteriors of icons such as the Colon Building and Claudio Carmona’s Autopistas Acesa. In Beirut, architect Hadi Mroue similarly opted for Black-and-White photography, rectilinear structures designed by Antoine Romanos and Gregoire Serof depicted in this way to emphasize the slab form of their roofscapes.
Brutalism: The Architecture Style We Love to Love
When this approach is departed from in favor of color, another understanding of Brutalist architecture in different contexts takes shape. Architecture photographer Roberto Conte’s photo series, examining Brutalist forms built between the 1960s and ‘80s, is vibrant. Shot on sunny days, underneath cloudless skies, the pale grey concrete of residential buildings for the Military Housing Cooperative creates a rich contrast with the ground-level trees and vegetation hanging from balconies. The Brutalist buildings of Barcelona and Madrid — cities with similarly mild, Mediterranean climates — are viewed in two completely different ways dependent on this visual choice. The color in Conte’s photography adds a certain lightness to concrete forms, making them blend in, relatively, with the surrounding landscape. Lagos’ Black-and-White images in many ways emphasize the heaviness of Barcelona’s Brutalist structures, the vegetation, instead, retreats to the background.
But even in climates cooler than in Barcelona, Madrid, and Beirut, color — or a lack of it — can create extremely emotive representations of Brutalist architecture. Alexander Veryovkin’s photographs of Soviet-Era monotowns for Zupagrafika are taken in winter, where selectively painted facades contrast with the white snow. With this use of color as a photographic and narrative technique is another key component — scale. Veryovkin’s images very much accentuate the imposing scale of the many apartment buildings in cities such as Vorkuta, Mirny, Norilsk, and Kirovsk. The architecture almost overwhelms the camera lens, and solitary figures are pictured walking amidst these structures, dwarfed by concrete blocks behind them.
In Alexey Kozhenkov’s photo series “Spaces for Winds,” the Brutalist architecture of Belgrade’s outskirts is represented with a similar sense of emphasized scale. One photograph, of the residential complex known as the “TV Building” features a lone person looking up at the apartment building’s boxy balconies and windows, and another, taken in Genex Tower, features a walking figure in the foreground overlooked by its concrete elevation.
But what about the people? Brutalism as an architectural style has continuously received criticism due to its monumentality and a perceived lack of care for the human scale. Photography of Brutalist architecture can be guilty of perpetuating this, as the street level is ignored in favor of getting an entire building in the frame. Iwan Baan’s documentation that accompanied the exhibition and the book “African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence,” departs from this, instead favoring a more people-centered perspective.
A photograph of Nairobi’s Wakulima Market prioritizes the activity of trading that takes place in the market, with its distinctive concrete columns very much an unmissable element of the composition without being overpowering. Lusaka’s University of Zambia, composed of linear concrete cuboids, is depicted in one image through the ground-level viewpoint of students and faculty in a communal area. In another image, of Nairobi’s iconic Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC), the norms of architectural photography are practically eschewed, featuring the interior of the building — but features in the center of the frame a suited man using his phone, perched on a balustrade. This particular image may not offer a lot of information regarding KICC’s bold architectural form, but it is a useful picture of the individual, oftentimes mundane activities that take place in Brutalist landmarks.
There is a layer of subjectivity of course, to meanings gathered from photographs. What is apparent in the photography of Brutalist architecture, from color, composition, and scale, to indeed — the human element, is the approaches to photography are as wide-ranging as the buildings themselves.