Could there ever be a more bizarre choice of name for an architectural movement than Brutalism? How odd that some of the very architects charged with creating working-class housing and public buildings from the mid-1950s to the early-1970s should have been happy to be called Brutalists. It was hardly likely to make them popular. Who, especially among those hit hardest by the brutality of World War II, wanted to live in brutal buildings?
This peculiar name was a supposedly clever play on beton brut, French for raw concrete, which in the hands of an artist-architect like Le Corbusier, and especially under a Mediterranean sun, could be a strikingly beautiful building material. So, Brutalists – the name conceived and popularised by Reyner Banham, a determinedly hip and massively bearded English architectural critic in the influential pages of the Architectural Review – were meant to be a new breed of thrusting young architects who, while building a post-war socialist utopia, would challenge the very foundations of what they saw as the fey, bourgeois Modernism of the 1930s. And, even worse, of the charming, reticent kind of new state-approved British architecture represented by the Royal Festival Hall, centrepiece of the 1951 Festival of Britain.
Rather ironically, the Royal Festival Hall has proven to be one of the most popular of all post-war British buildings, its charm appreciated by people of all walks of life, while Brutalist housing blocks and art galleries were generally regarded – until quite recently – as dank, dehumanising concrete monstrosities. Like all such labels, however, Brutalism was soggy around the edges. Buildings like Sir Denys Lasdun’s imposing National Theatre, rising in great concrete strata along London’s Southbank and completed in 1976, was labelled Brutalist even though – despite sharing some basic characteristics, like an extensive use of beton brut – it stood aloof from any such categorisation, its architect ploughing his own particular aesthetic furrow.
In fact, Lasdun’s centenary this month, focuses attention anew on what exactly Brutalism was, why it was so prevalent in so many countries, why it was so short lived and why, after a long period in the critical doldrums, it has been nudged back up the critical ladder to link hands with Modernism, Palladianism, Baroque and Art Nouveau.
This process has been going on since the early 1990s when young architects, designers and painters began to delight in such denounced buildings as Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, a terrifyingly brutal 31-storey concrete housing block completed in 1972 that casts a monumental shadow over what were once seen as the badlands, or bohemian hinterland, of west London. Living in Trellick Tower became a badge of fashionable artistry even if long-term residents held far more ambivalent views of this forceful high-rise housing block.
Attach the block
Most people – certainly in Britain – would have gone along with the Prince of Wales at the time: he described the Brutalist Tricorn shopping centre in Portsmouth as a “mildewed lump of elephant droppings.” Designed by Rodney Gordon of the Owen Luder Partnership, this had been one of the key commercial developments of a city that had been brutally blitzed by the Luftwaffe. Writing in the Guardian, the critic and broadcaster Jonathan Meades claims that “Gordon’s imagination was… fecund, rich, untrammelled. It was haunted by Russian Constructivism, crusader castles, Levantine skylines. There are as many ideas in a single Gordon building as there are in the entire careers of most architects.” Meades felt that he was “in the presence of genius.”
And, yet, other observers would have noted that along with so many other Brutalist “masterpieces” as London’s Hayward Gallery, Birmingham’s Central Library and the Barco Law Building at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as in the design of such lesser yet equally intriguing buildings as the John Lewis department store in Aberdeen or Rodney Gordon’s own Trinity Car Park, in Gateshead in the north of England (which played a special guest star role in the compelling 1971 thriller Get Carter starring Michael Caine), the Tricorn Centre also owed something to Nazi gun emplacements built along the Atlantic coast of France. Created by the formidable Todt Organisation, these were truly brutal buildings encountered by Allied troops in 1944.
Others, like the astonishing flak towers in Hamburg and Vienna designed by Friedrich Tamms, an architect who did much to shape the Atlantic Wall, resembled all too closely the art galleries and university libraries of 1960s Britain. How odd that these should have informed a new architecture for cities that had been carpet-bombed by Germany.
Shock of the new
This unfortunate association alone made Brutalism widely unpopular. There were other understandable reasons, too. Emerging in the era of ‘angry young men’, in literature, theatre, film and ‘musique concrète’, this new architecture was meant to be shockingly new. It also coincided – indeed it was often synonymous – with the radical reconstruction of city centres worldwide where urban motorways, concrete underpasses and crass commercial redevelopment went hand in brutally muscled hand. More than this, raw concrete looked relentlessly glum under grey skies, stained all too readily in the rain and, for whatever reason, appeared a natural target for even angrier young men, and women, who sprayed the walls of Brutalist structures with graffiti.
The architects who made among the best use of beton brut and brave new forms in damp, grey climates were those who saw new opportunities to create exciting new skylines with new materials. The roofscapes of the Barbican, a bravura housing development for the Corporation of London designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon to fill a colossal bomb site created by the Luftwaffe in 1941, are brilliant things, a kind of 1950s take on the early 18th English Baroque architecture of John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Beautifully built, the Barbican might have appeared brutal, yet it was noble, it made reference to history and paid respect to Christopher Wren’s nearby St Paul’s Cathedral and the medieval churches in its shadows. No wonder it was listed in 2001, while more openly aggressive Brutalist buildings including Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre were demolished.
Institutions like English Heritage have had an ambivalent relationship with Brutalism, recommending the listing of some, like the Barbican, Sheffield’s Park Hill housing estate and the Moore Street electricity substation, Sheffield by Jefferson Sheard Architects, while refusing others, notably the Hayward Gallery, the Tricorn Centre and the Trinity car park. As Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage explained at the time of last year’s Brutal and Beautiful touring exhibition, “Few areas of English Heritage’s work are as disputed… some still view the buildings of the era as concrete monstrosities, others as fine landmarks in the history of building design.”
Perhaps this helps explain why Sir Denys Lasdun, a distinguished modern architect, who landed on a Normandy beach on D-Day and who wanted to create a bold new post-war architecture everyone might appreciate was keen to stress that he was “not a Brutalist” even though he mastered beton brut. Although perhaps hard to believe today, Baroque and Gothic were once terms of derision too. Will Brutalism finally come to outlive its wilfully controversial tag?
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