Eco Brutalism: Is Plant-Based Architecture The Future?

A building showing off the architectural style of eco brutalism.

Eco brutalism is pretty darn aesthetic, for lack of a better word.

Take a step into the virtual world of social media, and you’ll inevitably find yourself scrolling past captivating visuals of brutalist buildings adorned with pockets of lush, overspilling greenery.

But do eco brutalist buildings really accomplish anything positive?

While there is some merit to the movement, one could argue that eco brutalism distracts from more promising forms of sustainable architecture.

Let’s start by comparing the differences between brutalist architecture and eco brutalism.

What is eco brutalism?

Welcome to the world of eco brutalism.

A new trend grown out of brutalism, which is arguably the most recognizable architectural style of the 20th century (and one that many would consider an acquired taste).

As a reflection of the austerity of post-war society, at its core traditional brutalist architecture claimed to embody “function over form”. Aligned with this principle, materials of choice often included harsh concrete, steel, and other “honest” materials whose cheapness and modularity fuelled utopian dreams of mass and affordable housing for the people.

On the other hand, the term eco brutalism refers to a niche of architectural design that combines this classic brutalist style with forms and materials from the natural world, like plants and green elements.

eco brutalism vs brutalism

Green brutalism structures are symbols of our post-industrial urban world, elevated by a hint of dystopian imagery that has captured the imagination of many scifi and futurology fans.

This design trend combines the harsh, utilitarian feel of a brutalist building with a more nature-focused approach to architecture, speaking to our desire for function and beauty.

At the heart of eco brutalism design lies a compelling vision of humans and nature coexisting in harmony.

Rather than viewing nature as something to be eliminated in order to make space for people, eco brutalism focuses on integrating it within the built environment, creating a seamless transition between the natural and the man-made.

What are the main features of eco brutalism?

Unlike traditional brutalist architecture, the eco brutalism aesthetic mainly uses plants to define outdoor spaces. Not only do plants brighten spaces and help us relax, they’re also quite functional. Here are the main features of eco brutalism architecture:

Plants as a focal point. The most striking feature of eco brutalism are, of course, plants. Functional planters filled with native plants are featured in most examples of this architectural style, often placed in areas with easy access to natural light.

Indoor gardens. Eco brutalist gardening goes further than simply incorporating plants: within the most famous eco brutalist structures currently standing, you’ll often find extensive gardening operations. These could range from a complex indoor vertical garden to various other green elements, which are only limited by our creativity.

An example of a green roof garden on top of a building.

Outdoor gardens and green roofs. In addition to indoor gardens, eco brutalist architecture often incorporates outdoor plant fixtures as well. If you haven’t heard of a green roof system, it’s essentially a “living roof” made up of native plants. By building a green roof, architects can improve energy efficiency through minimizing water run-off – and they absorb and use the energy from the sun in ways not accomplished by traditional concrete finishing.

Sustainable and natural materials. Plants are the main focus of the eco brutalist movement, but there is a push to incorporate more environmentally sound materials in general as well. The most promising form of this would be “living concrete”, an exceptionally eco friendly material which we’ll discuss a bit further down.

Why is eco brutalism so popular?

What is it about eco brutalism that’s so captivating?

For many, it’s primarily a matter of aesthetics.

This emerging movement is closely tied to dystopian visions of a world where nature is reclaiming its rightful place, taking over literal urban jungles brimming with uninspired raw concrete.

A powerful image that speaks to our fascination with the natural world, our desire to live harmoniously with it, and the need to confront our climate grief and anxiety while facing a future of grim human design.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the idea of “nature making a comeback” to the very forefront of our collective consciousness, triggered by reports of life returning to rewild our deserted cities.

overgrown building

Others argue that this style’s emergence reflects reasons that are far more practical in nature. As aging brutalist architecture across the world continues to degrade, the cost and environmental impacts of dismantling these is proving to be higher than expected.

Fortunately, eco brutalism architecture offers modern architecture an attractive, eco friendly way to save and renew these buildings, aligning them with the broader goal of a future filled with sustainable cities where green urbanism can thrive.

Can eco brutalist design go beyond aesthetics?

A juxtaposition of contradictory ideas, eco brutalism has sparked controversy in the architecture world, similar to its predecessor. But there’s no denying that eco brutalism is a clear improvement over its original form.

eco brutalist aesthetic

By integrating green infrastructure into brutalist designs, these structures not only look better, but they actually offer numerous ecological and social benefits.

Incorporating elements like green roofs, vertical living walls, and other eco-design features can help mitigate water run-off and reduce the urban heat island effect, while minimizing atmospheric pollution.

So, what’s the catch – and is eco brutalism good or bad for the environment?

Does eco brutalist architecture have nature in mind?

Despite the appeal, some argue that eco brutalism is a textbook example of greenwashing; accusing architects of slapping a few plants on a concrete façade and labeling it sustainable in most cases.

While the end-result certainly looks eco friendly, it’s important to scrutinize the entire production process behind eco brutalist structures, and one major compromising issue is the reliance on concrete.

concrete brutalist stairs

Dubbed the most destructive material on Earth, concrete production is responsible for a sizable portion of global CO2 emissions, and is the most consumed man made material on Earth.

