The Split Personality Of Brutalist Web Development

No frills, or flashing neon frills with sprinklers attached? ‘Brutalist’ websites have flourished in recent years, but their guiding philosophy remains unclear.

Of all the design trends to hit the Internet in recent years, brutalism is surely the most eye-catching, and the most poorly defined. A variety of major brands have embraced ‘brutalist’ aesthetics online. There are even directories for those interested in seeing a selection of them in one place. The style has well and truly entered the mainstream.

Desktop homepage of Bloomber.com
Bloomberg.com’s stark, no-nonsense design went live in 2016 and was refined in 2018. It is often touted as a leading example of brutalism’s growth online. (Large preview)

Indeed, brutalist web design has grown so quickly that there does not seem to be a clear consensus on what the style actually is. To some it means practicality, to others audacity. Much like the architecture it takes its name from, brutalist web development has become two competing philosophies in one. Neither is necessarily ‘right’, but knowing the difference is important. It may even be sensible to start calling them different things.

A Brief(Ish) History Of Brutalism

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s recap the term ‘brutalist’ — where it came from and what it means. Brutalism is a style of architecture that took off after World War II, reaching its peak in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Championing simple, geometric designs and bared building materials, the trend was in large part a reaction against the ornate, over-designed structures of preceding decades.

The name comes from béton brut, which is French for raw or rough concrete. Concrete is a common material for brutalist structures, lending itself as it does to the style’s no-frills approach. Other materials can be and are used, but concrete is especially common. Whatever structures are made of, embellishments are deemed unnecessary. The form and the materials are enough.

The United Kingdom, with its fondness for grey, drab things, particularly took to the style. Notable examples of brutalist architecture here include the Royal National Theatre, the Barbican Estate, and Balfron Tower. It has proven especially popular for public buildings — libraries, theatres, universities, housing estates, and so on.

The Royal National Theatre in London
The National Theatre in London. Designed by Denys Lasdun and opened in 1976, it is a textbook example of brutalist architecture. It is both one of the most hated and most loved buildings in Britain. Photograph by Henry Hemming. (Large preview)

Although there is not a catch-all definition that everyone agrees on, deference is often paid to English architectural critic Rayner Barnam, whose 1955 essay ‘On the New Brutalism’ attempted to outline the core ideas of the style. In anticipation of those of you who would not read the whole thing, Barnham boiled the philosophy down to the following:

In the last resort what characterizes the New Brutalism in architecture as in painting is precisely its brutality, its je-m’ en-foutisme, its bloody-mindedness.

Loosely translated, je-m’ en-foutisme translates as ‘don’t give a damn attitude. To be sure, brutalist buildings are unconcerned about conventional standards of beauty. They are also rather divisive. Where some gush over their firm, utilitarian character, others decry ugliness, impersonality, and, well, brutality.

Love it or hate it, brutalist architecture celebrates rawness. Indeed, Barnam opened his essay with a quote by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier: “Architecture is the establishing of moving relationships with raw materials.” Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation housing designs inspired a generation of brutalist architects.

Balconies at La Maison du Fada in Marseille
Balconies at La Maison du Fada in Marseille, France. Designed by Le Corbusier and completed in 1952, it was a pioneering example of brutalist residential design. Photograph by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. (Large preview)

So in short, brutalist architecture not only reduces construction to its fundamental materials, it finds beauty in that simplicity. Critics say it’s a bit in your face, a bit impersonal, a bit totalitarian even. The dual meaning of ‘raw’ and ‘brutal’ has clouded the definition, but as a rule, the goal is rawness and the result is perceived by some as brutal.

The style has waned in popularity since its postwar heyday, but it endures as one of the most distinctive around. A good few have attained listed status, and I for one am glad they have. A city of brutalist buildings would be a bit much, but a city without any is poorer for it.

FURTHER READING

Practicality Or Audacity?

So what’s all this got to do with web development? The philosophy, mainly, and the way it has splintered. Brutalism has found new life online, especially in the last three or four years. A slew of sites have taken on the brutalist moniker, and with the trend’s rise have come accompanying aw(ww)ardsarticles, and directories.

Browsing through these things you may well get the impression that not everyone is talking about the same thing. That’s because they aren’t. In the world of web development, ‘brutalist’ has grown to encompass a variety of styles. It’s a disservice to designers to keep lumping together such different approaches. I have separated web brutalism into two types below, but as we shall see even that may not be enough.

TYPE ONE: L’INTERNET BRUT

The first type of brutalist web design has much more in common with its architectural forebears. Think of it as l’Internet brut, where the raw materials are HTML and, to a lesser extent, CSS. The backgrounds are light, the text is black, and the hyperlinks are blue. There’s some wriggle room, but that’s the gist of it. No faffing about. Short of displaying actual code you couldn’t get much rougher.

