At Contemporary Calgary’s Brutal Visions show last year, I had the chance to attend a talk by featured artist Clemens Gritl. The talk explored the movement to which Contemporary Calgary’s home, Jack Long’s Centennial Planetarium, belongs: brutalism. In highlighting the critiques, aspirations, and failures of this experimental era, the discussion presented an honest criterion for one to not only form an opinion on brutalist architecture, but ponder its place in today’s landscape.

Gritl in turn spoke about his love of brutalist architecture, and the inspirations for his series of monolithic renders titled A Future City From The Past. Upon initially entering Gritl’s gallery, I was quickly reminded of why the brutalist movement remains so divisive; the comparatively rosy real-life examples displayed earlier in the museum’s ring gallery evaporating upon entering Gritl’s showcase. Confined in an aptly claustrophobic room, I became immersed (or rather, trapped) in Gritl’s Metal Hurlant-esque world.

A Future City From the Past presents a terrifyingly quiet cityscape of vacuous megastructures. In the gallery, the prints tipped inward, forcing one’s eyes to climb the heights of the monstrous buildings. Many of the works are rendered from the ground level, dropping viewers directly into the dirty and cold streets of Gritl’s seemingly infinite metropolis. While Gritl teases an empty, flat, white horizon in most of his renders, sunlight is notably muted on the street level, emphasized by a stark black and white filter.

The hypothetical structures, and the broader city they inhabit, instill discomfort not only because of their scale, but because of their familiarity. Gritl’s subjects are parkades, apartment blocks, and shopping centres – staples of modern urban landscapes which have a relatively benign presence. Yet, when framed in such a direct, almost sacred, light, the structures’ overbearing dominance and teetering masses are anything but benevolent. Whether the apartment complex in NO#06-220145-05 or the hive-like ramp in NO#03-090220-05 pervert or wholeheartedly embraces Le Corbusier’s “living machine” concept is up for interpretation, though it would be hard to argue A Future City From The Past alleviates brutalist fears, with the nightmarish concrete sceneries looking more akin to an Andrei Tarkovsky set than a harmonious urban plan.

While eventually concrete government buildings would come to be associated with fortress-like arrogance, throughout much of the 1960s, they projected an image of hope and confidence.

Sirman 2016, 15

During his talk, Gritl stated his inspiration for these structures sprung not only from the brutalist movement, but from his love of horror films, like George Romero’s zombie epics. Like the abandoned streets of Dawn of the Dead, Gritl’s city looks as though it has not seen life for some time. The city is a monster unto itself, with the buildings’ long shadows hiding some sort of horrific secret. Playing with old brutalist fears, Gritl has created a fascinating worst-case scenario. With no people, movement, or life of any kind, Gritl’s brutalist paradise inspires – even celebrates – unease. In musing about what the movement’s absolute triumph could have looked like, its dehumanizing effects shine through brightest.

Philosophically, the New Brutalism aimed for an uninhibited experience of basic building materials and domestic spaces that was available to everyone, regardless of class, gender, or nationality.

Derdiger 2016, 56

Furthermore, the fact that Gritl chose to render his constructions rather than draw, paint, or sculpt them gives his city an appropriately geometric, and realistic, look. The texturing, though uniform, incorporates details like dirt, water stains, and cracks into the concrete and asphalt, suggesting use (or neglect). In examining the details, I eventually found myself glazing over the hundreds of windows and archways, looking for some sign of life. This search was, of course, futile. It begs the question of whether this city has been abandoned, or whether it is in fact populated, with citizens relegated to their respective compartments, shut away from the outside world. As the forward on Gritl’s website states:

It is fascinating to imagine how a prefabricated, futuristic metropolis would age, and what atmosphere an endless manmade landscape, constructed of only concrete and asphalt, would generate. What impact would such a massive concentration of sculptural architecture have on mankind? Could such a city succeed in producing a functional society, or would it automatically plunge into menacing social dysfunction?

Both utopian and dystopian, fears of this wildly misdirected cement-laden future permeate for good reason. Featuring Gritl’s nightmare fueled urban fantasy make one view the style in a more welcoming light. While our cities certainly aren’t the harmonious manmade caverns the movement’s founders imagined, they aren’t Judge Dredd’s MegaCity One either; their concrete roots seldom creeping out to infect the surrounding landscape.

I feel both a newfound love and pity for these relics, misunderstood because of their foreboding nature. I left the gallery both eager to explore its real-life remnants, and thankful I didn’t live in Gritl’s version of it, exciting as it was to visit.


Sirman, Brian M. “Yankee Brutalism: Concrete Architecture in New England, 1957-1977.” Historical Journal of Massachusetts Vol. 24 (2) (Summer 2016): 2-21.

Bush, Donald J. “Streamlining and the American Industrial Design.” Leonardo Vol. 7 (4) (1974): 309-317.

Derdiger, Paula. “To Drag Out a Rough Poetry: Colin MacInnes and the New Brutalism in Postwar Britain.” Modern Fiction Studies Vol. 62(1) (2016): 53-69.

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