RelativeCity: Is Brutal Brutal?

Raw Concrete


mC:t    2015.06.11    #RelativeCity


What is Brutalism?


Most people who have lived in Calgary are somewhat familiar with the word, given the number of buildings in the city coined with the tag of being Brutalist. But the term itself is so elusive that a concise and precise definition is difficult to find.


According to the Oxford Dictionary, Brutalism has two terms:

(1) Cruelty and savageness

(2) A stark style of functionalist architecture, especially of the 1950’s and 1960’s, characterized by the use of steel and concrete in massive blocks [1]


Neither of these definitions is exactly becoming (or accurate), which is where Brutalism in the architectural context has received its bad reputation.   The true origin of buildings classified as being Brutalist comes from ‘Béton Brut’, which translates from French into ‘Raw Concrete.’ [2] Ideologically, it was a reaction to the International Modernist movement that had reigned supreme since the 1920’s. [3] This is where the proverbial light bulb should come on; Brutalism has as much to do with being brutal as any other architectural typology.


Unfortunately, many Brutalist buildings have been abandoned, neglected or demolished before their time because of these misconceptions about Brutalism. A prime example in Calgary is the Calgary Board of Education building, which was sold to “an institutional investor in Western Canada” for $35.5 million in 2012, [4] part of which paid for the new state-of-the-art CBE headquarters coming in at a price tag of $285 million. [5] Needless to say there was much controversy surrounding the sale and the assessed need for the new building. The fate of the old building, a prime example of Brutalist architecture, has yet to be officially revealed.


CBE Building

The former Calgary Board of Education Building, located at 515 McLeod Trail, S.E.


On the bright side, Calgarians are finally coming around to embracing their brief history and attempting to preserve the city’s Brutalist architecture. The Centennial Planetarium, which completed construction in 1967, housed the Telus World of Science until 2011. [6] Given its heritage status and stance as a Calgary icon, it is now slotted to become an art gallery in collaboration with Contemporary Calgary, whose vision is “…to provide Calgarians and visitors a significant destination dedicated to contemporary visual art.” [7] Moving down 8th Avenue, Century Gardens, completed in 1975 for Calgary’s centennial, is destined to receive a facelift to its Brutalist landscape. Its historical significance is being maintained partly thanks to the input of several community members urging the concrete waterfalls to remain. [8] Click here to listen to a radio interview with Sheldon Quinn, the architect who designed the original park.


Centennial Planetarium Aerial

An aerial photo of the Centennial Planetarium, currently being converted into an art gallery in collaboration with Contemporary Calgary


Century Garden Concept

The preferred concept for Century Gardens, located at the corner of 8th Street and 8th Avenue S.W.


One group that advocates for the preservation of Calgary’s Brutalist and other historically significant pieces of architecture is the Calgary Heritage Initiative. They are “…Dedicated to the preservation, productive use and interpretation of buildings and sites of historic and architectural interest in Calgary” and focus on awareness, networking, policy development, development watch and research [9]. The organization even arranged a Brutal Bus Tour in 2011, highlighting Calgary’s premiere Brutalist architecture sites.


Do you think Brutalism is brutal, or beautiful?

What do you think should be done with the old Calgary Board of Education building?

What is your favourite Brutalist building in Calgary?




Next: Coming soon…

Previous: RelativeCity: “Sorry, We’re Closed”


[1] “Brutalism,” Oxford Dictionaries. Accessed June 5, 2015.

[2] Smith, Jay. “Brutalism has long had an unfortunate name and a bad reputation.” Calgary Herald. Published December 19, 2014. Accessed June 5 2015.

[3] Chasin, Noah. “Ethics and Aesthetics: New Brutalism, Team 10. And Architectural Change in the 1950s.” Vol. 1. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest, 2002.

[4] “CBE Sells Former Education Centre.” CBCNews Calgary. Published June 25, 2012. Accessed June 5, 2015.

[5] McClure, Matt. “Education Minister Defends Past Push for New CBE Headquarters Amid Education Funding Crunch.” Calgary Herald. Published September 9, 2014. Accessed June 5, 2015.

[6] “A Step Forward for the Former Centennial Planetarium.” The City of Calgary Newsroom. Published March 7, 2014. Accessed June 5, 2015.

[7] “Facility Vision.” Contemporary Calgary. Accessed June 6, 2015.

[8] Markusoff, Jason. “Century Gardens Redevelopment will Address Crumbling Concrete While Quelling ‘Undesirable Activity.’” Calgary Herald. Published October 4th, 2014. Accessed June 6, 2015.

[9] “Introducing the Calgary Heritage Initiative.” Calgary Heritage Initiative. Accessed June 6 2015.


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