Brutalist architecture: a concept made concrete

Brutalist architecture arouses passion and fury in equal measure. Of all the styles of housing in London, none is more polarising.

This type of architecture – characterised by angular forms and rough materials (glass, brick, concrete) – flourished from the mid-1950s to the 1970s as the capital slowly began to rebuild itself after the second world war. Concrete was functional and affordable, which made it ideal for government buildings, shopping centres, and crucially, new housing stock.

The architects behind the movement believed they were creating a new utopia. And yet, some 50 years later, Prince Charles apparently spoke for many when he said at a London Planning and Communication Committee dinner in 1987: “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe. When it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”

And yet brutalism has its fans, many of whom would say that to understand its beauty, you must look at it in context. Jonathan Foyle, chief executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain, says that brutalism, which was placed on the Fund’s 2012 “Watch list” of endangered sites, is a civic-spirited form of architecture – perhaps more so than any other.

“It is damned by its name which comes from the French, béton brut, or raw concrete, but we use the same word [Brut] to describe Champagne and this perhaps sums up the dichotomy at the heart of this style.”

Brutalist architecture can be found throughout the social spectrum, from the graffiti-tagged sink estates of London’s East End to the National Theatre on its South Bank.

“Most of these buildings are at least 50 years old now, of course they need maintenance; concrete doesn’t age well in damp weather. But many Victorian buildings were pulled down in the 1920s and 1930s to make way for new buildings rather than repairing the existing ones, and it’s a similar issue here,” says Foyle.

“Brutalism must be taken in context; after the war, a lot of housing was needed in a hurry, but it was designed with the best of intentions. It’s a very optimistic style.”

One of the key features of the brutalist housing estate is the elevated walkways or “streets in the sky”, connecting apartment blocks: in theory, a place where neighbours could convene while their children played safely away from traffic. In practice, a dimly lit no-man’s land, which often led to a feeling of fear among residents.

Although the social experiment didn’t always work, Foyle is full of praise for the way the buildings were designed. “They are very muscular and everything is perhaps bigger than it needs to be, and for that reason I feel that brutalism is a modern take on gothic architecture. Both were designed from the inside out – the purpose of the building and what happens inside is the important part – the outside is merely the envelope that wraps it up.”

Although the most famous supporter of brutalism was the Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, it was actually named by the English architects Alison and Peter Smithson, who designed Robin Hood Gardens, in Poplar, east London, which is due be demolished after an impassioned campaign to save the estate failed.

Supporters included architects Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, who has called it her favourite building in London. Another famous addition to the city’s skyline is Trellick Tower in North Kensington, designed by Ernö Goldfinger.

Trellick Tower in North Kensington

Richard Samuel, a barrister and former chair of the building’s residents’ association, lives at the top of the tower in a three-bedroom flat.

“The thing about brutalism is that it doesn’t work at ground level as there are these dodgy spaces that encourage delinquent behaviour, but higher up they work really well as the living spaces are so well thought-out.”

Joe Dziurzynski, of Hopper and Space, a company that restores mid-century furniture, says brutalist design was much more important in the US than in the UK, where residents were less keen on its heavily textured sculptural forms.

“Stalactite-like chandeliers made of amber-coloured resin or copper are often found with turquoise walls, marble floors and concrete surfaces,” he says. “Look for abstract artworks and moulded wall panelling as well as lengths of tropical hardwoods like teak and sapele. Names to remember are Paul Evans, Bernard Rooke, Hans Coper and Brian Willsher.”

Ben Lovatt, the other half of Hopper and Space, says concrete furniture is also in keeping with the cold Brutalist style. “It is unapologetic in its presence, usually utilitarian in style and the finished surfaces certainly have leanings towards the imposing exteriors of brutalist buildings,” he says.

Another famous example is the Barbican, an estate of some 2,000 flats and houses built around an arts centre with a lake and gardens in the City of London. Dave Black, an IT contractor, currently rents a one-bedroom flat there and says if it were for sale, he would buy it. A three-bedroom apartment can fetch over £1.2m.

“People do react when you say you live there, but I love it. It can appear a bit like a maze, but it’s actually really well-designed and laid out. There are parks, and it’s a bit like living on a university campus, which I like.

“I love the raw concrete and the massive scale. Inside it’s equally well-designed, too. It’s only one bedroom but there’s a dining room, a galley kitchen and floor-to-ceiling sliding doors on to the balcony.”

Love it or hate it, Matt Gibberd, director of London-based The Modern House estate agency, says that brutalism is a vital part of the London skyline. “If we bulldoze these buildings, we lose a part of our history,” he says.

This article has been corrected since original publication to reflect the fact that the campaign to save Robin Hood Gardens has failed.

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