Brutalism, with Chinese Characteristics

HK - Central Mid Levels Escalators (Again) (4)

Honest revelation of tectonics and materiality. The social potential of architectural form. As the world enters an era of mass-urbanization, the primary ambitions of the Brutalist project are more relevant now than ever.

While only architects and masochists could love Brutalism’s eponymous concrete (and let’s see that Venn diagram!), the spatial and social ambitions of the Brutalist movement remain relevant as the world enters an era of mass-urbanization, the first waves of which are most acutely felt in Asia’s megacities.

Central-Mid-Levels Escalators, Hong Kong

China seems to be facing a crisis of modernity as rampant development rips apart the old urban fabric as completely as WWII did in Europe, displacing neighborhoods and alienating communities. Brutalist principles could alleviate these alienating effects, but only if integrated into culturally resonant and financially-successful projects.

While Brutalism proper arrived somewhat late in China (Paul Rudolph’s Lippo Center in Hong Kong comes to mind, as do John Portman’s projects in Shanghai), a kind of proto-brutalism has existed in China for centuries in the form of traditional housing typologies – typologies that Chinese architects are now mobilizing as generative diagrams for their own neo-brutalist projects.


Urbanus - Urban Tulou, Guangzhou

Urbanus – Urban Tulou, Guangzhou

Urbanus provides the most obvious example in their Urban Tulou project, a self-conscious reinterpretation of a collective housing typology prevalent in southeast China. These fortress-like roundhouses would house hundreds of people, with all social and commercial activity focused on an active central courtyard. Urbanus’ project attempts to retain that sense of community while removing the heavy earthen fortifications. Less explicit in its quotation, Urbanus’ Maillen Hillside apartments is an attempt to create public space and encourage random encounters through the folding of a continuous band of apartments, the captured spaces mimicking the courtyards of traditional sihueyuan courtyard houses.


Wang Shu/Amateur Architecture – Xiangshan Campus, Hangzhou

The courtyard typology is a popular reference, as at the Vertical Courtyard Apartments, Hangzhou, by Pritzker winner Wang Shu/Amateur Architecture. This project attempts to recreate the social spaces of traditional village through the insertion of open-air public sky-gardens in a residential tower, providing a focal point for several levels of apartments. The architects’ Hangzhou Arts Academy Campus is more recognizably Brutalist, both formally – the fragmented courtyards and multilevel circulation could be a distress Candilis-Josic-Woods scheme – and materially – the raw concrete and salvaged bricks are beton brut with regionalist flair.

John Portman Assoc. - Jianyeli

John Portman Assoc. – Jianyeli

Even John Portman turns to typological reference, in the Jianyeli project, a reconstruction of a lilong block of shikumen lane housing. This hybrid typology is a low-rise, high-density settlement pattern that emerged in response to massive population influx in the late 1800s.  Each mixed-use block is defined by a perimeter of ground-level commercial space along major thoroughfares, cut across north-to-south by wide lanes, and subdivided by small east-west alleys, from which each residence is accessed through a private courtyard. This hierarchy of space creates a fascinating gradient from public to private, encouraging community interaction at a variety of urban scales, and creating a vibrant social space that is lost in most recent apartment tower developments.

John Portman Assoc. - Jianyeli

John Portman Assoc. – Jianyeli

Portman’s Jianyeli is a reasonable facsimile in plan, but in section, the change is radical. Where old Shanghai lane houses were typically three levels (and no basement), the new Jianyeli extends vertically across five, including two below grade. Where the old residences were accessed via a progressively-narrowing series of lanes, the new is accessed primarily from the multilevel underground parking structure, each unit via elevator from its private garage, a major selling point.. Portman uses a strategy that allows interaction or solitude, a freedom of choice lacking in so many residential developments, an ambition shared by Brutalists envisioning the post-modern city.

But nowhere is the Brutalist project more evident than in Hong Kong, where multilevel circulation infrastructure – of no particular aesthetic character – has permeated and transformed the city. This incredibly complex circulation network – impossible to document by traditional means (figure-ground is useless, for instance) – creates a number of gradients – public to private, natural to artificial, commercial to residential, local to foreign – that provide a foundation for the vibrant social life of the city, and posit a Brutalist urbanism as a viable model in an era of mass-urbanization.

As always, plenty more photos available on my Flickr page: Sets on Urbanus, Wang Shu/Amateur Architecture, John Portman, and Hong Kong.

A version of this essay originally appeared in CLOG: Brutalism, February 2013. It’s an excellent issue, which I highly recommend. Available for purchase at the CLOG website. You can also find a nice write-up at ArchDaily.

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