Brutalism was arguably the UK’s defining architectural movement in the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s it was rapidly falling out of favour, and by the 1990s it was widely despised. But the mood is changing. Are we finally learning to appreciate concrete?
Nick Fisher, Investment Director, Rathbones
Brutalist architecture was perhaps cursed with an innate disadvantage from the moment the term was coined. After all, “brutal” has precious few attractive synonyms. A style whose very name invites connotations of harshness, ugliness and cruelty hardly makes life difficult for its opponents.
The blame is said to rest with Reyner Banham, whose 1960 treatise, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, remains one of modernism’s definitive works. Banham took a phrase first used by Swedish designer Hans Aplund and turned it into a bilingual pun on béton brut — the French for “raw concrete”.
The enduring irony is that Banham was an unapologetic champion of the brutalist school. What he seemingly failed to foresee was that the movement’s enemies — especially those unable to speak French and therefore blissfully ignorant of béton brut’s relevance — would focus exclusively on the English component of his play on words and forever decry it as brutalism’s intrinsic admission of its own flaws.
A further irony is that brutalism was never meant to shock or appal. If anything, it was intended to inspire and assist. Every architectural epoch reflects the spirit of its time, and brutalism was a corollary of an era moulded by the newly formed welfare state and a steadfast belief — misplaced or otherwise — in the wisdom of urban planning and communal living. In the words of Christopher Beanland, author of Concrete Concept: Brutalist Buildings Around the World: “It was about the multitude. These schools, libraries, council flats, newspaper offices, shopping centres and hospitals were gifts from benign bureaucracies for society to share.”
Today, half a century after brutalism’s short-lived heyday, this more sympathetic and optimistic view of one of the most controversial periods in the history of architecture is gaining ground. The fight to preserve the best of brutalism is well under way — much as the battle to halt its supposedly insidious advance once raged with the same intensity.
In the early 1960s, with the modernisation of post-war Britain proceeding at pace, the tension between old and new was perfectly crystallised in the unsuccessful campaign to save the Euston Arch. Pitching the protagonists of the past against the proponents of progress, this was a clash that was in every way monumental.
Built in 1837, the arch was hailed by the Architectural Review as “one of the outstanding architectural creations of the early 19th century”. The British Transport Commission and London County Council had little time for such romantic notions and earmarked it for destruction, along with the rest of the original Euston Station, as part of a scheme to haul the capital’s rail system out of the steam age. Despite the efforts of future Poet Laureate John Betjeman, The Buildings of England author Nikolaus Pevsner, Royal Academy president Charles Wheeler and organisations such as the Victorian Society, demolition began in late 1961. The brutalist new Euston Station took shape, and the arch’s remains ended up at the bottom of the River Lea, East London, plugging a chasm in the bed of the Prescott Channel.
The outcome represented both a crushing defeat for the preservationists and the birth of the brutalist boom. Architects such as husband-and-wife duo Alison and Peter Smithson, Hungarian-born Ernő Goldfinger and self-declared egalitarian Rodney Gordon — all of them influenced by Swiss-French counterpart Le Corbusier’s trailblazing fondness for béton brut’s exposed surfaces — soon transformed Britain’s urban landscapes with buildings that redrew the lines between form and function.
London’s most celebrated examples included the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens housing estate and Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, both in Poplar. These were landmark realisations of the “streets in the sky” approach to town planning, as was Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in nearby Kensal Town. The Southbank and Barbican Centres, the Royal College of Physicians and another of the Smithsons’ creations, the Economist Building in Piccadilly, added to the sharp-edged fray.
Elsewhere the cause was furthered by the likes of Gordon’s determinedly angular Tricorn shopping centre, Portsmouth, which even Ian Nairn, the celebrated denigrator of “subtopia”, hailed as “an architectural orchestration that is the equivalent of Berlioz or the 1812 Overture”. Sheffield’s Park Hill flats, Preston Bus Station and the halls of residence at Norwich’s University of East Anglia also ranked among the greats. And then there was Gateshead’s Trinity Square multi-storey car-park, which Michael Caine immortalised as a conveniently precipitous murder scene in the classic early-’70s crime thriller Get Carter.
