‘For us ,’ Steffen Ahrends told his son Peter, who was born in Berlin in 1933, ‘the history of architecture started with the Soviet 1917 revolution.’ It wasn’t entirely a joke. For many designers in the Weimar Republic, and for subsequent generations of modernist hardliners, 1917 had made possible a reconstruction of life on collective, egalitarian and, above all, planned lines. That meant a central position for architects, who would have the unprecedented opportunity of designing buildings for an entirely new form of society. Peter Ahrends’s self-published book A3: Threads and Connections is an oblique telling of this tale, through three generations of architects. Peter founded the influential firm Ahrends, Burton and Koralek (ABK) in 1960s London, and his grandfather, Bruno, was one of the principal designers of the White City estate in northern Berlin, one of a cluster of social housing projects from the Weimar era to be given a Unesco World Heritage listing. It is a commonplace that modern architecture in Britain, as an ideology, was an import from interwar Central Europe – dropped off en route to the US by Mendelsohn or Gropius, and picked up by permanent émigrés like Goldfinger, Lubetkin et al – and Ahrends’s book is a document of the way the architects involved saw this process.
Bruno Ahrends, like so many German-Jewish emigrés, was interned at the start of the Second World War as an ‘enemy alien’ – stuck for the duration in Douglas on the Isle of Man. There he created dream images straight out of the unbuilt projects of Weimar Berlin, monumental glass and concrete skyscrapers of the kind that would be realised only after the war. His drawings, reproduced in A3: Threads and Connections, take the shabby, stunted small towns of Britain, their natural assets wasted by lack of planning, and recompose them into something full of vigour, futurism and ruthless optimism. His son Steffen had a more exotic trajectory, which took him from the German-planned Soviet new town of Magnitogorsk to South Africa. Peter, in his work at Ahrends, Burton and Koralek, designed a series of municipal libraries and university buildings in the 1960s and 1970s in what was then called – though not by the architects themselves – the New Brutalism (the ‘New’ was dropped after a few years). Brutalism – the name derived from béton brut (‘raw concrete’), or from the informal, ad hoc compositions of Art Brut, or from ‘Brutus’, the nickname of the architect Peter Smithson – began in the mid-1950s as an attempt to recharge a modernism considered increasingly ingratiating and polite. It favoured rough surfaces, heavy forms and dissonant, often monumental compositions.
One of the earlier examples of it in Britain was ABK’s Chichester Theological College, a gruff, elemental series of brick and concrete pavilions, formed into sculptural towers with almost medieval, slit-like windows. Their most famous Brutalist work is the Berkeley Library at Trinity College, Dublin, where, similarly, hints of older architecture (this time, classicism and the baroque) can be found in an otherwise aggressive design of breezeblock and granite. These are a long way from the elegant White City Bruno Ahrends designed for the workers of Berlin forty years previously. In the move from Berlin and Magnitogorsk to Chichester and Dublin, modern architecture had moved from a clean, clipped, stuccoed functionalism to an architecture that was heavy, uncompromising and rather photogenic.
This era ends in the book in 1982, with the uproar caused by ABK’s winning competition entry for the National Gallery extension. Unimpressed with the brief, which entailed what they considered unwelcome concessions to ‘market forces’ such as office space to fund the galleries, ABK nevertheless submitted a design for a grand circus, culminating in a spiky, asymmetrical tower; it had no references to the style of the original gallery (a rather wan classicism), but tried to continue its use of civic, ceremonial approaches. The Prince of Wales, when Ahrends presented the project to him, wasn’t interested in ‘the plans, routes and squares we created’, but wondered instead with some impatience why the building ‘looked’ as it did. In a speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1984, he described the projected building as a ‘monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved friend’. The upshot for the prince was a book and TV series, A Vision of Britain, in which he expounded his views through what Ahrends calls ‘a mindless catchphrase language of “carbuncles”, “glass stumps” and “fire-station towers”’ – but then what else could you expect of an architecture that was actually called Brutalism? ABK were thrown off the project, which was eventually built to a design by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Whatever its programmatic ‘complexity and contradiction’, as Venturi would put it, the Sainsbury Wing ‘looked’ to the casual eye like just another part of Trafalgar Square, all Corinthian columns and Portland stone. ABK never recovered, and neither did the sort of modern architecture – committed to social change and uncompromising design – that the Ahrends family devoted their lives to.
