Beauty in the Beast: In Defence of Brutalism

The critics of Brutalist architecture draw from a modest stockpile of clichés. Say ‘Brutalist’ and expect to hear the words ‘ugly’, ‘car park’, and from the lips of the more discerning viewer, something similar to this sentence: ‘it projects an atmosphere of totalitarianism’. Brutalism’s rough exteriors seem to encourage the kind of brickbats rarely thrown toward dainty, pretty constructions; as though their cold appearance, so often linked to another cliché – ‘urban decay’ – is so resilient it can take such condemnation, simply because it’s unattractive and can stoically absorb the hits; because it’s impossible to offend something that looks so offensive.

As Brutalism chose to be ‘ugly’, with its designers discarding all make-up, seductive architectural clothing, and instead wishing to expose their structure’s blemishes, what should their creators expect?  In all fairness to the critics, Brutalism is rather strident and uncompromising. But to think of Brutalism as nothing more than dour concrete high rises that evoke Orwell’s 1984 (that’s our fourth cliché already), is to overlook the considerable theory and innovation of this sub-genre. It’s been prosecuted enough. It deserves some PR. 

In London, it begins with the Southbank Centre. Built in 1951 to demonstrate Britain’s war recovery, Robert Matthew and Leslie Martin’s Royal Festival Hall was the first in a complex of cultural buildings that revived what used to be a bleak, industrial side of the Thames. When joined by its neighbour in 1976 – Sir Denys Lasdun’s fervently Brutalist National Theatre – this group of radical upstarts were considered as obdurate as the pop culture that coincided with the times, the architectural equivalent of the Sex Pistols calling Bill Grundy a ‘dirty fucker’ on live TV. 

Lasdun’s design has been mocked (Prince Charles said it resembled a ‘nuclear power station’) but also cherished, and has become, to many, ‘the nation’s living room’ due to its series of social spaces that afford views of Westminster, The City, and a south bank promenade rejuvenated by The London Eye. Lasdun was hugely influenced by modernists Le Corbusier and Mies Van De Rohe, architects who sought to focus on a building’s function rather than what were seen as the ostentatious and unnecessary design features of pre-war movements. Examples are typically very linear, blockish, and fortress-like, though not devoid of sinuosity.

They are concrete constructions (Le Corbusier’s term ‘beton brut’ translates as raw concrete), often combined with amenities built into internal streets meaning entire communities began to live in a new way. It was an anti-aesthetic philosophy that flourished from the 1950’s to the mid-1970’s, and though often derided by critics and the public alike, examples of the sub-genre survive and have recently been granted Grade II listed status, the Southbank Centre being one such case.

Though some complain about the Southbank’s inter-connecting walk-ways, circular stairwells, and numerous spilt levels, it’s these same terraces that create the vibrant atmosphere that’s given the Southbank its status as national communal area. One doesn’t need to visit the Centre’s Hayward Gallery or Royal Festival Hall to enjoy the space. A drink outside on the terraces watching London go by is a simple, low-cost pleasure. On such a favourable day Brutalism becomes more visually appealing and even seems to question its own anti-aesthetic stance. Against a blue sky the Southbank Centre looks more striking than any nuclear power station or car park you will ever see. Its concrete façade, which has, it must be said, weathered quite badly in areas due to its porous nature, looks brighter on a fine day, shedding more of its ascetic veneer with every sunbeam. It reminds me of the 1950’s photographs when the building looked revolutionary, when the concrete was near-white, when the complex appealed even to some conservative critics. Not convinced? Then look inside…. 

Low-lit spacious areas, bars and occasional kiosks, modernist shapes, leather seats; brown and orange against the bare concrete walls. It’s hard to enter these buildings and not mutter, “cool” to yourself. If airport interiors were like this all pre-flight nerves would erode, though you’d risk missing your flight due to being so relaxed by the ambience. Have a good look at the texture of the concrete and you will see a variety of finishes, including the imprints left by the wood ‘shuttering’ (moulds) when the concrete was cast in situ. Brutalism shows its scars, but scars can be more interesting than cosmetics. The National Theatre might connect to each space but this is a theatrical setting in itself and it encourages you to take your time and to settle in.

