Boston City Hall is classified by architectural historians as an example of what has come to be called “Brutalism,” a name that carries a different connotation in English than its original French inspiration. Additionally, the term’s present-day stylistic meaning is quite different from that of the 1960’s when it was first articulated as an approach to architectural design and planning.
In France, the term beton brut refers to “raw concrete”—poured concrete that is exposed instead of being covered with another finish material. The architect Le Corbusier popularized this form of construction in his mid-20th century buildings, although numerous noteworthy examples of exposed concrete structures were found earlier in both Europe and the United States.
The most common feature of beton brut is that such concrete retains the markings of the formwork into which it was poured. For this reason, great care and design ingenuity are often applied to the construction of these forms, in order to attain a specific pattern, texture or finish. At times, the carpentry of such wooden formwork is a construction achievement in itself. In addition, architects specify the components of the concrete mix—including the sand, the aggregate and the cement—not only for the structural characteristics that result, but also for the exact color and texture. The original French term, beton brut, implies only that this building material is “natural” or “unfinished,” not that the building itself is “brutal.”
In addition, contrary to today’s popular use of the term “brutalism,” the original concept was developed in England to describe a functional approach to architectural design, not an architectural style. (See Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?, 1966.) Boston City Hall and Yale University’s recently-restored Art and Architecture Building (by Paul Rudolph) are often cited as two of the most important “Brutalist” buildings in the United States.