This intriguing, rather unprofessional account will be easily lost among the rash of enthusiastic commemorations of the Brutalist moment. There are coffee-table books full of archive photos, personal accounts by art historians, comprehensive historical monographs, National Trust tours, cut-out models, tea towels, prints and mugs; there are even flats for sale. There hasn’t been such a wave of public enthusiasm for an architectural style since the Victorian era was rehabilitated in the 1970s and 1980s. Almost every book about Brutalism not by an architect has an element of the Bildungsroman, starting out with the moment when the author in his (it’s almost always his) youth first became aware of the style. (I was no exception in my first book, Militant Modernism.) Barnabas Calder in Raw Concrete talks of growing up in an ‘Edwardian suburb of London’ where
concrete architecture represented everything which was frightening and other: urban motorways, stinking, rowdy and flanked by decaying buildings; reeking underpasses seemed to have been expressly kinked to maximise the number of corners round which imaginary psychopaths could cluster; vast impersonal office buildings giving no indication of what was done within them; and above all council estates on whose raised walkways and deserts of patchy grass nameless but horrible crimes probably took place almost constantly.
It is unusually honest of Calder to make clear that he didn’t have any sympathetic connection with these buildings until he returned to them as a student of architectural history; most other accounts begin with some Proustian encounter between boy and béton brut. Calder is candid about the fear he felt when he first saw the likes of Trellick Tower. This wasn’t ‘his’ architecture, it had nothing to do with where he was from.
Calder wants to make an argument about the greatness of Brutalism as an architectural style. His selection of buildings is eclectic and personal, and avowedly unpolitical.There’s Hermit’s Castle in Achmelvich, a private, bunker-like home, now disused (Calder, on a camping trip, places his sleeping bag with some relish on the built-in concrete bed). There are famous, listed masterpieces, such as Denys Lasdun’s work in Cambridge and on the National Theatre in London, and there is the ‘good ordinary Brutalism’ of the Glasgow School of Art’s demolished Newbery Tower. He makes a good deal of the Brutalists’ interest in historical architecture, ‘a classically trained sense of the axis, the vista and the architectural set piece’, so obvious in the work of ABK – there’s no suggestion here of Steffen Ahrends’s year zero in 1917. The current revival, he speculates, could be explained by ‘a sense that the welfare state was a worthwhile project, but more acutely by visual excitement at the excessive power, ruggedness and exoticism of buildings like this’. Brutalist architects, he says, were used to give a ‘radical’ face to the constants of British ruling class life: Oxbridge, the Royal College of Physicians and the RIBA, Whitehall, and of course property development. I’m not wholly convinced by this argument, which is based on a preoccupation with the most picturesque examples of the style, rather than the enormous mass of work churned out by municipal architects from the 1950s to the 1970s: most Brutalist buildings were council housing.
One of Calder’s heroes is Ernö Goldfinger. His chapter on the Balfron and Trellick Towers stresses how important the personal conscientiousness of an architect could be in the 1960s. Both were commissioned by the London County Council, as it cleared slums in Poplar and Ladbroke Grove respectively. The cult of the buildings is owed partly to their stark silhouettes, with their strongly emphasised service towers connected to the flats by skyways, and partly to the workmanship that went into them. Goldfinger’s alleged arrogance, attested by some of those who worked for him, entailed an obsession with quality: ‘On budgets comparable to those of his contemporaries his buildings tend to be better detailed and better built than almost anyone’s,’ Calder writes, with finely textured concrete kept in good condition by mouldings and details designed to prevent staining and leaks. Some of these were nearly left out by the builders, and reinstated only after Goldfinger’s thunderous complaints. Calder mentions his ‘publicity stunt’ in moving briefly from Hampstead to Poplar to find out what residents did and didn’t like about the building, and that he kept an office in Trellick Tower until he retired; he recognises too that Trellick Tower’s rehabilitation (it was the first Brutalist building to become popular with buyers) isn’t owed to yuppies moving in, but to the tenants’ association, which insisted on, and eventually got, a concierge and a pledge from the council that only people who wanted to live in the tower would be housed there. Calder doesn’t dwell on the uglier story of Balfron Tower. Poplar HARCA, the housing association to which the building was given in 2007 after a poll of tenants (they were told that only a housing association could guarantee renovations) has now sold the building to fund its renovation of others elsewhere in the borough. Ingeniously, before putting the flats on the market, Poplar HARCA let them out to ‘creatives’, accelerating the process of gentrification whereby working-class people give way to artists who give way to bankers.
