Strange but Cute: Gaudi and Hundertwasser vs. Brutalism

[Edited to add: Some images were copyright and had the watermarks stripped off. I was not aware of that. Those images have been removed.]

Can concrete buildings be attractive, or at least neat? I was reading an article lamenting the lack of historical preservation granted to 1950s-70s Brutalist architecture, and then started thinking about concrete. Which led to Gaudi and La Sagrada Familia, and because I’m Odd, the Hundredwasser Haus in Vienna. Personally, I will not miss most Brutalist structures, although in a few cases, what replaced them is less attractive, at least to me. I understand why some Brutalist structures were constructed, but that doesn’t improve the aesthetics.

Brutalism is the term applied to the heavy, grey cement and steel and glass structures built between roughly the Bauhaus period of the 1930s and the 1970s. The 1960s were sort of the heyday for the stuff. Officially, it began in the 1950s as a “modern” aesthetic to counter the nostalgia of the 1940s and the neo-Everything styles of the late 1800s-early 1900s. It tends to be mostly steel and concrete, with basic shapes (square, oblong, a few curves, or a lot of really strange curves) and no trim. It was not painted, and loomed in a morose grey way over the cities of England, Europe, and the US. It was very much form and function, without wasting materials on decorative features. It could be built quickly if the design were simple. Some later designs push the limits of materials and structure. It was considered very modern, the style of the future. Universities adopted it, although usually with more decoration and trim.

Not simple, but cold. That’s the library at UC – San Diego. Source:

From a CNN article about saving Brutalism. This is public housing in Warsaw.

Critics leaped to attack the new design style. It was cold, hard, boring, unhuman. The use of quasi-Brutalist as the preferred building style of Communist dictators didn’t help the reputation of Brutalism, and led to the joke that it was “Stalin Baroque” or “Khrushchev Eclectic.” As much as I loathe Stalin, his taste in building style wasn’t quite that bad. It wasn’t great, but he was old-school and favored grandiose and palatial. Those are terms not applied to Brutalism, although grandiose might fit (in the negative sense, often, if you are in the Eastern Bloc). Another flaw with the style is that running pipes and conduits and wires through the buildings is very hard, unless you build a framework inside and hang paneling. Or run everything outside, which has its own flaws.

However, concrete buildings are easier to make in a hurry, weather and location permitting. They are less expensive than steel and glass, much less than stone or wood or brick in many places. Concrete scales up easily, something not true of wood and brick. If you needed something relatively fast, relatively cheap, and pretty sturdy if done right, Brutalism it was. That described a lot of the rebuilding done in the non-historic parts of Europe after 1945.

In contrast, Gaudi took cement and did weird and wonderful things with it. It looks organic, flowing and touched with color. Now, his style is NOT fast or inexpensive, and required a lot of engineering to make work, especially the great cathedral of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.


The interiors can be relatively sane (like in the apartment house) or off the wall.

Antoni Gaudi worked on commission, and was pushing the limits of what was possible in the 1900s-1920s. Casa Batllo is part of that.

And then there’s the cathedral, which is almost finished. Only a hundred years or so in the making, which for a cathedral is about average. Average if you go back to the 1000s, that is.

The drippy bit is NOT what people expected, but it’s cool.

It’s cool, and controversial. The source article for the above image goes into a lot of detail.

I think it is the curves and the playful sense in Gaudi’s work, and that of Hundertwasser in Vienna, that appeals to me. It’s not about being modern or industrial or powerful, but about playing with forms. It has the same problems as Burtalist in terms of materials and pipes and wires, and leaks. But it feels more human.

There are virtues in both, but I don’t care for Brutalism unless it is modified and softened.


Arches and Beams

There are several ways to keep the outdoors out of buildings. Flat roofs (which are not really 100% flat in most cases), thick layers of brush and small branches to make a dense layer, mats of woven stuff under turf, wooden beams with sod on top (and cloth or newspaper to slow the leaks and divert falling critters), stone, metal over wood and stone . . .

Heavy wood beams on top of heavy structure, covered in thin pieces of wood. That’s what you do when wood is available and needs to last a long time. I’d guess that the core of this Polish shed went back to the late 1800s. The reforestation of the 1800s had made wood more available than it was between 1600-1820.

When wood is in short supply, you build with imported wood, then cover it with plaster and thatch. The thatch weighs less than a tile or slate or wooden roof of the same quality, allows better air flow but retains heat, and lasts for 30-40 years when done properly. A good thatch roof in northern Germany (Schleswig-Holstein in this case) is up to 24″ thick. In the case above, the materials are reeds brought in from the Low Countries and England, since the local reeds are not numerous enough, or grow in protected areas and can’t be harvested in the needed quantities. A wooden frame supports the thatch. Fire isn’t as much of a hazard as you’d think, at least in that part of Germany, because it tends to be wet.

However, since fire was one of the greatest hazards of urban areas in the Middle Ages, those places that could required slate or tile roofs. In the north, in the German lands, Low Countries, and Poland, brick replaced the non-existent stone and very expensive imported wood.

Slate, lead, and copper over wood and brick, with some stone. This is Lübeck, the center of the Hansa trade network, and very wealthy. Fire-resistant roofs replaced thatch at a relatively early date. Brick also took the place of both wood and stone. The large holes in the “spine” of the building on the left are to allow the wind through. The stepped roof lines serve a similar purpose – North Sea winds are fierce when they get going, and there’s not many hills or other things to break the flow of air over the land. Ground floors often served as floodways. You didn’t store or build anything on the ground floor that you weren’t willing to either sacrifice or have get wet. The water came at you from both directions up in this part of Europe.

I mentioned timbers?

Mind your head when you get up, or when you stand quickly near the washroom. This is from an old hotel in Olomutz, Moravia, Czechia. Wonderful place, but not for the tall or forgetful. It had a tile roof, probably synthetic tile because of the weight and because of hail. I was on the top floor because, well, I’m small, can carry my luggage up medieval staircases, and don’t mind hiking up steep and narrow medieval staircases. (The porter meant well, but I was in a hurry and other people needed his help a lot more than I did.)

When you have more wood than you need, so to speak, you can do this:

This is down almost on the Polish/Slovak border, in the mountains. Wooden roof because fire is not a danger, wooden building because wood was cheap in terms of labor and supply both. Cheap being relative, however. Parts of Eastern Europe, like western Europe, had occasional shortages of the desired types of wood, even if wood in general was plentiful to “not scarce”. I couldn’t get into this church because a service was in progress. The interior is plastered and painted.

When we think of wood and timber shortages, most of us think about England and Britain in general, because that was one reason given for sending people to the Americas – find wood. Also, the traditional history of the Industrial Revolution centers on a lack of wood for fuel, so coal came into use, which along with the pump led to the use of steam and mechanizing factories and . . . As always, the story is more complicated, but good building timbers tended to be relatively scarce going back to, oh, the Roman Era. When you build things like:

Another, older church is below. It goes back to the 1100s, although I suspect the roof joists are not that old. It was the the first church in England built to honor St. Olaf, and is in York. It was a parish church, and is still active. The oldest surviving beams below date to the 1400s.

If you can’t afford any of those, or your trees are all too short?

Thatch and turf on turf. It works.