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Take the image of this building for instance, a good percentage of people would say that it's not pleasant to look at. No colorful tiles, no fancy arcs. In short, it's "harsh-looking." I'm looking for a word that best describes buildings such as this one which are not aesthetically pleasing. Buildings that give off an ominous vibe or make you feel uneasy. If you search photos of headquarters of most intelligence agencies, naturally you'll see that their exteriors are very unwelcoming and harsh. As you can tell from the explanation I've provided, I've used the word "harsh" twice! Not that I think it doesn't get the job done, it does, but I'm looking for a more precise word.

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    The word for an ugly building and the word for a ominous looking building will probably not be the same. So are you looking for two words? Or a word for ugly and ominous?
    – EllieK
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 12:30
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    This isn't quite an answer, but brutalism is an architectural style which is often behind such "harsh," "imposing" or "ugly" buildings.
    – TypeIA
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 12:42
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    I'd argue it's rather the photograph that makes the building harsh/unwelcoming/gloomy/gritty... The weather, the age of the building, and its incompleteness are other contributors. It's an example of post-war Soviet architecture (focus on mass-production and cheap materials like concrete), which, to an extent, is a sub-style of Brutalist architecture Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 12:47
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    @AndrewTobilko: My favourite Russian movie is The Fool (2006), which shows how badly things can go wrong with such buildings. It's nothing peculiar to Russians though - we had Ronan Point in the UK, for example (and more recently, Grenfell Tower). Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 13:36
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    Another possibility is forbidding. Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 15:23

4 Answers 4

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This building has a specific architecture related to it. The word is brutalist.

Brutalist architecture was a design style that first used concrete in large buildings, where the concrete forms created the style and pattern of the building's external features. It favored "strong" large boxy shapes, was popular in the 1950's, and is now considered by some to be very ugly.

The name is related to the word "brutal" which comes from the same Latin root word "brutus". Brutal means

savage or violent

The second definition

punishingly hard or uncomfortable

The second definition of brutal closely describes some of the elements you are trying to express. "Its brutal square windows gave no sign of the life inside."

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    According to the article you quoted, the name came 'Béton brut' (raw concrete).
    – NomadMaker
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 20:32
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    @TypeIA: That's the same sort of logic that says "awesome" and "awful" mean the same thing in modern English usage; etymologically, sure, but etymology does not describe the current meaning. The French meaning of "raw" is sufficiently different from "savage", "violent" or "punishingly hard or uncomfortable" (even if it can also be used with other words to mean those things) that claiming "Brutalist" derives from the English word "brutal" is incredibly misleading, even if modern critics might view Brutalist architecture that way. Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 21:54
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    "Brutalism" comes from the French "brut" which comes from the Latin "brutus". "Brutal" comes from the Latin "brutus". In English, the same core words can take on different meanings, from the paths they take before English "collects" them into the mess of a language we have. At its Latin core, "brutus" means "dumb or stupid". Which is where this commentary is going fast :) But seriously, all of the English "brutal" focuses on negative traits of mostly unrefined people, while the French focuses on mostly negative traits of unrefined items. It's not a leap to shift between the two.
    – Edwin Buck
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 22:20
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    @EdwinBuck It is a leap—“brutal” is not an etymological ancestor of “brutalism.” Your answer claims it is. Therefore, your answer is wrong. You have “leaped” from one branch of linguistic evolution to another. Are they related? Absolutely, they share a common ancestor—in the Latin. But that makes them cousins, which isn’t the relationship you have indicated. And it means that the divergence in the English and French lineages here is extremely relevant—if “Béton brut” is the typical French word for “concrete,” then the people who named “brutalism” intended none of the connotations you name.
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 1:42
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    The country name 'Britain' has the same root - according to legend it was founded by Brutus of Troy - whether you therefore consider Britain to be savage, violent, uncomfortable and hard is up to you. Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 9:48
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An appropriate word would be austere

stern and cold in appearance or manner

markedly simple or unadorned

An austere building is one that is simple, without any fancy adornments, and gives the sense of being harsh, or unwelcoming.

I'd also note that aesthetic is subjective; some people find this architectural style to be very pleasing.

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  • @Fermichem No problem. I actually answered the question as you framed it (I think), but there's another answer that answers a slightly different question, i.e. "what do you call a building with a harsh unaesthetic exterior?" In case that's what you're looking for, the other answer is better, and you might want to edit your question to clarify that.
    – cigien
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 21:48
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    This is the correct answer. While brutalist architecture is the obvious go-to for 'harsh building appearance', there are plenty of ominous, unforgiving looking buildings that aren't brutalist.
    – mcalex
    Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 2:51
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    The word "austere" is typically associated with pared-back beauty; an 'ascetic' aesthetic. In my opinion, the pictured building is not austere. I think other answers/comments have suggested more suitable words such as: forbidding, ominous, severe.
    – Xavier
    Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 6:40
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    Wow, I'm not a native speaker. But seeing the word "austere" somehow gives me the impression of "serene", which is then bringing images of "calm, enjoyable". Didn't know that it means the opposite.
    – justhalf
    Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 15:30
  • @Xavier I don't agree, or else the word pair "austere beauty" wouldn't be so common. Compare especially to political/economic austerity, where it definitely doesn't have those connotations
    – llama
    Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 17:14
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I'm not sure if it's a colloquialism local to Ireland, but this is what we would call "Institutional".

That is having a no-frills functional design, built cheaply disregarding any care for how it looks, generally housing a state institution for something distasteful such as Sewage Treatment Plants, Prisons for dangerous criminals, Revenue Collectors . . .

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    Similarly, the word that came to mind was "industrial". The building owner cares more for the inside than "how it looks to the neighbors" For example, Prince's Paisley Park Studio building looked like any other industrial building in the area ...on the outside. Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 21:44
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utilitarian, unadorned, plain, grey, gloomy, glum, washed-out, tragic, bunker, fortress, slapped-together, uninviting, imposing, unwashed, weathered, armored, abandoned, run-down, neglected, unassuming.

It might be better to use more than one word. I like "an unadorned, weathered, industrial building"

Bringing in aesthetic values doesn't paint a good picture because tastes change and every person has their own idea of what beautiful is. Visit the modern art section at the Met.

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  • I always like combining words to create a rich description; and, it is important to keep in mind that many examples of what is current change over time. So names that tie directly to a specific movement make more sense than names which indicate "current", "modern", or "contemporary", if your description is supposed to not follow the changing items which can be seen as current, modern, or contemporary.
    – Edwin Buck
    Commented Mar 31, 2021 at 16:55
  • thanks for a thorough answer.
    – Fermichem
    Commented Apr 1, 2021 at 10:13

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