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.
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.
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.
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.
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)ards, articles, 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.
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.
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.
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.’
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:
- UX minimalists,
- 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.
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.
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.(ra, yk, il)
Trump, by taking a hard line on Iran, drew some needed attention to Iran’s bad behavior and created an opportunity to improve the nuclear deal. But to do so would have required Trump to admit that there was merit in the deal Obama had forged and to be content with limited, but valuable, fixes that our European allies likely would have embraced.
.. Instead, Trump pushed for the max, torched the whole bridge, separating us from Germany, France and Britain, undermining the forces of moderation in Iran.
.. Color me dubious that a president who has not been able to manage his confrontation with a stripper, or prevent leaks in his White House, can manage a multifront strategy for confronting Iran and North Korea and trade wars with China, Europe and Mexico.
.. Obama’s view of the Middle East was that it was an outlier region, where a toxic brew of religious extremism, tribalism, oil, corruption, climate change and mis-governance made positive change from outside impossible; it had to come from within. By the end of his eight years, Obama was skeptical of all the leaders in the Middle East — Iranian, Arab and Israeli — and of their intentions.
.. It made Obama a policy minimalist on the Middle East: keep it simple and focus on the biggest threat.
.. By lifting sanctions on Iran as part of the deal, Obama hoped Iran would become integrated into the world and moderate the regime.
.. By contrast, Trump’s team is made up of maximalists. They want to limit Iran’s ballistic missile program, reverse its imperialistic reach into the Sunni Arab world, require Iran to accept terms that would ensure it could never ever enrich enough uranium for a nuclear bomb, and, if possible, induce regime change in Tehran.
.. in almost every country the alternative to autocracy turned out not to be democracy, but disorder or military dictatorship. If Iran, a country of 80 million people, was to go the way of Syria, it would destabilize the entire Middle East, and refugees would pour into Europe.
.. Iran has projected its power deep into the Arab world. But that was not because of money it got from the nuclear deal and sanctions relief, as argued by Trump & friends. It was because of the weakness of the Sunni Arab states and their internecine fighting, which created power vacuums that Iran has filled
.. Israel gets censured for implanting settlements deep into the West Bank. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates get censured for contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. But the Iranians have gotten away with murder, mass murder, at home and abroad — with virtually no censure.
.. In Syria, Iran’s special forces and its mercenary recruits — Hezbollah militiamen from Lebanon and Shiite hired guns from Central Asia — have helped President Bashar al-Assad perpetrate a ruthless genocide against Syrian Sunnis, including the use of poison gas, in order to maintain a pro-Shiite, pro-Iranian dictatorship in Damascus.
.. “The aim … is changing the demography” of Syria by settling Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen “from Afghanistan, Lebanon and other countries in the region … to fill the demographic vacuum” left by the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have fled their civil war.
.. Rather than scrapping the deal, he should have told the Europeans that all he wanted to stay in the deal were three fixes:
1. Extend the ban on Iran’s enriching of uranium to weapons grade from the original 15 years Obama negotiated to 25 years.
2. Europe and the U.S. agree to impose sanctions if Iran ever attempts to build a missile with a range that could hit Europe or America.
3. The U.S. and Europe use diplomacy to spotlight and censure Iran’s “occupations” of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
.. So-called clean lifers, typically educated 20- to 29-year-olds, pursue healthy living as a way of asserting control and finding comfort in an unstable world
.. “They feel they can make a difference, and this influences their spending choices,”
.. “This means more saying no: no to alcohol; no to unhealthy habits; no to animal-based products and, increasingly, no to unmeasured or uninformed spending.”
.. In the past people ages 35 to 50 were the biggest users of Calm.com Inc.’s meditation app, but recently those in their 20s have matched them in numbers.
.. “This age group is influenced by their peers, especially on social media, and within that there’s this echo chamber continuously talking about meditation, mindfulness and healthy living,”
.. “Talking about how drunk you got the night before used to be a badge of honor, but this new generation would roll their eyes at that.”
