Strange, Angry Objects

Owen Hatherley

  • A3: Threads and Connections by Peter Ahrends
    Right Angle, 128 pp, £18.00, December 2015, ISBN 978 0 9532848 9 4
  • Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism by Barnabas Calder
    Heinemann, 416 pp, £25.00, April 2016, ISBN 978 0 434 02244 1
  • Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945-75 by Elain Harwood
    Yale, 512 pp, £60.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 300 20446 9
  • Concrete Concept: Brutalist Buildings around the World by Christopher Beanland
    Frances Lincoln, 192 pp, £18.00, February 2016, ISBN 978 0 7112 3764 3
  • This Brutal World by Peter Chadwick
    Phaidon, 224 pp, £29.95, April 2016, ISBN 978 0 7148 7108 0
  • Modern Forms: A Subjective Atlas of 20th-Century Architecture by Nicolas Grospierre
    Prestel, 224 pp, £29.99, February 2016, ISBN 978 3 7913 8229 6
  • Modernist Estates: The Buildings and the People Who Live in Them by Stefi Orazi
    Frances Lincoln, 192 pp, £25.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 7112 3675 2
  • Architecture an Inspiration by Ivor Smith
    Troubador, 224 pp, £24.95, November 2014, ISBN 978 1 78462 069 1

‘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.

Keeling House, Bethnal Green
Keeling House, Bethnal Green

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.

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[*] By contrast, John Grindrod’s Concretopia – a Journey around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (2014), is an excellent political history of the relationship between municipal socialism, ‘comprehensive development’ and modernism. It’s also a more interesting Bildungsroman, starting out on a Croydon council estate.