Calder reminds us that the Barbican, the one major Brutalist estate designed and managed for the wealthy (though by the City of London, a local authority of a unique sort), was built in response to the prospect that the City’s privileges might be abolished by postwar government reforms. The Barbican was a ‘bankers’ commune’ intended to keep the City’s voting rights in place by building into it a resident population. He gives a curt depiction of the grim, short-term speculative capitalism that gave rise to the semi-Brutalist office and housing projects of Richard Seifert, such as the Anderston Centre in Glasgow, a half-finished and shoddily renovated sub-Barbican of monumental towers connected by walkways across a raised podium. Seifert, as Hugh Casson pointed out, had ‘loyalty to his clients’ where other architects felt a loyalty to ‘society in general’; he was dropped from the competition for the National Theatre early on for being, as the judges put it, ‘Too commercial. No convictions’. For his last major project, the wilfully sinister metal shaft of the NatWest Tower, for a few years Britain’s tallest building, Seifert deliberately submitted an ugly low-rise and an elegant high-rise, in the hope that the latter would be selected (as it was).
The touchy, serious and wholly establishment architect Denys Lasdun is Calder’s anti-Seifert and his real great love. He writes beautifully about the concrete structure of the National Theatre, of how the Portland stone in the aggregate was calculated to harmonise with Somerset House, the Royal Festival Hall and Waterloo Bridge (which it still does, because unlike so many owners of Brutalist buildings, the NT actually cleans it), and about the complex process of creating its shuttered finish. This was painstaking: ‘Air bubbles which naturally cling to the rough wood texture needed to be knocked loose by vibrating the wet concrete mechanically after it was poured but before it set, but not too vigorously: over-vibrating concrete would shake the gravel to the bottom.’ He finds that even John Betjeman, the arch-Victorianist and founder of Private Eye’s ‘Nooks and Corners’ (originally called ‘Nooks and Corners of the New Barbarism’), admired the design, to the point where he wrote a letter of appreciation to Lasdun: ‘I gasped with delight … It is a lovely work, and so good outside, which is what matters most.’
Like the original Victorian revivalists of the 1970s, Calder likes to live the dream. He is overcome with enthusiasm when talking about his months in a Lasdun-designed hall of residence in Cambridge. He is anxious about the threat that unsympathetic alteration poses to his favourite Brutalist monuments. ‘Of course I have sympathy for people’s desire to make a place their own,’ he says, referring to students’ Blu-Tacking of posters to the red bricks of Stirling and Gowan’s Leicester Engineering Building. ‘However, if you happen to find yourself … in one of the two dozen best buildings of the 20th century, you send round an email rather than putting up a poster.’
Calder is on his shakiest ground when he argues that ‘the emphasis on visual excitement in the revival of interest in 1960s architecture is not a perversion of the real intentions of the style. Brutalism started out as a swing towards a politically neutral, self-propelling aestheticism cultivated by young architects afire with the thrill of Le Corbusier’s postwar concrete primitivism.’ That is not at all the impression one gets from the earliest accounts of the style. The book that defined it was Reyner Banham’s The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?, published in 1966. Banham’s account, which recapitulated an essay written for the Architectural Review in 1955, was on one level an exemplary piece of Cold War demonology. In the first ten years after 1945, the pure white style of Bruno Ahrends’s Berlin had been Anglicised, but not in the direction of the monumental dissonance of Brutalism. Instead, it became a friendly, rather cutesy amalgam of Scandinavian design and the English picturesque tradition – think of the first new towns like Stevenage, Basildon, Harlow or East Kilbride, the interiors of the Royal Festival Hall, the precincts of Coventry. Many of the architects behind this work, such as Frederick Gibberd (designer of Harlow), Arthur Ling (architect of much of postwar Coventry) and a good chunk of the London County Council Architects’ Department, were card-carrying Communists. In the Architectural Review essay, Banham argued – wholly spuriously – that Khrushchev’s public denunciation of Socialist Realist architecture in 1954 left these architects looking bankrupt and without an ideology to uphold. In fact, politics notwithstanding, their architectural utopia was Stockholm, not Moscow. These CPGB Scandinavians called what they were doing the New Empiricism.