The first ever website
In the beginning was the Style, and the Style was with Brutalism, and the Style was Brutalism. (Large preview)

There are countless examples of this style, big and small. The first ever website is an inadvertent disciple, while more recently Brutalist Web Design by programmer David Bryant Copeland puts forward a lovely little manifesto for the style.

Going up in the world, other websites with strong brutalist streaks include:

Although the raw materials of these sites are very similar, they don’t all look the same. They are shaped around their content and purpose. Like their architectural cousins, there’s actually a huge variety in form.

Craigslist’s London homepage as it appears in 2020
A proper l’Internet brut website. It even has grey! (Large preview)

As you can see with the Craigslist homepage above, there is very little in the way of excess, and possibly even less in the way of style. It’s barely changed in 20(!) years, because it hasn’t needed to. Take a look at the code and even a novice like me can follow how the pages are put together. You don’t have to guess how it’s built because it’s all right there in front of you.

With sites like this you’ll often notice an overlap with the ‘publicly minded’ leaning on a lot of these websites — marketplaces, forums, encyclopedias. It’s oddly appropriate to see a site like Wikipedia take on the digital form of, say, Robin Hood Gardens. Bloomberg has plenty of company in the news space as well. Papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have embraced similarly blunt, functional designs in recent years. News design has always had a strong brutalist streak.

Desktop homepage of The Washington Post website
The Washington Post’s revamped website rolled out in 2015. Newspaper designer Mario Garcia praised it at the time for ‘avoiding clutter and crowdedness.’ (Large preview)

It bears mentioning here that several of the sites used as examples here didn’t set out to be brutalist. Much like Villa Göth, which is widely considered the source of the term brutalism, they set out to be practical and simple. They were adopted, so to speak. Their success is what inspired (and continues to inspire) architects and developers alike. They’re so unconcerned about appearances that they became shining examples of brutalist design without even realizing it!

Sites in this vein don’t always scream beauty, but there is an elegance to their functionality. They are unconcerned and unpretentious, shaped for their purpose using the raw elements of the web. (Pun intended.)

TYPE TWO: L’INTERNET FOU

This is the split. Right here. Those of you with even a passing interest in web design trends will know what we’ve looked at so far fails to account for a huge number of ‘brutalist’ sites. As Vitaly Friedman noted in Smashing Book 6:

Brutalism in architecture is characterized by unconcerned aesthetics, not intentionally broken aesthetics. When applied to web design, this style often goes along with deliberately broken design conventions and guiding principles.

The rise of ‘brutalist’ design over the last few years has had a lot more to do with brutalness than with rawness. This is the madder world, at times bordering on anarchy. Here design conventions are subverted and usability is an afterthought — and that’s not when it’s being actively sabotaged. These are the sites that prompt articles titled ‘Style Over Substance’, and for The Washington Post to sum up the style as ‘intentionally ugly.’

Desktop homepage of art magazine Toiletpaper
The homepage of artists’ magazine Toiletpaper. (Large preview)
Desktop homepage of self-described brutalist website JI SOO EOM
JI SOO EOM, another site found in the Brutalist Websites directory. (Large preview)

In the suitably migraine-inducing article ‘Brutalism: BrutAl wEbsIteS for mOdern dAy webMAsTeRS’, Awwwards describes this second strain as follows:

Brutalism in web design laughs in the face of rationalism and functionality, in the world of design it can be defined as freestyle, ugly, irreverent, raw, and superficially decorative, etc.

I hope it isn’t controversial to say that this is an altogether different approach to type one. At a stretch, you might argue that this approach is more the domain of artists and graphic designers, and that art is, therefore, the rawest form their websites can take, but that would be a stretch. There’s no question brutalist architecture can drift into ‘statement’ territory, but that’s not its natural realm.

The Brutalist Websites directory suggests, ‘Brutalism [online] can be seen as a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism, and frivolity of today’s web design.’ There are shades of the founding brutalist ethos in this, but it is more irreverent and subversive. They can be very beautiful in their own way, but also cut from a completely different cloth from the Craigslists of this world.

This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Two Of Us

So there you have it. When brutalist web design isn’t going all in on rationalism and functionality, it’s laughing in the face of rationalism and functionality. All clear?

