April Fools

A Concrete Phoenix Rises: Meet the Brutalist Tiny House

Two great movements—from the past and present—come together in a towable 45,000 lb. package.

April 1, 2015

The “Marcel” tiny house, named for Brutalist architect Marcel Breuer

Illustration: Andrea Lemon/BrütaLife
It’s been a tough decade for fans of Brutalist architecture. Every few months another concrete masterpiece is demolished, and proponents of the 20th century’s most reviled style feel helpless to protect landmark structures by Paul Rudolph, John M. Johansen, and others.

However, a new company—supported by a Kickstarter campaign—is bringing Brutalism back in an unexpected new form: a compact, towable tiny house.

A match made in Tumblr

BrütaLife is the brainchild of architect Zach Liebowitz of Minneapolis, Minnesota, who traced his inspiration to social media. “Pinterest is all tiny houses, and then Tumblr is always some 1960s civic center on the brink of demolition. One day I put two and two together, and I thought, ‘People love this stuff—why the hell not?’”

Liebowitz spent months visiting both tiny houses and iconic Brutalist structures, crafting a common language between the two seemingly incompatible styles. His goal was to unite tiny houses’ affordability and appealing coziness with the Brutalist architecture’s “hulking lyricism.”    

“If tiny houses have a fault, it’s that they’re too small for long-term occupant comfort,” said Liebowitz. But by evoking Brutalism’s large spaces, even a 128-square-foot interior can convey “a soaring sense of dehumanizing alienation.”

Don’t call it a bunker

Named for famed architect Marcel Breuer, BrütaLife’s introductory “Marcel” model unites classic Brutalist elements with a tiny 22' x 8' footprint. The 14" concrete shell reveals the texture of the wooden planks used as casting forms, and raised stucco around the doorway and brise-soleil window elements recreates the omnipresent risk of scrapes and abrasions from Brutalist masterpieces of the past.

Michelle Kaufmann, AIA, founder of Michelle Kaufmann Studio and author of the book Prefab Green, praised the design for doing “exactly what the Brutalists did half a century ago, rejecting the overly ornate forms of the prior generation.” She said, “Zach has basically given a big concrete middle finger to everyone’s twee tiny houses with wooden shutters and shingled roofs—and it’s high time.”

Get in on the ground floor

Liebowitz launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $750,000 to manufacture, sell, and distribute BrütaLife’s unique entry into the crowded tiny house field. The backer levels include:

  • $50 and above—Assortment of laptop stickers, including the BrütaLife logo and tagline, “If this house is a-rockin’, you’d better call the U.S. Geological Survey” 
  • $100 and above —A BrütaLife reinforced-concrete case for your iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy
  • $500 and above—Plans for the introductory “Marcel” tiny house, including a special backers-only sheaf of artisanal rebar
  • $1,500 and above (limited to 10 backers)—One of the original steel concrete forms used to construct the 1965 J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington, D.C. custom branded with the BrütaLife logo and the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag
  • $5,000 (limited to 450,000 backers)—A shipping container full of rubble from the demolished Morris A. Mechanic Theater in Baltimore
  • $25,000 and above—The “Marcel” tiny house (envelope only, delivery extra)
  • $50,000 and above—The “Marcel” tiny house (envelope only, delivery included—includes bike rack!)

Future-proof design

Resilient Design Institute president (and BuildingGreen founder) Alex Wilson was among the first to back the Kickstarter campaign. “Zach really got it right with this,” he told BuildingGreen. “We often talk about really beautiful and well-loved buildings being more durable and resilient—because they’re cared for.” BrütaLife is demonstrating another form of resilience, suggests Wilson: “These buildings will be here for generations because you simply can’t demolish them.”

Treehugger columnist Lloyd Alter is gearing up for his summer tour of North American Brutalist landmarks.

Illustration: Andrea Lemon/BrütaLife
Architect Lloyd Alter of Treehugger.com has already placed his order and is making plans to tour North America in an 18-wheel commercial truck, tiny house in tow. “For years I’ve fought to protect our endangered Brutalist heritage, and it’s time to put my money where my mouth is,” said Alter. “I want to see these architectural masterworks with my own eyes, and this seems like the perfect way to do it.”

Looking forward to phase two

Thanks to the early buzz, BrütaLife’s Kickstarter campaign is already off to a robust start, and Liebowitz has begun designing the next models. He told BuildingGreen that phase two will include:

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April 1, 2015 - 9:44 am

tiny homes and brutalism, my two favourite things!

April 1, 2015 - 10:02 am

Revolutionary, yes, but I hope they held onto some tradition. Perhaps tongue n cheek floors? Thanks for the laughs.

April 1, 2015 - 10:33 am

Should be a great travelogue, Lloyd. On a serious note, if you're on Facebook, there's a terrific group called the Brutalism Appreciation Society (formerly F*** Yeah, Brutalism) - https://www.facebook.com/groups/2256189436/