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Features / Architecture

Essentials: We take you through the highs and lows of the Brutalist movement

First published in Printed Pages Winter 2014

Words by

Amy Lewin

Illustration by

Robert Fresson

To some, it’s a beauty; to others, a beast. Standing in the thundering October rain watching the rippling reflection of its monolithic form, it seems nothing short of sublime. Perhaps one of the best known examples of Brutalist architecture, London’s Barbican complex encapsulates how we feel about the movement today. Home to a housing estate and an arts centre, Grade II listed but seen by some as fit for the wrecking ball, it is a sprawling, fortress-like creation at the heart of a city and an architectural ideology.

Characterised by exposed concrete, sheer size and solidity, “homely” hardly springs to mind when describing Brutalist buildings. The movement’s very name evokes a harsh, stark nature, despite its etymological ties to the French term “béton brut” – literally, “raw concrete”. Yet many of these creations of the 1950s and 60s were designed for a utopian, socialist society centred around community. The labyrinthine “streets in the sky” of estates like the Barbican were envisioned as bustling public spaces. The exposed concrete walls stood for honesty and simplicity; creating fresh, functional living spaces for post-war society. Hard to imagine today.

When Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier created The Palace of Assembly at Chandigarh, a planned city for post-independence India, it was fit for an haute couture fashion shoot. The irregular geometric shapes of its structures cast picturesque shadows on the floor, through which its traditionally-dressed inhabitants moved like dream figures. It was, in Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s words: “a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future”. Now, shot in the unforgiving light of day, its lakes are a stagnant green and grime spreads slowly over the bare concrete walls of the Secretariat Building.  

Brutalism was, and still is, inextricably tied to politics. The Park Hill estate in Sheffield replaced a slum known as Little Chicago with a revolutionary residential development inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. The nation was rebuilding itself, rising from the ruins of the war. So when Owen Luder’s brutalist Tricorn Centre was knocked down in 2004, it wasn’t just a sign of how architectural tastes had changed; reducing these buildings to rubble also stamped on the ideals on which they were built. Social housing had failed. Cavernous estates became synonymous with ideas of broken urban society, cemented in the visual imagination by films like A Clockwork Orange and La Haine.

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Even Alison and Peter Smithson, key figures in the movement and the architects of London’s Robin Hood Gardens estate, felt their ideals had not turned to reality. Interviewed in the 1990s, Peter said: “In other places you see doors painted and pot plants outside houses – the minor arts of occupation – which keep the place alive. In Robin Hood you don’t see this because if someone were to put anything out it people will break it.”

Things are, however, picking up for beleaguered Brutalist buildings. In Quebec, Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, is a now a well-loved part of the city’s skyline. Made up of 150 residential cubes haphazardly piled on top of one another, it’s like a child’s experiment with Lego, ridiculing gravity with more angles and apparent impossibilities than an M C Escher drawing.
 
Equally. being voted London’s ugliest building in a 2003 poll hasn’t hindered the Barbican. It’s like a supermodel of the architectural world; odd-looking, but mesmerising. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s high rise apartment blocks and terraces are now home to a rather more exclusive crowd than it was designed for; the flats are 94 % privately owned and some sell for more than £1 million. 
 
Bumbling beer-bellied British poet Sir John Betjeman, may seem like an unlikely intrusion into this tale. But fans of Brutalism, like documentary maker Jonathan Meades, laud the poet’s campaigns to save Victorian architecture in the 1960s. Give it 50 years, he says, and the Barbican might be viewed as a beauty equal to St Pancras Station, itself once considered a Gothic nightmare.
 
It doesn’t help Brutalism’s cause that in its heyday it was favoured by governments and cultural institutions rather than corporations. It seems inevitable that buildings like Preston Bus Station and the Trident Centre, Birmingham Central Library and the National Theatre, would have fewer pennies lavished on their upkeep than a shiny banking headquarters or luxury hotel. No wonder then, that without any love or attention, they’ve started to look a little drab.