Brutal is beautiful: Canada’s brutalist masterpieces
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The history of Canadian brutalist architecture

Brutal is beautiful: Canada’s brutalist masterpieces

As architectural styles go, it’s hard to imagine any other that has been more maligned than brutalism. Heavy on unembellished concrete and often reminiscent of Soviet apartment blocks, it’s not hard to understand why it got a bad rap. Stalinist associations and cold, unblinking facades aside, however, brutalism’s clean lines and minimalist surfaces can be beautiful in the right hands. Here are a few of the best examples from across Canada.



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Habitat ’67, Montreal


The cities of the world might look a lot different had the idea behind this legendary apartment building caught on. Sadly, it remains a unique example of utopian design rendered in concrete on Montreal’s Cite de Havre peninsula. Designed and built for the Montreal Expo of 1967 by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, this modular apartment complex was meant to be an improvement on the ubiquitous and dreary concrete apartment block. Safdie’s original plan was for more than 1,000 residences to be built from prefabricated concrete cubes, complete with rooftop terraces and interconnecting walkways. While escalating costs capped the project at just 158 apartments, they were toured by a reported 50 million people during Expo ’67, and remain one of Canada’s most beloved examples of 1960s modern architecture.



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Robarts Library, Toronto


For students at the University of Toronto, Robarts Library may be just a place to get some work done in quiet, but for fans of brutalism it stands out as one of Toronto’s most recognizable structures. Completed in 1973 by Mathers & Haldenby Architects, the library has attracted plenty of praise as well as of scorn from critics, who tend to fixate on its resemblance to a giant roosting turkey. While its big concrete shapes may be intimidating and its spaces are lacking in natural light, there’s much to admire in the details. From the recessed triangular ceilings to the zen garden-like texturing of some exterior walls, Robarts presents unusual geometries and interesting plays of light and shadow at every turn.   



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National Arts Centre, Ottawa


Unlike many noteworthy Brutalist buildings that have been demolished to make way for newer, shinier ones, this National Historic Site was given massive a renovation in time for Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017. Originally designed by McGill University architecture professor Fred Lebensold (he also penned Montreal’s Place des Arts) the NAC was inaugurated in 1969 by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. With its repeating motifs of hexagons and triangles and exterior concrete panels set with crushed pieces of Laurentian granite, it’s a building that speaks to both its time and its place. Thankfully, the recent additions to the building are worthy of its original design, including the Kipnes Lantern, a street-facing glass tower set with LED screens that broadcast performances from theatres across the nation. 



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Public Safety Building, Winnipeg


Because of Brutalism’s popularity in the 1960s when Canada was modernizing its government buildings in advance of its 1967 centenary, there is no shortage of city halls and other municipal offices built in this unmistakable style. The Public Safety Building in downtown Winnipeg, with its fortress-like facade, is a textbook example of this. Sadly the years have not been kind to this brutalist landmark, whose resemblance to a sci-fi prison did it no favours in its role as a police headquarters, and whose crumbling limestone cladding was known to fall in chunks onto the sidewalk below. Like many brutalist buildings (and like the Victorian-era buildings they themselves replaced), it won’t survive the current age of urban renewal. It was shuttered in 2016 and construction is expected to begin for a new mixed-use building on the site next year.



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Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories


The wilds of Yellowknife are the last place you’d expect to find a modern architectural landmark, and that makes this museum and archives all the more special. Completed in 1979 and inaugurated by a young Prince Charles, the design of this building is clearly influenced by both brutalism and the budding post-modern style that would reach a fever pitch in the 1980s. As such, unlike more textbook brutalist structures, a large glass atrium provides a light-filled, modern counterpoint to the building’s heavy concrete forms. 


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