The New Brutalism was an amoral avant-garde response to the ingratiating work of these socially concerned, compromised modernists. But there were other things at stake here too. Reading Banham’s book, or the essays by Alison and Peter Smithson later collected as Ordinariness and Light, with its epigraphs from Aneurin Bevan, or the various texts of Team 10, the international corresponding group that included most early Brutalists, it is clear that there was a strong ‘ethic’ in the work to which the ‘aesthetic’ was often secondary. It hinged on rejecting not just the picturesqueness of the Anglo-Scandos, but also the puritanism of the Berlin estates of the 1920s, clean-lined garden cities with depopulated public spaces. Instead, the New Brutalists were interested in community life in the East End of London (more through Nigel Henderson’s photographs than Willmott and Young’s sociology), in the messy, chaotic work of Eduardo Paolozzi and Art Brut (‘Fuck Henry Moore’ was one slogan), in vernacular architecture, in industrial buildings, and in Hollywood films and advertising. Their buildings were meant to be noisy; for Banham, exemplars include Lasdun’s ‘Cluster Block’ at Keeling House in Bethnal Green, and Park Hill in Sheffield, both attempts to recreate the bustle of a working-class street in the air. Aesthetics were secondary, programme was all. The designers of Park Hill, Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, boasted that they didn’t draw a single elevation while designing one of the largest buildings in Europe. For Banham, this promised an architecture autre, where most accepted canons of form and order could be discarded in favour of strange, angry objects whose appearance to the eye was wholly dictated by what they did inside and what the structure was made of.
The amalgam of futurism and nostalgia in this work had something to do with the fact that many of the Brutalist architects were, like Banham himself, from a working-class background very rare in architectural circles, then as now. They were provincials, Northerners, and some of them – like Peter Smithson (with his nickname Brutus) – classic postwar climbers. At Keeling House, Lasdun embraced the once horrifying thought that people might hang washing on balconies; Banham went one step further by praising a Japanese block of Brutalist apartments for the fact that fights took place on the walkways – a proof of authenticity, it seems. Yet alongside this apparent populism, Brutalism was intended, according to Banham, to be ‘a brick-bat flung in the public’s face’. By the time Brutalist architects like the Smithsons had begun to embrace, in their brackish and personal way, elements of the classical tradition (their Economist Building in St James’s was a well-crafted, contextual work for an establishment client), it was all over for Banham – it was a betrayal, after which he went to look elsewhere for his architecture autre.
The nearest that any of the Brutalist revival volumes published in the last year comes to acknowledging this strange and, one would think, interesting history is a few sentences in Elain Harwood’s enormous Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945-75. It is a measure of the popularity of Brutalism that Harwood has put it into the name of a book that is for the most part about something quite different, encompassing every aspect of postwar architecture, from streets in the sky to neo-Georgian country houses. Harwood is the ideal person to undertake this history. As a case worker at English Heritage, she was responsible for listing dozens of postwar buildings; she made Park Hill a Grade II* listing in the face of a council that would clearly rather have knocked it down. Through such conservation work, and her several short books and guides, it’s arguable that nobody since Pevsner has done so much both to preserve and to popularise modern architecture in this country.
Her chronological narrative is divided into several parts on particular aspects of the period – New Towns, Housing, Private Houses, Schools, Universities, Transport, Energy, Industry and Commerce, Health, and Leisure. Her judgments are well considered, the historical detail is abundant, and the photographs by James Davies are remarkable in their often eerie glamour. However, this is very much the official story, coming from someone who, given that her business has been the listing of buildings of exceptional quality, notices mainly the finest buildings of the era. One of the valuable things about this gigantic book is that it makes clear there are as many of these in this period as in any other, but the decision to excise much of the mundane work of local councils – and the dubious deals they cut with builders, particularly in the mid-1960s, in order to construct large numbers of prefabricated flats at great speed – means the story is somewhat skewed. Some of the most complete modernist environments in the country, from Broadwater Farm to Chelmsley Wood, don’t feature, simply because they’re of little architectural worth.
Harwood’s story will be familiar to anyone who knows the period – ten years of New Empiricism, the wild experiments of Brutalism and then, in the 1970s, a sudden and sharp reaction, forcing architects on the one hand towards a traditionalist ‘vernacular’ or, on the other, towards the High-Tech of Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. Much of the interest comes from unexpected details. In the section on ‘Energy’, for instance, the account of Sylvia Crowe’s landscaping of the grounds of nuclear power stations is an insight into the way that even the most unnerving of technocratic structures could be designed in an integrated whole with the landscape. The opening chapters are excellent in charting the different approaches to planning in the postwar period, with the reconstruction of Blitzed cities producing Beaux Arts Plymouth, New Empiricist Coventry and New Brutalist Sheffield. The geography of postwar architecture as described here is also surprising. Much of the enthusiasm for Brutalism has come from cities other than London, such as Glasgow, Birmingham, Sheffield, Newcastle and Manchester (which even has its own retro-Brutalist magazine, The Modernist), but Harwood argues that London dominated the postwar decades in architecture almost as much as it does today. No local authority even remotely rivalled the London County Council in the scope of its architectural activity, and the cities and towns that were influential or impressive weren’t the ones you’d expect: not Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol or Leeds, but Sheffield, Coventry, Southampton and Loddon in Norfolk (a major holdout of the New Empiricism). Harwood’s bias towards quality over quantity means that cities that opted for systems rather than architects when they embarked on huge programmes of rebuilding – Sunderland, say, or Portsmouth – get less attention. Birmingham, which, as Ian Nairn pointed out approvingly in the mid-1960s, was transformed beyond recognition in less than a decade, features little, with the exception of the local firm John Madin Design Group.
