Our Future Past

The Ross Building at my alma mater, York University in Toronto, has often been used by film students to depict a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Its imposing size, sharp angles, and modest decoration make the building appear alien and from the distant future. At York, the common story is that you could drive tanks up the building to quash any civil unrest. 

The truth is less sensational. My university exemplifies the Brutalist style of architecture—one with the strong belief that decoration is unnecessary. It’s characterized by architects like Louis Kahn and Alison and Peter Smithson, and is a staple of science fiction. The original Star Wars films, for example, used the style for the interiors of Star Destroyers. The Burnaby Mountain campus of Simon Fraser University has doubled for alien worlds in Battlestar Galactica and Stargate SG-1. Even the optimistic Star Trek franchise uses Brutalism’s clean lines and simplicity.

In videogames, we’ve virtually experienced Brutalism while exploring the buildings and bunkers of the Halo series, surviving the testing labs of Portal, and sneaking our way into the imaginary future Detroit of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. While navigating these fictional futures, we were in actuality visiting the campuses of universities designed in the 1950s, like York and the University of California, Irvine. For example, once while navigating the bowels of York, I found myself in a freight elevator right out of Alien Trilogy (1996) for the Sega Saturn; and as I write this now, I’m reminded of Serif Manufacturing and Court Gardens in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. As the elevator doors opened, I found myself in a dimly lit concrete corridor, ready to fight some facehuggers. I easily dreamed that I had stepped into another world. 

Historically, Brutalism was an attempt between the 1950s and ’70s to create monumental structures of glass, steel, and concrete. These buildings lacked the ornamentation of previous styles, such as the columns of Neoclassical (The White House), the Egyptian relief sculptures of Art Deco (as seen in BioShock), and the flowers and ovals of the Baroque (several of the aristocratic buildings in the Final Fantasy series). Brutalist architecture was to be simple: it was meant to symbolize the architecture of the people, architecture that was elegant and on budget. 

While navigating these fictional futures, we were in actuality visiting the campuses of universities designed in the 1950s.

Even though Brutalism is a 20th-century movement, it was anticipated by much earlier buildings designed, but not built—such as the architect Etienne-Louis Boullée’s Cénotaphe à Newton (1784). These buildings express a ruthless rationality. Their bare features are meant to highlight the materials used. Nothing is added to make the buildings “pretty.” After the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, Neoclassical ornamentation was seen to represent the arrogance, decadence, and ignorance of the aristocracy. It was considered a useless expense that reflected the abuse of lower classes by the upper class. 

This is why Brutalism is an architecture of equality, an idea attainable for everyone. In contrast to the Neoclassical, Brutalist buildings have no representation of a social hierarchy. Of course, there’s also the odd joke about how conveniently defendable Brutalist buildings are—making them perfect settings for military encounters in videogames that involve shooting or stealth. People have a hard time accepting a concrete bunker as a habitable earthly building, let alone a beautiful one. When we think of a “beautiful” building, we might imagine an ornate church rather than poured concrete. But I’m a constant defender of the concrete bunker, and what it represents. Equality is what we imagine people in the future will collectively love and hope to achieve. That idea, and these desolate buildings, are the reason I play first-person shooters. 

Photograph by Diana Poulsen