Contrasting Forms

Contrasting Forms

A quick google image search for “brutalist buildings” will bring up some impressive feats of architecture – from the Geisel Library in San Diego to the National Theatre in London. We see monolithic concrete structures that block out the sky. From this, however, it’s easy to see why this style is often viewed as austere and cold. We’re used to seeing photographs where they are imposing structures that dominate the frame. There are no people and only occasionally a tree branch swoops into the shot. However, these scenes do not reflect the ways in which these buildings are filled with life. Curator Olivia Broome shows us this verdant reality in her new photo book Brutalist Plants. It’s a compendium of over 150 structures overrun with flora. Some architects have incorporated greenery into their blueprints and elsewhere it’s clear that wildlife wasn’t part of the plan. Here, lush foliage and slinking vines reclaim the human-made.

In one snap, a concrete wall cuts in from the left of the frame and blocks out part of the forest view. Elsewhere, Brutalism is literally the window through which we see the natural environment. Grey walls form a square for us to see the wild outdoors. Each page of Brutalist Plants presents us with the striking balance between harsh grey lines and sinuous, organic forms. In this way, the book is a successful extension of what Broome set out to achieve when she started this project. In 2018, she began the @brutalistplants Instagram account and garnered a community of people who admired this dance between cold concrete and unkempt greenery. The idea grew into this stellar volume that doesn’t lose sight of the qualities that initially captivated Broome and countless others. The curator muses: “Here, the world stands still – the snapshots seem timeless. Is this the end of the world? Or a fresh new build waiting to be furnished?”

The most fascinating shots show Brutalist buildings completely overwhelmed by plant life. We see this in Untitled (2013), which is an installation set in the forests of Lower Normandy, France. In this environment, Berlin-based artist Karsten Födinger (b. 1978) has created a simple structure using plants and concrete. Here, seven tall trees pierce a slab of reinforced concrete so that it’s suspended above the ground – like a roof. The piece invities us to reexamine the relationship between humans and the environment. We see the full force of flora in later pages when we come to a shot of a London house covered in a blanket of ivy. Only sparse sections of wall and a tiny window are visible. We’re used to recognising Brutalism for its characteristic grey but here only the outline is an indicator of the architectural style.  

Broome enriches Brutalist Plants by taking us around the world, showing how native flora distinct to each region interacts with human-made constructions in unique ways. Journalist Alice Finney highlights this point earlier in her introductory essay, Greening the Grey. She describes how: “in the forests of Mexico, a tropical landscape serves as the dramatic counterpoint to ashy-hued, urban forms. In Quezon City, palms and grasses sprout and flex in internal courtyards.” One unforgettable image is from the I-Resort Nha Trang in Vietnam. Here, we witness a small, wiry tree growing from within an enclosed formation and out into a hole in the ceiling. Its leaves are lit up by the sun, which casts a speckled shadow on the rubble beneath. A closer look reveals small red fruits sprouting high up where the thriving plant is closest to the light.

It’s not uncommon for us to see nature flourishing in unexpected places. Wildflowers next to motorways or sunflowers on pavements are some wondrously mundane examples that might come to mind. What if the entire road was overcome by wildflowers? Brutalist Plants presents us with a vision of a world like this. We get to see the beautiful contrast between organic and human-made forms. It’s not difficult to see why we consider Brutalist structures imposing, with their solid textures and geometric lines. However, witnessing the might of branches, vines and saplings is a way for us to see that nature is just as formidable.

Olivia Broome, Brutalist Plants | Hoxton Mini Press

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, Portugal. © Irving Bartlett – @irvb @beautiful_brutalism.
  2. Monument to the Revolution, Kozara National Park, Prijedor, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Architect: Dušan Džamonja. © Alexey Bokov – @balkan.stories.
  3. Mailman Center for Child Development, University of Miami, Miami, FL, United States. Architect: Hilario Candela. © Felix Torkar – @ flxtrkr.
  4. Reinforced hillside, Aogashima, Tokyo, Japan. © Yasushi Okano – @okay.designing.
  5. Evangelische Friedenskirche (Peace Church), Monheim-Baumberg, Germany. Architect: Walter Maria Förderer. © Bildarchiv Monheim GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo.
  6. The Barbican Conservatory, London, United Kingdom. Architect: Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. © Taran Wilkhu.
  7. The abandoned Haludovo Palace Hotel, Krk Island, Croatia. Architect: Boris Magaš. © Maciek Leszczelowski – @maciekleszczlowski.