Harwood ends several chapters with terse accounts of what was successful and what wasn’t, what survives and what doesn’t (and why). Housing, for all the depredations of Right to Buy, survives far better than the buildings of the NHS and comprehensive schools, many of which were lost under New Labour and the PFI: Blair, she notes, ‘assumed that old buildings could not deliver a decent education – never an argument made in the private sector’. The few NHS hospitals of architectural interest, like Powell and Moya’s general hospital in Swindon, disappeared after less than forty years. The best surviving buildings, it seems from Harwood’s account, are the private houses that architects built for the wealthy or for themselves, which appear in Davies’s photographs as luminous, secluded time machines.
This was anticipated by Banham, who considered the ‘memorable image’ one of the principal things that made New Brutalism so unlike the informal layouts and sleepy details of New Empiricism. Brutalism was always meant to be photogenic. In their first public building, a secondary modern in Hunstanton, Norfolk, the Smithsons insisted when it was first covered in the architectural press that it be photographed twice – once as a school, being used and beaten about by children, and once as a work of pure architectural space (designing buildings that were successfully both was not the Smithsons’ strong point). Brutalism books, like the many photo-blogs they draw on, favour either stark black and white images from when the buildings were new, so that the marks of time aren’t visible on the concrete, or, when the buildings are in better nick, colour photographs in which every pebble of the concrete aggregate is visible. One building, for instance, features in at least five recent books: the Ministry of Highways in Tbilisi, built in 1974. With its interconnected towers clinging to a steep hill, it is a perfect internet image, so eye-catching that you’ll stop checking Facebook or Twitter for all of thirty seconds while you look at it. Actually visiting the thing is another matter, and at least two of the books that use the image are written (or rather, compiled) by people who haven’t. If they had, they might have noticed that the building is as pedestrian-unfriendly as it is photogenic – the only easy way to see it as a whole is to drive there and park underneath.
Christopher Beanland’s Concrete Concept is typical in this respect, a cheap and cheerful job encased in a cardboard cover intended to evoke a nice grey slab of concrete. Here the decisive encounter takes place in the West Midlands. ‘Why do you like these ugly buildings?’ Beanland asks himself. Because of ‘dreams of brutalism. Dreams about blonde-haired girls lolling on roundabouts, outside tower blocks, beneath flyovers. An itch you can’t scratch. And I know the culprit: Birmingham … from 2002 to 2007, I carved out some kind of life in 1970s-built concrete canyons and freezing offices and bars that stank of cigarettes, optimism and repressed lust.’ This heavy-breathing stuff is derived from one of the central texts of Brutalist revivalism, Pulp’s 1992 fantasy ‘Sheffield: Sex City’, where the mundane concrete precincts of provincial British cities are eroticised by Jarvis Cocker’s roving eye. Beanland is talking about the ordinary yet monumental highway engineering that encases and courses through Birmingham, courtesy of its chief engineer, Herbert Manzoni, and the architecture of John Madin, much of which is now being, or has just been, demolished. Like the work of Denys Lasdun or ABK, this is classically proportioned, obsessively considered work – Madin’s Birmingham Central Library was designed using the Golden Section – even if Prince Charles said that it ‘looks like a place where books are incinerated, not kept’.
Perhaps the only notable thing about Concrete Concept is its justifiable stress on the international nature of Brutalism. In the US, where it was largely used for university buildings, it never acquired any of the social connotations it had in, say, the UK or Japan. There, the building that kicked off Brutalism was the Yale Art and Architecture Building by Paul Rudolph, a sculptural, self-conscious monument lined in ‘corduroy concrete’. The ethic, here, was wholly architectural – a ‘truth to materials’, an ‘expression of structure’ and, especially, an expression of the building’s technical services, which can make Brutalist buildings exceptionally difficult to renovate, since the services change as technology changes. Beanland doesn’t let himself get bogged down in this, though. ‘Brutalism emerged at the beginning of the jet age, as architects freely flew around the world pinching ideas from one another, carousing with fast women and driving fast cars, like in Mad Men.’
