Brutalism Is Back! — But With Some Softer Twists

Truth be told, the post-World World II frenzy for straight lines and exposed concrete never really left. But it has evolved, as demonstrated by Kouichi Kimura's 'Tranquil House' in Japan.

The Tranquil House in Shiga, Japan
The Tranquil House in Shiga, Japan
Inés Álvarez

BUENOS AIRES — In recent months, preservationists in San Jose, California have come out in defense of stocky-shaped bank that is slated to be demolished and replaced by a gleaming tower of glass and steel.

The 1970s-era building, known as "The Sphinx," was designed by the prize-winning Argentine architect César Pelli. And while many dismiss it as being "ugly," its defenders hail it as a classic example of Brutalist architecture, an emblematic style of the mid-20th century that was all about concrete — unlike the translucent structure set to be built in its place.

In California and elsewhere, Brutalism fell out of fashion following its peak in the decades after World War II. And yet, it still has its fans, including in Argentina, where many architects consider the National Library in Buenos Aires, designed in the early 1960s by Clorindo Testa, Alicia Cazzaniga and Francisco Bullrich, to be the city's most valuable building.

Today's Brutalist buildings are symbols of another mentality.

Not only that, but the style — an offshoot of 20th-century modernism that came to be associated with low-quality housing and half-abandoned infrastructures — is making a modest comeback in some parts of the world.

Today's Brutalist buildings are symbols of another mentality, one that appreciates the elegance of simplicity, and sees honesty in materials as a homage to vernacular or local building traditions. They vary, therefore, from place to place. The reddish cement of Boston, for example, is not the same as the fine-grain variety in Japan, where a prime example of this nouveau-Brutalism is the Tranquil House, in Shiga Prefecture.

"The Sphinx" in San Jose, California — Photo: docomomous/Instagram

Built in a district of homes with tiled, sloping roofs, Tranquil House is one of more than 40 residential projects by the architect Kouichi Kimura. The plot where it sits is on a busy road, but the structure is separated from the more traditional building next door by an empty lot.

Kimura's aim was to create a home with views that was not itself unduly exposed to the gaze of neighbors. The house is thus rectangular, and runs toward a northern side that opens up as a terrace.

This is Brutalism, but with a welcoming, every-day kind of aesthetic.

The front door appears as a recess in the middle of a symmetrical facade, and is itself divided by a thick wall to suggest greater depth. Much of the interior is bathed in what the architect terms "watery light." The light is filtered through windows and thus dimmed, in other words.

Structural elements like columns and walls are designed both to give the impression of solidity, and to connect spaces. The drawing room has a flexible door to help create differing spatial experiences without shutting one space off from another. Spaces are also segmented with the differing floor and ceiling heights, without altering the broad impression of continuity in space. The same floor tiles continue for example onto the terrace.

This is Brutalism, but with a welcoming, "every-day kind of aesthetic," Kimura explains. "The sequence of spaces that follow along the length of the home's main axis create a sense of comfortable tranquility."

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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