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Saving Brutalism: The campaign to preserve concrete icons

It’s one of architecture’s most divisive styles, but many people are working hard to save Brutalism’s concrete behemoths from demolition. Catherine Hickley meets the campaigners behind the #SOSBrutalism movement.

Do concrete monsters deserve to be rescued? Brutalism is a divisive art form: to some, Brutalist buildings are eyesores, monstrosities.

But Oliver Elser believes Brutalism is an architectural style worthy of preservation – and has created an online campaign, a book and an exhibition to that end.

‘SOS Brutalism’ is showing at the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt (Deutsches Architekturmuseum), where Elser is a curator. It aims to raise awareness of a style that was born in Britain in the 1950s, spread worldwide, and survived into the 1970s but is now, Elser says, endangered. The name derives not, as one might assume, from the word brutal, but from the French term béton brut, meaning ‘exposed concete’.

It applies to university buildings in Britain, cultural centres in Japan, museums in South America and parliament buildings in Africa. Many of these massive raw concrete monuments to modernity – often considered dehumanising and bleak – are currently threatened by bulldozers. Yet in recent years, Brutalism has also enjoyed a hipster renaissance on social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr. There are even lavishly illustrated coffee-table books and a perfume called Concrete, sold in a bottle made of (what else?) exposed concrete.

Elser’s campaign began with a dramatic event; the spectacular 2014 demolition by detonation of a 116-metre-high (380.6 ft) Brutalist tower in Frankfurt, captured in several viral YouTube videos. The AfE tower had belonged to the university, but had lain empty since 2013.

“That shocked us – it would have been possible to convert it into flats,” Elser says. “In our experience, when these buildings are demolished, whatever replaces them is never an improvement. We wanted to build on the enthusiasm. The idea was to set something in motion that is bigger than a book or an exhibition.” Elser argues that no other architectural style has as many fans as Brutalism.

In 2015, the German Architecture Museum launched a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #SOSBrutalism to document Brutalist architecture, with a particular focus on endangered buildings: those facing possible demolition. It now has a database of more than 1,000 buildings worldwide, from carparks to hotels, union buildings to ministries, university libraries to hospitals, churches to shopping malls and from residential complexes to office blocks. Around 200 of them are in Britain.

It has united – and in some cases, triggered – campaigns to preserve these buildings. Elser says a number of heritage experts have contacted him to express their gratitude at the documentation provided in the catalogue. “It serves as proof that something is valuable,” he says.

Among those grateful for the support is Johann Gallis, who is spearheading a campaign to save a cultural centre in Mattersburg in eastern Austria, which was designed by Herwig Udo Graf, an architect who was in high demand across the region at the time it was built, in the mid-1970s. The centre was closed in 2014 and for four years, a debate has raged over whether to flatten it or not – despite the fact that it is heritage-protected.

“Without the SOS Brutalism campaign, the building would have been demolished a long time ago,” Gallis says. “It has put the discussion on an international footing.”

A team of architects has already won a competition to overhaul the centre with a design that would involve demolishing 80 per cent of the building, he says.

“But there has been a recent change in the regional political leadership, and the new cultural chief has said he will look at it again,” Gallis says. “The building’s future is still hanging in the balance, but there is some hope.”

In Eastern Europe, Brutalist buildings face particular challenges in winning advocates, according to Marie Kordovská. She is fighting to save the Hotel Thermal in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary. The venue for the annual international film festival in the town, the hotel was designed by her grandparents, Věra Machoninová and Vladimir Machonin and was completed in 1976.

“Not only do the buildings look ugly to the general public, but they are also connected to communism,” Kordovská says. “Most people cannot distinguish between what is great architecture and what are just ugly buildings of that era. The SOS Brutalism campaign has helped us win the support of the people who understand the distinction – the art theoreticians and architecture experts.”

Hotel Thermal is threatened with wide-ranging renovations that will dramatically alter its look and character, Kordovská says. “The hotel is owned by the state and no one really cares. We have tried to have the building named a national monument, but the people who run the hotel blocked it.”

The term Brutalism was coined in 1953 by the British architects Alison and Peter Smithson, whose school in Hunstanton is considered the first Brutalist building. Le Corbusier, famed for his controversial residential estates accommodating thousands, is among the pioneers of the style.

“It was a cool time,” says Elser. “In architecture now, the tendency is to look back. There is no longer a sense of a new era dawning. Back then, it was all about progress – new universities, new parliament buildings.”

But the term has expanded in recent years to encompass any buildings made of exposed concrete. Part of the purpose of the exhibition in Frankfurt, Elser says, was to introduce some clarity into what exactly Brutalism is. The four criteria are that a building must be “as found,” or raw concrete; its underlying structure must be visible; it must be a landmark, and it must have a “rhetoric quality,” he says.

After Frankfurt, the exhibition moves on to Vienna’s Architekturzentrum, where it will run from 3 May to 6 August. Elser says institutions in the US, Australia and Norway have expressed interest in showing it. He would love it to travel to the Barbican Centre in London, perhaps the most famous example of Brutalist architecture.

Does Elser think all of these buildings deserve rescuing? Has he never seen a Brutalist building that the world can do without? He laughs.

“Not so far,” he says. “There are some residential complexes that are quite monstrous, but the floor plans are often good. They are frightening, but like cartoon monsters, they are usually somehow cute as well.”

SOS Brutalism is showing at the German Architecture Museum until 2 April, 2018.

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