The “Brutalist” website fad

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.31.35 PM.png

The Washington Post reports that “The hottest trend in Web design is making intentionally ugly, difficult websites.”  The article by Katherine Acrement states:

Look at Hacker News. Pinboard. The Drudge Report. Adult Swim. Bloomberg Businessweek features. All of these sites — some years old, some built recently — and hundreds more like them, eschew the templated, user-friendly interfaces that have long been the industry’s best practice. Instead they’re built on imperfect, hand- coded HTML and take their design cues from ’90s graphics. The name of this school, if you could call it that, is “Web brutalism.”

What strikes me is how inevitably the phenomenon came to be known as “Web brutalism.” Perfect fit!

Thanks to Jim Colleran for slipping this article onto Pro-Urb and clarifying matters by referring to the trend as “digital modernism,” and to Andres Duany for putting the news into context by remarking: “We have a sick society. Do we express it or do we reform it? The GSD and Rem express it. The CNU attempts to reform or heal it. We do not share an epistemology.”

To decode Duany: The GSD is the Graduate School of Design, at Harvard, modernist to the core, exclusionary and proud of it. Rem is the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. CNU is the Congress of the New Urbanism, inaugurated in the 1990s largely by Duany himself. It seeks to promote new urban design based on the old principles of urbanism that were purged by modernist planning and design promoted by the GSD. New Urbanist ideas have largely won out in municipal planning departments around the nation, thankfully, but almost all architects, architecture schools, architecture organizations, architecture scholarship and architectural media are still modernist, resistent to alternative ideas, and proud of it.

Is digital headed that way? Except for this weird trend, very unlikely. The internet is far too diverse and unruly to become a cult as the field of architecture has done. And yet there are quite a few young Turks trying to beat some sense into their profession. They are called classicists, although their work often strays from the classical orders, and they are based in the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

Just after this post was published Sara Hines sent her excellent thoughts to the Pro-Urb listserv, a forum mainly for discussing the New Urbanism:

Did you miss the memo on “ugly is the new pretty”? Once you grasp this, and related topics like “illogical is the new rationality,” you are good to go with the new millennium. I could point you to other concepts in women’s clothing like “designer bags are ugly but better because they cost more or have someone’s name on it,” or “the new design is to make things smaller and with materials that are so weak that you can find them shredded on hangers – and for this you will pay a lot more.”

Websites?  Though the red one with the fuzzy square looked interesting, I am more unnerved by the ones that feature a nearly black background with slightly lighter or darker type, if any is visible, and you have to mouse over to see any detail or things to click on. Note that how to contact people is becoming progressively lost on websites from Amazon to CNU. In fact, I have been mystified by how to get information on the upcoming CNU. Like where would you pick up your tickets or information packets? Oops, how dumb am I, they probably only have that on computer links that I’m slow to find in the evanescent drop-down menus. But back to paragraph 1, we just haven’t adjusted to the new Good.  The old Good apparently just didn’t work out.

We are getting to Idiocracy sooner than even I had thought possible!

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
This entry was posted in Architects, Architecture, Architecture Education, Architecture History, Art and design, Urbanism and planning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The “Brutalist” website fad

  1. Pingback: Brutalist website design | Architecture Here and There

  2. Pingback: “Brutalist” website fad? – b19y

  3. Let’s not forget the trend for smaller and smaller typefaces, too…and usually sans serif!


  4. Peter Kellow says:

    Websites are built by geeks who have no understanding of graphic design. The breed of website builders who are also graphic designers has yet to evolve. As regards the “intentionally uglies” these have been around since Duchamp. Their emotional centre is irony – which provides but a thin gruel for the human emotions. They depend on being increasingly ironic about their own group’s irony. The master of irony is Koolhaus who builds irony on a gigantic scale of resisting any challenge of double irony. Irony is the be all and end all of contemporary culture. It squares perfectly with the need of the person with no soul,


  5. Who design those websites? Graphic designers!
    Where do graphic designers come from? Design schools such as RISD!
    What do they learn at RISD?
    They learn that RISD thinks that A-frame message boards that obscure the R and the D in RISD are a valid means of communication about RISD. (Personally, the message the boards give to me is that our local design school has been infiltrated by IS, the Islamic State….).
    The architecture students learn that a museum, an institution which is visited rarely by the vast majority of visitors, should have an obscure circulation path so that finding the doorway one used to enter is a challenge.
    I could go on….


    • Although I did not make the connection to IS, I have been puzzled by those boards for the couple years they’ve been around – from their location they are obviously connected with RISD, but since that is not evident in the text it comes off as some sort of error. I guess it is merely cutting edge. Alas, you don’t need to go on!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.