The term has grown to encompass approaches that are in many senses at odds with each other. Indeed, Pascal Deville, who founded the Brutalist Websites directory after coining the term in 2014, thinks the style has splintered into three micro-stylistics:

  1. Purists,
  2. UX minimalists,
  3. Anti-ists (or artists).

Having vetted hundreds of submissions over the years, he’d know better than just about anyone else. He says:

The purists reference strongly to the architectural characteristics of Web Brutalism, such as the concept of ‘truth to materials’ and the use of the purest markup elements available. The UX minimalists, in contrast, see efficiency and performance as the main driver of Web Brutalism and even believe that the radical limitation of possibilities can boost conversions. The ‘anti-ists’ or artists see web design as an (still) undervalued form of art and don’t show much respect the status quo and mostly get bad press.

What is a ‘proper’ brutalist website? To an extent, the answer depends on the context. If a website belongs to an artist then something brash may be more appropriate than something unconcerned. Generally speaking, though, it seems to me that the sensibilities of the ‘anti-ist’ type are actually much closer to something like Dadaism, with all its absurdity and mirth and mess, or the avant-garde leanings of Expressionism.

Small Dada Evening by Kurt Schwitters and Theo van Doesburg
Small Dada Evening by Kurt Schwitters and Theo van Doesburg. (Large preview)
Typical Vertical Mess as Depiction of the Dada Baargeld by Johannes Theodor Baargeld
Typical Vertical Mess as Depiction of the Dada Baargeld by Johannes Theodor Baargeld. Which branch of ‘brutalist’ web design do these look more like to you? (Large preview)

I don’t want this to come across as a game of semantics, where different styles are filed away neatly into little boxes. What I am more concerned with is highlighting different approaches so that each may be given the space needed to flourish. As Deville acknowledges, the creative potential of the web is still being explored. ‘It’s a new form of art and I’m very happy to experience first hand,’ he says. ‘It’s happening now.’

This has practical consequences as well. Whether you’re a developer talking to a client or a client talking to a developer, it pays to be clear which version of brutalist web design you’re on about. If you’re a real champ you’ll naturally refer them to this article. Otherwise, visual examples like the one below are likely your best bet for getting to the point.

Example to two different brutalist website styles
They’re both ‘brutalist’ so be sure what you’re asking for. The design on the left is a project by Constantin Grosnov. (Large preview)

Beyond that, maybe we should start giving different styles different names. I appreciate this would be rather inconvenient to a lot of people. Domains have been bought, awards awarded, and articles written, but going forward the label seems too restrictive. It can no longer contain so many approaches. If nothing else, the split personality of brutalist web development shows how much terrain remains to be explored in web design.

There are countless schools of art — Brutalism, Expressionism, Romanticism, Art Deco, Futurism, Dadaism, Impressionism, absurdism, modernism, minimalism, and on and on and on. They find form through paintings, buildings, literature… why not websites? As the links below show, I’m not alone in asking this. With every new development style, ‘anti-mainstream’ becomes less adequate for describing what designers are doing. They are starting to explore the philosophy of web design in ways that haven’t been done before.

The ‘Dadaist’ strain of brutalist web design has one thing absolutely right: the scope for what a website can be is far, far too narrow. The web is an infinite sandbox, and embracing the breadth of possibilities within it can only be a good thing. That starts with expanding our vocabulary.

Smashing Editorial (ra, yk, il)

The Rise of the Amnesty Thugs

Franco was an unauthorized immigrant who had been working in this country for over a decade. His wife, Anne, is from a Pennsylvania Dutch family that has been in this country for generations. They were married in 2013 and have three American children, Max, Javier and Valentina.

In the spring of 2017, Franco got in a minor traffic accident near his Pennsylvania home. A few weeks later as he was leaving for work, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement swarmed him, took him away and deported him to Guatemala.

.. This is an example of ICE going after a perfectly productive member of society. I got the anecdote from a series of reports that Deborah Sontag and Dale Russakoff did for ProPublica and The Philadelphia Inquirer. They found that 64 percent of the immigrants arrested by ICE in the agency’s Philadelphia region had no prior criminal conviction.

.. There are 11 million unauthorized immigrants in this country. Every past administration has used some discretion in targeting whom to deport. They targeted those who were destroying society, not building it. They tried to take account of particular contexts, and they tried to show some sense of basic humanity.

.. today, discretion and humanity are being stamped out. The Trump administration has embraced a “zero tolerance” policy. In practice that means that all complexity has to be reduced to uniformity. Compassion is replaced by a blind obedience to regulations. Context is irrelevant. Arrests are indiscriminate. All that matters is that the arrest numbers go up, so human beings in the system are reduced to numbers.

.. The Trump administration immigration officials have become exactly the kind of monsters that conservatism has always warned against.

For centuries, conservatives have repeated a specific critique against state power. Statism, conservatives have argued, has a tendency to become brutalist and inhumane because a bureaucracy can’t see or account for the complexity of reality.