.. Ms. Brown isn’t a vegetarian, but says she likes having the option and lately has asked friends for vegan cookbook recommendations. She visits farmers markets about twice a month for produce and regularly makes her own peanut butter. “It’s nothing too special, but it has less sugar and it tastes a little fresher,” she says... Young adults are in particular need because many of their parents didn’t cook meals from scratch, Mr. Ediger says. “They might not have learned recipes or how to follow recipes.”.. Young adults now use pour-over coffeemakers at twice the rate of the general population and are replacing their electric-drip machines with the simple porcelain devices.. “There’s nothing more minimalist than a pour-over cone on top of a cup with a filter and coffee and pure water poured on top of it,” he says. “It’s a very Zen-like, ritualistic process.”.. Young knitters and crocheters, ages 18 to 34, are learning the craft at about twice the rate of those aged 35 to 54.. Most yarn crafters say it gives them a sense of accomplishment and helps them cope with stress, she says... Young adults seeking to balance indulgence with portion control helped drive sales of Chicago Metallic’s Slice Solutions brownie pan set, which includes dividers to create 18 brownies... “Millennials and Gen Zers have a much greater sense of balance, they’re less guilty about indulgences because they’re better to their bodies every day,” says Mr. Mirabile. “With boomers, we didn’t start working out until things started falling apart.”.. When hanging out with friends, Ms. Desai prefers doing an activity, and has hung her completed artwork in her home. “There’s a sense of accomplishment when you have a good time and you complete something,”Comments:.. Reluctant millennial here. Some of this behavior, as commenters pointed out, is virtue signaling, and I have to roll my eyes at transparently hipster activities like yoga and urban knitting, but other than that, much of this seems healthy and indicative of people who are a lot more conscientious about their lifestyle. Some of this is a reaction to the shallowness of the smartphone-addicted lifestyle.
But it’s also a reaction to the Boomer generation, which for the most part is terribly unhealthy (and set an awful example for their progeny.) My parents are both in good shape, but they’re outliers who barely qualify for the Boomer label, anyway (being a teenager at some point in the 60s is a prerequisite.) Growing up around obese, leather-skinned Boomers who make lots of bad decisions (and threw their offspring under the Debt Bus) has a way of motivating young people toward a better lifestyle.
.. You know, back around the mid-60’s we had a group of young people who were going to ‘change the world’, they protested the Vietnam war, advocated lots of free sex, along with all the other hippie nonsense of the day. Those people are now running many of our universities and businesses. Didn’t work out that great for the rest of us, nor will these twits be of much benefit.
Wonder how they feel about the legalization of weed and other drugs?.. Consuming less, perhaps, but every bit as self-absorbed as Millennials and Boomers.
“I think the internet is broken,” he says. He has believed this for a few years, actually. But things are getting worse. “And it’s a lot more obvious to a lot of people that it’s broken.”
.. People are using Facebook to showcase suicides, beatings and murder, in real time. Twitter is a hive of trolling and abuse that it seems unable to stop. Fake news, whether created for ideology or profit, runs rampant.
.. “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Mr. Williams says. “I was wrong about that.”
.. The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.
.. Maybe it will be all car crashes, all the time. Twitter already feels like that.
.. “The notion that you’re going to succeed as a writing site simply by putting quality first is not compatible with venture capital revenue expectations,” said Bill Rosenblatt, a media technology consultant. “No one would have funded this if it weren’t by Ev Williams.”
.. If his vision was clear — get rid of the gatekeepers and let people talk
.. “He’s not C.E.O. material,”
.. A few years ago, Twitter was viewed as a tool of liberation.
.. Then the narrative turned darker, with the rise of trolling on the platform.
.. “It’s a very bad thing, Twitter’s role in that,” he said finally. “If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.”
.. “Ad-driven systems can only reward attention,” Mr. Williams says. “They can’t reward the right answer. Consumer-paid systems can. They can reward value. The inevitable solution: People will have to pay for quality content.”
Mr. Williams was late to arrive at this solution. The rest of the media got there long ago.
.. He suggested instead the bookstore model. Bookstores don’t commission material, but they curate it and sell it.
.. James Hong, best known for the popular rating-and-dating site Hot or Not? in the early 2000s, was an angel investor in Medium. He once told Mr. Williams that he had some new ideas about dating sites but feared that if he tackled them, “I’d be working on the same thing my whole entire life.”
.. Mr. Hong said: “It’s not a vanity project, it’s his calling. Other people calling it a vanity project actually tells me more about them than it does about Evan.”
.. “Medium feels like the perfect Obama-era platform: minimal, distinguished, self-important, elevated,” Mr. Watson says. “But as soon as the campaigns really ramped up their efforts in the primaries, we were living in a post-Obama world, metaphorically, and then literally. And that post-Obama world holds no room for minimalist, distinguished, self-important, elevated thoughtfulness.”