Peter Chadwick’s This Brutal World is a bit more ambitious. It is based on a Tumblr blog Chadwick has run for a few years called This Brutal House; the pop culture reference, to Nitro Deluxe’s 1986 track of the same name, connects electronic music, architecture and nostalgia. Chadwick’s Bildungsroman is set in Teesside, and the building that sparks the love affair isn’t strictly Brutalist: the Dorman Long South Bank Coke Oven Tower, at the factory near Redcar where his grandfather worked. Although this monumental, cast-from-one-mould object bears some similarity to forms arrived at by more circuitous routes by James Stirling or ABK, it is anonymous, not ‘high’ architecture, a product of functional necessity. He first saw the tower as a child in the late 1970s, ‘through the rear window of my father’s white Ford Anglia … uncompromising and faceless, this structure fuelled my imagination.’ Serendipitously, before he was much older, he went on to see some of the other great modernist works of the North-East. He got to climb on Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee (‘From that moment on,’ after scraping his knees on the pavilion’s rough surfaces, ‘I fell in love with raw concrete’), and he got to gaze longingly at the Trinity Square Car Park and the Dunston Rocket, both in Gateshead, both designed by Rodney Gordon for Owen Luder Architects.
He heard Joy Division, and realised that this brutal world was the landscape they were describing: ‘On the tenth floor, down the back stairs, it’s a no-man’s-land’. Pop quotations are attached to many of the photographs here: next to the clustered roof lights of the Zalman Aranne Library in Israel, Leonard Cohen tells us that ‘there is a crack, a crack, in everything, that’s how the light gets in’; underneath an image of the bluntly Expressionist Luckenwalde Hat Factory by Erich Mendelsohn, Nick Cave sings that ‘out of sorrow entire worlds have been built, out of longing great wonders have been willed.’ It’s hard not to giggle. Harder still, when an image of another functional structure, RMJM’s Falkirk Wheel, a canal boat lift opened in 2002, is accompanied by Ayn Rand: ‘The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.’ Maybe someone should have.
Chadwick wants to ‘celebrate the very best of the traditional canon of Brutalism … and also to propose that Brutalism lives on in so much contemporary architecture’. But what might seem an evocative juxtaposition when glimpsed on a tablet or iPhone makes a weaker impression in a lushly produced hardback. Some effort has gone into arranging the images so that the buildings complement each other, but it’s a little trite: the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang is next to Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s chapel for the air-force academy in Colorado Springs because, well, both have big sharp right angles. Only the second of these would fit into any previously conceived definition of Brutalism. One thing that Chadwick’s free selection of projects does make clear is how little being big and aggressive has to do with Brutalism. ‘Brutal’ as the – here lavishly showcased – work of Zaha Hadid could be, there was absolutely nothing she was concerned with less than ‘truth to materials’, expression of structure or the display of a building’s services.
Among the ‘influences’ listed at the start of This Brutal World are Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose typological catalogues of deliberately decontextualised industrial structures, with people and surrounding objects cropped out in favour of a pure, abstracted form, have had some effect on the Brutalist revival. That’s especially noticeable in some of the poetic, theoretical talk in the best of these coffee-table tomes, the Polish-French photographer Nicolas Grospierre’s Modern Forms: A Subjective Atlas of 20th-Century Architecture. ‘For me,’ Grospierre insists, ‘modernism, and architectural modernism in particular, is the embodiment of one of the greatest ideas in the history of mankind – progress … I can identify with ideas of progress, I believe in them and I long for them.’ The photographs of buildings in this ‘subjective atlas’ are intended as a commentary on the loss of faith in progress resulting from the demise of state socialism and social democracy. Yet the way images are arranged in the book – a typological twinning, with two similar or complementary ‘forms’ facing each other, one page each – doesn’t really perform that function. I know a fair few of the buildings Grospierre photographs, and some of them are often humming with people, activity and unaesthetic informal commerce. Seeing the buildings as ruined and empty – as a tiny handful are – makes the point about the failure of progress, modernity and suchlike rather better than a somewhat battered but well-used public building could.