.. Statist social engineering projects cause horrific suffering because in the mind of statists, the abstract rule is more important than the human being in front of them. The person must be crushed for the sake of the abstraction.

.. People like Stephen Miller are not steeped in conservative thinking and do not operate with a conservative disposition. They were formed by their rebellion against the stifling conformity they found at liberal universities. Their primary orientation is not to conservative governance but to owning the libs. In power they take the worst excesses of statism and flip them for anti-liberal ends
.. Here’s how you can detect the anti-liberal trolls in the immigration debate: Watch how they use the word “amnesty.”
.. Any serious reform has to grapple with tangled realities, and any real conservative has an appreciation for that complexity. But if you try to account for that complexity before an anti-immigration troll, he or she will shout one word: Amnesty!
.. This is what George Orwell noticed about the authoritarian brutalists: They don’t use words to illuminate the complexity of reality; they use words to eradicate the complexity of reality.
.. Look at how the Republican candidates for the G.O.P. Senate nomination in Arizona answered questions about a provision to keep families together at the border. They responded with inhumane abstractions: “I try not to get swayed by what the emotions are or the pressure
.. “Compromising on the rule of law to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants is the wrong path to take,”
.. “Amnesty” has become a club the trolls use in their attempt to stamp a rigid steel boot on the neck of the immigration debate. It’s the sign of a party slowly losing its humanity.

The Jordan Peterson Moment

My friend Tyler Cowen argues that Jordan Peterson is the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now, and he has a point. Peterson, a University of Toronto psychologist, has found his real home on YouTube, where his videos have attracted something like 40 million views.

In his videos, he analyzes classic and biblical texts, he eviscerates identity politics and political correctness and, most important, he delivers stern fatherly lectures to young men on how to be honorable, upright and self-disciplined — how to grow up and take responsibility for their own lives.

.. His worldview begins with the belief that life is essentially a series of ruthless dominance competitions. The strong get the spoils and the weak become meek, defeated, unknown and unloved.

For much of Western history, he argues, Christianity restrained the human tendency toward barbarism. But God died in the 19th century, and Christian dogma and discipline died with him. That gave us the age of ideology, the age of fascism and communism — and with it, Auschwitz, Dachau and the gulag.

.. Since most conflict is over values, we’ve decided to not have any values. We’ll celebrate relativism and tolerance.

.. Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters. … Most men do not meet female human standards.”

.. Life is suffering, Peterson reiterates. Don’t be fooled by the naïve optimism of progressive ideology. Life is about remorseless struggle and pain. Your instinct is to whine, to play the victim, to seek vengeance.

.. “The individual must conduct his or her life in a manner that requires the rejection of immediate gratification, of natural and perverse desires alike.”

.. Instead, choose discipline, courage and self-sacrifice.

.. Much of Peterson’s advice sounds to me like vague exhortatory banality. Like Hobbes and Nietzsche before him, he seems to imagine an overly brutalistic universe, nearly without benevolence, beauty, attachment and love. His recipe for self-improvement is solitary, nonrelational, unemotional. I’d say the lives of young men can be improved more through loving attachment than through Peterson’s joyless and graceless calls to self-sacrifice.

Goodbye to the Scaramouch

In his total absence of dignity and decorum, his violence and his vulgarity, he was the emblem par excellence of the Trump White House. That reports of his wife filing for divorce surfaced during his brief apotheosis completed the picture. Fast-talking and fatuous, self-important and servile, he embodied the “commedia dell’arte” of Trump’s dysfunctional crew.

..  Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to Trump, who recently told the BBC that, “The military is not a microcosm of civilian society. They are not there to reflect America. They are there to kill people and blow stuff up.”

..  The Scaramouch was just a stand-in for the president he professed to love. The real “braggart and poltroon” sits in the Oval Office.

.. What but some profound sense of inadequacy could explain the neediness and the nastiness, the pout and the pettiness, the vanity and the vulgarity, the anger and the aggression? This president gets off on the humiliation of others. He is inhabited by some deep violence to which self-control is a stranger. It is almost painful to watch the degree to which he pursues self-aggrandizement. He confounds masculinity with machismo. As J.K. Rowling put it in a tweet: “You tiny, tiny, tiny little man.”

.. The transgender decision .. was, in the words of Stephen Burbank, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, “an engine of malice.” It illustrated how, “In the realm of moral leadership, President Trump is leading a race to the bottom.”

..  The police department in Suffolk County also pushed back; it would not tolerate brutality.

.. But this is the president we have: turbulent, chaotic, boastful, cowardly and violent.