The disavowal of blighted Brutalist structures is a rejection of the unconditional love of imperfection.

Reflecting on the contexts of architectural production and function, Brutalist buildings define class struggle à la Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History (1942): “a fight for crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist.”


[Aldo Loris ] Rossi was also a professor of architecture, a theorist, and polemicist, often writing for the magazine L’Architettura, which was edited by one of the great modernist architecture critics, the zealous anti-classicist Bruno Zevi.

In his most famous book, The Modern Language of Architecture (English edition, University of Washington Press, 1978), Zevi writes: “Is modern architecture hard? Probably, but it is splendid because every element, every word of it, is related to a social content.”

Zevi wrote that Rossi’s Casa Del Portuale’s “shabby, degraded coastal context […] is animated by a pioneering, spectacular, subversive object, which seems to claim an environmental redemption.”

Imagine the implications for the history of 20th-century art if it considered the Brutalist movement in architecture as directly sharing in the legacy of Cézanne. I thought of this while reading about the three versions of Cézanne’s “Bathers” in the art historian T.J. Clark’s book, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (Yale University Press, 1999), in which Clark discusses the paintings’ “savage kind of materialism” and, later, “their mixture of Grand Guignol and utopia, or absurdity and perfection.”


Aldo Loris Rossi, Casa del Portuale (1968–1980), Naples, Italy
Aldo Loris Rossi, Casa del Portuale (1968–1980), Naples, Italy © Joe Fyfe

The history of Vele di Scampia is similar to the “White Building” in Phnom Penh. Originally a pristine structure stretching horizontally along the Bassac River, it was designed and built for working people who held jobs in the city, and featured open-air stairways and kitchens near balconies to facilitate outdoor cooking. Built in 1963, the building was one of my first introductions to Cambodian Modernist architecture when I lived there a dozen or so years ago. It was a holdover the ‘60s building boom under King Sihanouk, in which the ideas of Le Corbusier, guided by state architect Vann Molyvann, merged with the building techniques of Southeast Asia, resulting in Phnom Penh’s brief ascendance as the most modern and visually dazzling city in the region.

After the demise of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the building was re-inhabited through the ministrations of the occupying Vietnamese government’s restoration project. Its new occupants were artists, singers, dancers, even circus performers; that is, the few who were left after the widespread killings that victimized the liberally educated class.

And yet, despite the organized community living there, the White Building was recently deemed irreparable and went under the wrecker’s ball. A Japanese developer stands ready to build luxury housing on what has become a valuable piece of real estate. So far, another Phnom Penh architectural masterpiece, the National Sports complex, still remains.