What Modern Forms does well is to compile a genuinely unusual selection of buildings (his pleasingly eccentric itinerary included Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Israel, Lebanon and the US). Most of those shown are Brutalist, and many are in the concrete shell-roofed style popular particularly in roadside buildings in mid-century America and nicknamed ‘Googie’, a style where buildings became logos, designed to be seen at speed. Sometimes Grospierre juxtaposes buildings that genuinely look alike – a bandstand in Atlanta and a railway station café in Warsaw, with similar cylindrical glass shapes. Elsewhere, he cheats a little: the National Palace of Culture in Sofia only twins with the Interfaith Medical Centre in Brooklyn because he has photographed it from the back, not the front, which features a formal, symmetrical entrance. Shape is akin, function is alien: the House of the Soviets in Kaliningrad is paired with a car park in Dallas, the Donbass Sanatorium in Crimea with the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta.
It is striking, nonetheless, that these buildings look so similar despite their totally different uses and histories. Did modern architecture manage to create a formal repertoire appropriate to the way people use and experience a building? This, in a way, is the question posed by Prince Charles when he used terms like ‘nuclear power stations’ (the National Theatre) and ‘1930s wirelesses’ (James Stirling’s No. 1 Poultry) to describe buildings whose function was made opaque or irrelevant, as he saw it, by their unpleasant exterior form. Charles’s court architect (and Albert Speer apologist) Léon Krier believed that established architectural languages such as classicism, baroque and gothic tell you what a building is before you read the sign. While that isn’t entirely historically accurate – in the 18th century, a roughly similar language could be used for a church, a country house, a terrace or the entrance to a mill – it does explain some of the puzzlement with which the New Brutalism was met when it was actually new. Grospierre puts next to each other the Vilnius House of Ritual Services (a Soviet type sometimes known as a ‘Sorrow Palace’, where funerals were held) and a jauntily angled thin concrete shell roof in Amboy, California: Roy’s Motel and Café. Presumably, the Lithuanian architects hoped their building would have an appropriate sombreness and give comfort to the bereaved. Isn’t it a failure if it uses the same formal language as a Californian diner? Look more closely, however, and you can see that although they have some things in common – a tension between jagged, cantilevered concrete volumes – in other respects they’re quite different. The House of Ritual Services features a formal approach up a series of steps to a niche-like entrance where the building’s wings appear to shelter and welcome the visitor. Roy’s Motel and Café does not. Even the most intelligent purely formal, purely photographic account of Brutalist architecture cannot but miss the way buildings are actually experienced through use.
Brutalist architects may have created images, sculptures, that they found satisfying, their critics say, but they didn’t have to live in them, did they? They probably all lived in Georgian terraces. As did Alison and Peter Smithson, and James Stirling. The recent petition signed by practically every major living architect, from Richard Rogers to Peter Eisenman, to save Robin Hood Gardens, Alison and Peter Smithson’s Poplar council estate, from demolition, met with exactly this response from Tower Hamlets Council. Architects, they said, may well enjoy the ‘daring’ and ‘fearless’ design of these two dilapidated mid-rise concrete streets-in-the-sky, but if they like it so much, why don’t they go and live there? Well, the people profiled in Stefi Orazi’s Modernist Estates have done just that, though none of them in Robin Hood Gardens: it is currently being ‘decanted’, to be replaced by a bland development in which, typically, it is unlikely many of the estate’s original residents will be able to afford to live. Most of the people in Modernist Estates have bought their flats. The book grew out of another Tumblr, on which Orazi posted photographs and prices of modernist flats as they came on the market. Most of them were ‘ex-council’; it was often hard to be sure whether or not the blog was making a satirical point about the decreasing status of social housing or not. Orazi, a graphic designer, ‘grew up in an architecturally unremarkable council estate in Sussex’, and never shared the common belief that houses are always better than flats, and private always better than public. She calls the modernist estates of the 1950s through to the 1970s – or those showcased here, at any rate – ‘Britain’s best housing of the 20th century’.
The people Orazi interviews are actors, graphic designers, lecturers, a ‘digital project manager with an obsession for analogue cameras’, a Turner Prize-winning architect-artist, several architects, the head of the British Council’s architecture section, and ‘a dealer specialising in mid-century Scandinavian furniture’. These are the kind of people who made the architecture of the 19th century acceptable in the 1970s, turning former slums like Notting Hill, Camden and Islington into desirable areas where within a couple of decades government ministers wouldn’t be able to afford to live.