From Waterloo Bridge you will see, just beyond the postmodernist cluster of The City, three brownish high rises. Unimpressive from here, imposing from there. This is the Barbican Estate. It’s Brutalist heaven to some, Brutalist hell to others; the apogee of modernism or a veritable excrescence on the London skyline. You might expect a dubious sign upon arrival: “Welcome to the Barbican Estate. Where the weak are killed and eaten”. But the reality is one of pleasant communal areas and tranquillity in an otherwise boisterous part of the capital.

The largest complex of its kind and film location for Get Carter and A Clockwork Orange, the Barbican Estate has come to symbolise the social problems of the 1970’s, despite having a decent record against crime and a vibrant hub of high culture within its grounds by way of the Barbican Centre, which was built in 1982, 23 years after the Barbican Estate began to rise from post-Blitz east London. It was recently voted ‘London’s Ugliest Building’ (presumably voters meant the entire complex of high rises, lower residential blocks, and the Barbican Arts Centre), but is also one of the most sought-after locations in the capital and like the Southbank Centre, is Grade II listed.

Post War Buildings The Barbican, City of London. General view of exterior.

I have to question whether those who voted have explored the estate in person or just via the scenes of dystopian run-down society in A Clockwork Orange.  Open walkways, raised from street level, provide an immediate escape from the congested, thunderous roads of east London. It’s nearly soundproofed, yet one is still outside; it’s a pedestrianised village elevated from the mêlée. Explore further (the voters can’t have done this) and you will find a large conservatory, then a lake complete with Brutalist fountains (non-decorative, it’s all about the soothing sound they create, not how they look) and on a charitable day for weather, you will see residents and passersby relaxing next to the bar or dangling their feet over the waters. Even the three commanding high-rises – all named after famous writers, Shakespeare being one of them – have features to ponder. The cantilevered balconies create repeated, cascading forms, and also prevent residents from feeling like they live on a cliff edge, as the balconies are chest-high, curve inwards and feel protective. This same feature also protects the lower flats from the full effects of inclement weather. All living rooms are situated at the corner of the blocks, thus allowing maximum natural light to enter. Brutalism is much more than its outer skin. The recent vote was a bad advert for democracy.

Still not convinced? Then head west to The Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury, a former council estate which felt the full vitriol of the modernist backlash. Now its one of the most fashionable places in this part of the capital, complete with upmarket boutiques, an independent cinema and thriving shops. Above them, in a typical Brutalist arrangement, are terraces of flats – some 560 of them – that have a brighter, less weathered concrete exterior.  Such is the pleasing appearance of The Brunswick Centre, I can’t help but wonder if hardcore Brutalists might think it a censored version of the genus and something of a sell-out. Such fears do not apply further west though, near Paddington, where Erno Goldfinger’s 1972 Trellick Tower broods at nearly 400 feet over Kensington.

Unlike The Barbican Estate Trellick did have an unsavoury reputation for anti-social behaviour, this time based on reality rather than cinema (though it has featured in numerous music promos).  Though a gritty edge remains, it’s not uncommon for a flat to be sold for around £500,000, and once again Grade II listed status has been awarded. Besides typically Brutalist characteristics Trellick features a separate lift and service tower linked at every third storey to the access corridors of the main building. It’s a detail that makes it distinct from London’s other surviving Brutalist structures, a signature that makes Trellick as different from The Barbican as The Barbican is from the Southbank Centre. Goldfinger (Ian Fleming appropriated his surname for the Bond villain) created a building that’s experienced the same polemic of love and hate that seems inevitable for any Brutalist construction. Designing a building that provokes disdain must be difficult to stomach, but it might be more palatable than indifference.

Ironic, then, that for all Brutalism’s faults – true, the years are rarely kind to their exterior and you might think that you’re in Pyonyang on a rainy day – Brutalism has what few critics of this subject appear to demonstrate – originality, and a closer inspection of the detail and its accompanying theory. That said, my hypocrisy should be exposed like the shuttering moulds of the concrete casting. I once turned down a place at Wolfson College, Oxford because I loathe its modernist, semi-Brutalist architecture (the interior is divine though), and even threatened to detonate the Oxford’s Brutalist Council Building for offences to architecture and the city. This was more to do with place than architecture though. Brutalism and tumultuous, growling London are a good fit.

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