Yet brutalism lost favour as quickly as it had earned it. Many of these buildings neither aged well nor retained an initial appeal that in most cases was derived from their sheer out-of-the-ordinariness. The partial collapse of Canning Town’s Ronan Point tower block in 1968, just two months after construction was completed, shook wider confidence in Britain’s newfound bent for steel and concrete. With brutalist architecture serving as the backdrop to bleak science-fiction dramas such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, cinema reinforced growing fears of a ready-made dystopia.
In 1984, addressing the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Prince Charles channelled his inner Betjeman to deliver his famous “monstrous carbuncle” speech. It was to prove a decisive turning point in brutalism’s fortunes. Even the new Euston Station, whose advent had apparently signalled the demise of Victoriana, would eventually be condemned in the pages of The Times as “one of the nastiest concrete boxes in London”.
Like the Euston Arch, many of brutalism’s foremost specimens have been lost to the wrecking ball and the bulldozer. The demolition of Robin Hood Gardens began last year, despite a campaign initiated by the Twentieth Century Society and supported by an international array of architects and architectural historians. The Tricorn bit the dust in 2004, three years after Radio 4 listeners voted it the most hated building in Britain. The Trinity Square multi-storey car-park was levelled in 2010, rendered every bit as flat as the crooked councillor whom Caine had once so memorably propelled from its top tier.
Yet very little in this world stays unfashionable in perpetuity, and brutalism offers no exception. The wheel has turned full circle, and the brutal is back in vogue. Balfron Tower has been turned into luxury apartments. Trellick Tower is one of the many brutalist structures that now enjoy listed status. Park Hill has been conspicuously gentrified. Preston Bus Station has survived numerous official death notices and underwent a multi-million-pound renovation two years ago. In 2014 English Heritage even staged an exhibition, Brutal and Beautiful, with a view to examining “our love/hate relationship with England’s recent architectural past”.
And maybe love and hate is what it all comes down to in the end. As architectural critic Jonathan Meades observed in previewing Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry, his BBC Four documentary about the brutalist school’s renewed appeal: “Something that’s universally tolerated is likely to be pretty boring. Anything that’s any good — and original — is going to incite hatred as much as it does adoration, because of the very fact that it’s so unfamiliar.”
Perhaps, too, we have learned to appreciate that these buildings were very much products of their time. According to John Grindrod, author of Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain, they were the results of sincere attempts to make things better in the face of public debt and economic austerity — not, as was long assumed, the malevolent acts of “a team of super-villains who had their corrupt, megalomaniac way with the country for 30 years”. Gordon, whose career-defining Tricorn would one day be dismissed by Prince Charles as akin to “a mildewed lump of elephant droppings”, remembered it as “the age of the people... when feelings of egalitarianism and concern for all were the norm”.
Two-time RIBA president Owen Luder, whose firm counted both the Tricorn and Trinity Square among its most divisive projects, once lamented what he saw as brutalism’s ill-fated life-cycle. “In the ’60s,” he said, “my buildings were awarded. In the ’70s they were applauded. In the ’80s they were questioned. In the ’90s they were ridiculed. And when we get through to 2000 the ones I like most are the ones that have been demolished.” Today, against all expectations, the cycle is beginning to move on again.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has rescued an eight-tonne fragment of the Robin Hood Gardens estate. This year the piece has been transported by barge to the Venice Architecture Biennale and reassembled on a scaffold to allow visitors to stand on an original “street in the sky”.
Olivia Horsfall Turner, the exhibit’s co-curator, hopes the ruins will “inform and inspire current thinking about social housing”. They may also help us to revise our views of this distinct period of architectural history — and even persuade us to preserve more of it.