A new exhibition of Yugoslav architecture at MoMA is a refreshing antidote to the online world's obsession with minimalism.
Brutalist architecture has become a kind of visual shorthand for Cold War-era socialism. Their looming concrete towers, so devoid of ornamentation, remind us of scary Soviet dictators. Their devotion to functionality also embodies socialist principles. Yugoslav architects built ergonomic housing, where each unit was the same size; large and accessible kindergartens, so that everybody of all genders could go to work; and dreamed of rebuilding entire cities for better, more efficient living.
But this aspect of brutalism is not part of an ongoing political conversation. American culture is engaging with a postcard version of the design that found such favor with governments seeking to reimagine public space after World War II. This is the nostalgic, internet-optimized version of history, and it has become very popular. As The New York Times Style Magazine declared in 2016: “Brutalism Is Back.” Photographs of brutalist buildings are all over Tumblr(see: “Fuck Yeah Brutalism”) and Instagram, where accounts like @brutal_architecture showcase “the beauty, menace, and raw power of brutalist architecture around the world.”
When Tumblr users reblog photographs of brutalist architecture, they turn them into pieces of furniture for their own pages. On Instagram, the effect of reblogging, or posting found images on a user’s feed, is to create of visual map to the user’s identity. There’s nothing wrong with this practice per se; it’s a very democratic way to access visual culture. But the social aspect to social media has turned the cultivation of aesthetics into an exercise in personal branding.
Every new generation does something new and destructive with its artistic inheritance. The great modernist architects did it themselves, cultivating an allergy to the curlicued fussiness of Art Deco, for example. But it is unlikely that the administrators of @brutal_architecture are much interested in the Croatian children who sat in those beautiful 1960s kindergarten classrooms—and those children are precisely the audience for whom these buildings were intended. It is not possible to relate to these buildings on a purely aesthetic level, because their use-function is an inextricable element of their form.
The historical and political relation of Brutalist architecture to our present moment is not the stuff of Instagram captions, not least because it won’t fit. It’s melted into the concrete itself.