Brutalist architecture in UK: Paul Koralek’s style

Last February, the English architect Paul Koralek passed away at the age of 87.  Koralek co-founded  Ahrends, Burton and Koralek (ABK) which played an important role on the establishment of brutalist aesthetics in the UK. At an early age, Koralek won the competition for the expansion of the library at Trinity College Dublin (the Berkeley Library), a building that marked the beginning of a long career and is one of the 100 air faced concrete buildings (“100 from the 20th”) of  the INNOVACONCRETE project selection.

In the following article, we review his trajectory and his role in the development of architectural air-faced concrete in the United Kingdom during the central decades of the last century.


Koralek was born in Austria, although at an early age and just after the Austro-German unification under the Nazi regime in 1938, his family, of Jewish origin, emigrated to London.

He studied architecture at the Architectural Association, graduating in 1956. Later he worked with several renowned architects including the English architect Philip Powel and the Hungarian Marcel Breuer, also of Jewish origin, who had settled in New York fleeing persecution in Europe. Installed in New York, he was only 28 years old when, together with two former Architectural Association colleagues, Peter Ahrends and Richard Burton, Koralek participated in the competition for the expansion of Trinity College’s library. Their project was selected among the 350 submitted proposals. This would mark a turning point in his career and his definitive return to Europe, where he developed the rest of his professional activity between London and Dublin, associated with Burton and Ahrends, under the name of ABK.

The Berkeley Library building was the first contemporary addition to the Trinity College complex, an institution founded in 1592, that moved to the current campus in 1712. The complex, marked by the large palaphytic buildings in a neoclassical style, had grown organically by positioning the units around empty spaces. These filled in its perimeter and were configured as internal squares of the campus. When Koralek arrived in Dublin to implement the project, he changed his perception of the built environment and altered the initial project substantially, making it a much more compact and powerful proposal. The definitive implementation of the new volume shows great intelligence: thanks to the separation of its volumes from the alignment of the two neighboring buildings, it generated a small access square. This gave rise to the creation of a new square, known as the Fellow’s square, which has been consolidated over the years with the implementation of new buildings, expanding the campus to the south.

Despite its respect for the existing architecture in positioning, the brutalist aesthetic of the new building meant a clean break from the predominant classical language. This caused certain bewilderment, and an initial rejection of the project. However, over the years, the building was –and still is– considered to be one of the key pieces regarding the introduction and acceptance of brutalist architecture in Ireland and the United Kingdom.

The relevance achieved with the Berkeley Library helped the firm begin a successful professional career, an activity that was defined by its critical positioning within the main established principles of modern architecture of its time, and, certainly, its work contributed to the distinct personality, characteristic to British architecture in the 1960s and 1970s. ABK architecture was characterized, in its early years, by the courageous use of exposed concrete and  an ability to understand and address specific problems related to urban contexts of great complexity, two features that were already present in the Dublin Library project and were common to the British brutalist architects of those years, from Alison and Peter Smithson to Richard Lasdun. ABK’s projects include numerous interventions on university campuses in Ireland and England and some outstanding projects in central London.

In 1984, the studio was involved in a new controversy when Prince Charles openly criticized their award winning entry to the competition for the expansion of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, by poorly describing it as: “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. The project would never be built.

Over time, ABK architecture abandoned brutalism for a postmodern-historicist style in which they would no longer stand out. However, at the end of his career, Koralek received several recognitions from his fellow architects.

The ABK study still exists today without any of its founding partners.

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Roger-SubiraRoger Subirà, Architect.

Fundación DOCOMOMO Ibérico.

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