The book is chronological, beginning with Wells Coates’s full-blast, Berlin-style Isokon building, perhaps the first serious modernist building in Britain, and ending with the Anglo-Swedish architect Ralph Erskine’s first phase of Greenwich Millennium Village, a late flowering of the New Empiricism. Neither of these are council estates (though both include social housing), and also featured are a private Span estate, a flat in Frederick Gibberd’s private Pullman Court and another in the Barbican. These aside, each of the flats photographed and described is ‘ex-council’. (Right to Buy has dramatically affected the numbers of council tenants on estates. On the Golden Lane estate, for instance, they account for a mere 50 per cent.) When asked what the best thing about their flats and houses is, most residents say they love the air, the openness, the freshness, and the sense of living in something historic and idealistic. The interiors are shockingly homogeneous, however disparate the buildings, from Sturm und Drang Brutalism to friendly New Empiricism: stripped floorboards, white walls, Swedish furniture with (depending on income) a bit of Bauhaus or 1950s vintage, and tastefully framed exhibition posters. The contrast with most council estate interiors is glaring. Council tenants like to customise their flats; a photography project on Robin Hood Gardens in 2008 found an amazing range of interiors – kitsch, delicate, old-fashioned, modern. But in Orazi’s book, everyone has the same good taste, as if this is the only possible appropriate response to modern architecture.
The queasiness induced by buying up something that was until recently a public good hasn’t escaped some of the interviewees. Neave Brown, who was a designer at Camden Council in the 1970s when it was designing what is in terms of space, intelligence and construction quality probably the finest mass housing ever built in the UK, moved a few years ago from one block of flats he designed to another, in Gospel Oak. When asked what was the best thing about where he lived, he replied: ‘Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful.’ When asked what the worst thing is, he spoke angrily of the fact that the ideals of his generation of architects were betrayed, and that working-class people can no longer get housing this good. Such qualms seem not to affect the lecturers living in Park Hill in Sheffield, which they use as a second home during the working week. Park Hill was given to the developers Urban Splash with the proviso that a quarter of the estate remained ‘social’ housing; flats in the part of the building that has been drastically renovated and redesigned are marketed specifically to ‘creatives’. Thousands of people have been displaced from their homes never to return.
Ivor Smith, one of the two designers of Park Hill, finds little to be upset about in the redesign and clearance of his building. In Architecture an Inspiration he writes that in the work undertaken by Urban Splash, stripping out each flat in the part they have renovated, replacing bricks with brightly coloured anodised aluminium and adding a steel spiral staircase, ‘I sense … the same enthusiasm and excitement that Jack Lynn and I enjoyed half a century ago.’ Smith ‘qualified at a privileged time’, he admits, when there was a ‘sense of optimism and a deep social concern’, the second of which surely can’t have entered into the equations of Urban Splash. In most other respects, Architecture an Inspiration shows how far Smith has travelled from the days when he and Lynn boasted that they didn’t draw elevations. ‘In the middle of the 20th century,’ he delicately puts it, ‘it was proposed that the elevation should automatically express on the outside what goes on within, and should honestly express its structure. This is a simplistic rationalisation which, as we have seen, history contradicts.’ His book illustrates the way in which architects who had once constructed outrageously confident concrete monuments turned to something a lot more modest.
Like Peter Ahrends’s A3: Threads and Connections, this is a self-published book by an old man with nothing to prove. The titles of both books, earnest and slightly ungrammatical, are unlike the percussive stomp of Raw Concrete, Concrete Concept, Modern Forms. A few years after Park Hill, Smith fell in with the Cambridge School of modern architects, such as the British Library’s designer, Colin St John Wilson, who believed in uniting modernism and historical continuity through an engagement with the city as it is, rather than as they would like it to be. Their heroes were Alberti, Palladio, Asplund, Lutyens, Aalto, Kahn, Moneo: architects concerned with order, precision and supposedly eternal values. Brutalism’s heirs leave Smith rather puzzled: ‘with such a strong celebration of the services,’ he says of Richard Rogers’s Lloyds Building, which shares the Brutalist joy in making visible on the exterior the ducts and pipes of the building’s workings, ‘it is difficult to know what the icon represents.’ Architects in the early 1960s, when Park Hill was designed, would be surprised by the notion that they had to ‘represent’ anything but the building itself and what it does. They built civic structures, but the idea that there was a particular code or language that civic buildings should use in order to communicate with the public would have left them nonplussed. It would make complete sense, though, to the architects currently taking on some of the larger commissions in London, such as Maccreanor Lavington, Patrick Lynch or David Chipperfield, all of whom owe something to the Cambridge School’s concern for urban order, classical tripartite structures, colonnades, brickwork and stone. For them, Brutalism’s rupture with the existing city is a mistake to be rectified. Their buildings – office complexes for large developers, and luxury flats instantly sold – use a civic language that Brutalists never thought was necessary for libraries, hospitals or council housing.