Take a look outside, and you’ll likely see a landscape filled with rough concrete surfaces – and maybe even various buildings following the principles of traditional brutalism.

On top of that, the steel reinforcement used in conventional construction is prone to rusting, creating durability problems and the risk of toxic leaks, all the while making recycling virtually impossible.

There’s a common misconception that concrete is a homogeneous and inert material, when in reality it’s actually made up of a complex mix of ingredients including limestone (which makes cement), clay, and various other rock aggregates – all of which are subject to natural wear and tear.

All of these concrete materials are gathered in huge amounts from quarries and mines, some of the most destructive industries that exist in terms of their ecological footprint.

A massive tunnel inside of a disused limestone quarry tunnel.

While cutting edge innovations such as the self-healing “living concrete” created by scientists at the University of Colorado are underway, these remain niche and are unlikely to become accessible and affordable technologies for everyday buildings.

These factors raise important questions about the credentials of eco brutalism, and despite the strength of their utopian intentions, many dilapidated brutalist structures have already been demolished.

Notably, the Robin Hood Gardens – an iconic London brutalist housing complex – was declared a failure in terms of its suitability for human living. This is just one example of a failed brutalist style property, with many more following suit in recent years.

Which begs the question, will eco brutalism also fail as a place for nature to live and thrive?

As the term eco brutalism rises in popularity, it’s crucial to ensure that these structures are not only visually appealing, but also serve as a nurturing environment for both people and their surrounding ecosystems, similar to these eco brutalist alternatives below:

What eco brutalism alternatives exist?

Here’s perhaps the greatest misconception of all: despite its popularity, eco brutalism isn’t exactly following an established or rigorous architectural style.

Its moment is mostly confined to the internet and social media, where the popularity of eco brutalism art is fuelled by its cozy aesthetics and picturesque angles.

Taking a step back, it’s clear that eco brutalism designs make space for nature – but only within the context of what we consider valuable and aesthetically pleasing.

solarpunk design aesthetic

This is where eco brutalism joins other niches like solarpunk, which shares a focus on imagining alternative visions of life in a changing, post-industrial world; but doesn’t actually accomplish much in the real world.

The popularity of virtual movements like eco brutalism and solarpunk make sense, with an amazing ability to tap into our deepest desires for meaningful connections with the natural world as we’re faced with pressing ecological needs around the world.

Yet, there are plenty of ecological design ideas that go beyond aesthetics and are much more intentional about fully embracing nature – and many of these ideas have been around for quite some time.

Biophilic design

Take biophilic design, for example.

Dating back to the early 1980s, this concept aims to create structures and spaces that incorporate nature with the specific goals of improving human well-being and strengthening our connection with the environment.

Unlike eco brutalist approaches, which cherry-pick attractive sustainable elements to feed an overall aesthetic; biophilic brutalism integrates natural processes in a comprehensive way – with examples present in most green US cities, as well as countless other nations.

A section of the biophilic High Line elevated park walkway in New York City, USA.

Backed by increasing amounts of research, spaces built according to biophilic design principles are both inviting and bring us physical and mental health benefits while also reducing biodiversity loss.

Biophilic spaces are specifically designed to benefit human health, based on established scientific findings that confirm the relationship between exposure to nature and human productivity and well-being.

Ecological architecture

Construction is a key driver of carbon emissions, and in turn, global warming.

Any vision of sustainable architecture must address the shortcomings of conventional construction methods head-on, without trying to minimize the impacts by covering them up with plants.

Natural construction methods seek to only use materials and methods that are accessible, low-impact, renewable, produce little waste, and are easily recyclable.

adobe building

Think of building materials like mud, clay, and soil mixed with other locally sourced materials like sustainable bamboo – these don’t require carbon-intensive supply chains to reach a construction site.

Throughout history, eco friendly techniques have been utilized to build sustainable structures, some of which still stand today. Here’s an interesting video I recently watched about modern day ecological architecture:

Methods like adobe (sun-dried clay bricks) and rammed earth (compacted natural raw materials) are seeing a resurgence as more people become educated about the environmental impact of construction, and want to lower their impact on nearby natural surroundings.

The use of alternative materials not only benefits the environment, but also allows for designs that can be better integrated without disrupting existing ecosystems – historically, brutalist buildings were built without much thought in regards to the environment.

Biophilic design and ecological architecture are just two of many approaches to architecture and design that go beyond aesthetical concerns, and architectural management of green buildings is actually a great example of one of the best paying jobs in energy.

Final thoughts

So long as brutalist architecture is centered around the heavy use of concrete, it’s going to fall short of spawning any meaningful ecological benefit.

Now is a good time to challenge our preconceptions about what green architecture can be aside from eco brutalist design, by rethinking conventional building methods.

How do you feel about eco brutalism architecture?

2 Comments

  1. Mattia Nicoletti says:

    I have a question. If Eco Brutalism is based on existing concrete buildings, is still questionable? I mean, if I apply eco brutalism concept to an old building (that also has historical value) is critizable?

    1. Hey Mattia,

      Somebody will always criticize any choice you make. I think both eco brutalism and biophilic design are excellent ways for us to connect with nature while living in heavily urbanized environments. Preserving historical buildings is important for many, and I don’t see any reason you shouldn’t do so through the lens of eco brutalism.

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