This article was published in Bournbrook’s seventh print issue.
Brutalism is an architectural style that dominates the skylines of cities in Britain and the world. It is appreciated by the few, loathed by the many.
Brutalism was the defining architectural style of the post war period characterised by bold geometry, monumental and monolithic scale and the sheer use of concrete. It was an architectural expression of social progressivism and the dawn of a utopian and egalitarian society, a new age of optimism and stability after the turbulent chaos that the world was plunged into during the first half of the twentieth century.
However, today, brutalism has fallen out of public favour and has become the architecture of a forgotten underclass, windswept plazas, neglected and crumbling concrete, ugly dystopian soullessness and the symbols of urban decay.
Far from being something to aspire to, it was something to escape from.
The etymology of brutalism coined by Le Corbusier derives from the French, béton brut, for raw concrete which connotates brutality.
Brutalism has been at the forefront of scrutiny since its origin with public reception being very similar to attitudes towards Marmite, ‘you either love it or hate it’. Prince Charles, who is a long-standing critic of brutalism, conveyed his aghast at what he called ‘Frankenstein structures’.
When asked his opinion of the then new National Theatre (opened 1976) he stated that ‘it is a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting’ and when on a visit to Birmingham in 1988, described the Central Library as ‘a place where books are incinerated, not kept’.
Since the Prince of Wales’ remarks, Birmingham Central Library has been demolished and many other brutalist structures are threatened with the same fate.
There has been a general shortage of enthusiasm for the conservation and preservation of brutalist structures. It is far too easy to view and deplore brutalist structures as great alien carbuncles in our Victorian and Georgian city’s and condemn them to demolition.
This has left brutalist examples very vulnerable to the threat of decay, neglect, redevelopment and, sadly, demolition.
We live in an age where brutalism is being pruged.
There has been a lack of contemplation for the architects who designed them and the future of the artistic style, the loss of which would not only be a tragedy to the architectural world but to our own heritage. Britain has a significant cohort of brutalist architects, to name a few, Erno Goldfinger who designed both Balfron and Trellick towers in London, Sir Basil Spence who designed Coventry Cathedral, Owen Luder who designed the notorious Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth and Trinity Square Centre in Newcastle, and John Madin who designed a multitude of buildings across Birmingham, his most notable work being Birmingham Central Library.
The Tricorn Centre, Trinity Square Centre and Birmingham Central Library, all of which were local landmarks, have been demolished in the rampant purging of brutalism, buildings lost for eternity.
The legacy of brutalist architects in Britain is at stake and architectural losses and atrocities have already been made, but is it already too late to save existing brutalist examples around Britain?
Progress has been made in an effort of conserving brutalist structures with some being granted listed status. Preston Bus Station, which has been proclaimed as one of the most significant brutalist buildings in Britain, was granted Grade II listed status in September 2013 after two prior attempts. Redevelopment companies such as Urban Splash have redeveloped many brutalist buildings around Britain such as the Rotunda in Birmingham in 2008 and The Park Hill Estate in Sheffield in 2011 which have been conserved rather than face demolition.
Unfortunately, many applications pertaining listed status for brutalist structures have been rejected such as the Robin Hood Gardens Estate, a public housing scheme in Poplar, East London. The estate has been described as the embodiment of British brutalism, but a listing application was rejected in 2008 because it was deemed that there were other schemes deemed to be of higher historic quality and importance.
As a result of this attitude, many brutalist structures in Britain will be lost and in time, people and heritage organisations will come to regret the demolition of such structures and the important place that they have in history and the way they define and blend in with the architecturally diverse and modern British city.
The fundamental problem is that modernist and brutalist architecture requires a far greater understanding, an almost philosophical comprehension rather than classical and traditional buildings and styles which almost immediately appeal to the aesthetic eye.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.