Review: Brutal by Michal Luczak


Book Reviews, Photobooks


It would be so easy to make fun of the architectural idea of brutalism, the idea that creating mostly fortress-like buildings out of massive amounts of uncovered concrete is a good idea. It’s clearly not. Even ignoring the fact that the buildings are at best eye sores, they also crush the spirits of those who for whatever reason have to dwell inside them. Brutalism derives from the French term b├ęton brut, or “raw concrete” (Le Corbusier), but most people seem to think it is derived from “brutal.” Find yourself in front of, say, Boston’s city hall, and you know what I mean1.

But then, what art form does not occasionally feature a particularly sad episode? Of course, the problem with architecture is that you can’t just store away its aberrations in flat files or in other storage spaces. And it’s not that clear to me whether simply demolishing a building is a sound solution, but that’s obviously for another day.

One of Poland’s most important examples of brutalist architecture was the Katowice railway station2. Photographer Michal Luczak spent time at the station, photographing it and portraying some of the people who’d hang out there. Of course, you don’t just hang out at a railway station unless you have to. Even the nicest ones somehow do not lend themselves to that activity, and let’s not even talk about the not-so-nice ones. Somehow, it at least feels as if railway stations are always at least a dozen degrees colder than their environment (this also extends beyond the stations, to include a zone around them). Mix in people rushing around3, junk food, and you got a pretty bad mix, which might or might not involve drug use and/or prostitution. Of course, another way to express all of this would be to say that railway stations have character.

The result of Luczak’s work has been published as Brutal, an oversize photobook that replicates the experience of being at the Katowice railway station surprisingly well: The rough cardboard cover, with the title stenciled out, is surprisingly brutalist; and the grey tones in the photographs approach the colour of concrete that has been left exposed to the elements. Roughly half of the photographs show parts of the train station, the other half is devoted to portraying those who, well, appear to hang out there.

The book is a very good example of form following function, of a photobook’s design supporting the image’s content. In particular, its large size allows the viewer to become fully immersed in the railway station’s environment, while, at the same time, bringing the portraits close, very close in fact, if not probably a bit too close for some people’s taste. Recommended.

Brutal; photographs by Michal Luczak; 64 pages; self-published; 2012

1 At some stage in my not-so-recent-any-longer past, I had to work in Carnegie-Mellon University’s Wean Hall, and being inside was not so dissimilar from what I remembered the inside of a World War II bunker in Germany had looked and felt like. I kid you not.
2 The station has now been re-developed.
3 I’m mostly writing this with European railway stations in mind. The US has reverted back to an almost pre-industrial level of public transportation as far as railway travel is concerned, a very small number of cities excluded. If there is an actual connection, there mostly is just one per day, even in fairly large cities, and the railway stations make those of second-world countries look positively glamourous.