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The ugly legacy of Brutalism

ByBen Donlan

Nov 25, 2015
A Clockwork Orange (1971) uses the Brutalist Brunel University as a location

Walking around the central area of the University of Edinburgh, you may admire McEwan Hall (albeit through scaffolding), or the Georgian terraced buildings. But the main University Library probably does not come at the top of the list of architectural gems in the Athens of the North. Looming as a large concrete structure on the edge of George Square and the Meadows, it was designed in 1964 by Sir Basil Spence. Each floor is an acre in size and it was the largest university library in Britain upon completion. The building represents an era of Britain marked by a seriousness and post-war utopian drive. This architectural style became known as Brutalism.


The term was originally coined for a wave of buildings in the 1950s to 1970s which were often massive concrete and steel block structures. Deliberately plain and ascetic, the style became popular for government buildings and civic projects. Geometric fortress-like buildings became a vanguard of the movement, often with little regard for architectural precedent or the surrounding area. The term Brutalism comes from the French word ‘brut’, meaning raw, in reference to the unfinished look of the concrete exteriors. The Royal Institute of British Architects notes five criteria to identify Brutalist buildings: rough unfinished surfaces; unusual shapes; heavy-looking materials; massive forms; small windows in relation to the other parts.


The term Brutalism has now become synonymous, to the uninitiated, as a term for any large unpopular building from the latter half of the twentieth century. But it was a definite highly expressive style that had vociferous supporters and detractors. Brutalism was first used in England by the architectural historian Reyner Banham in 1954. He used it to describe a school at Hunstanton designed by Peter and Alison Smithson, although this structure emphasised steel over concrete.


One of the early initiators of the movement was the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. A pioneer of modern architecture and urban planning he sought to improve urban living conditions for the poor through his designs. A designer and painter Charles-Edouard Jeanneret adopted the pseudonym, Le Corbusier, in 1920. He set up his own architectural practice in France. Designing a series of modernist villas in the 1930s, Le Corbusier’s ultimate aim was the building of entire cities on modernist principles. The Ville Contemporaine, in 1922, and the Ville Radieuse, in 1924, were unrealized projects that espoused his utopian vision.


After World War Two, Le Corbusier re-emerged as a pioneer of the New Brutalism, focusing his efforts on large housing blocks, known as ‘unités,’ around France. However, he did have the chance to create and implement the master plan for the Indian city of Chandigarh, designing many of its civic buildings on a massive brutalist scale throughout the 1950’s.


Le Corbusier’s critics called his structures boring, alien to the cities in which they had been placed and isolating monoliths. But his egalitarian aims for efficient and higher quality urban living are praiseworthy. He died while swimming off the French Mediterranean coast in 1965 and tributes to his work came from leaders across the world.


One of the most famous examples of large scale British Brutalism is the Barbican Estate. Built during the 1960s and 1970s in the City of London, the Barbican Complex consists of the Barbican Arts Centre, the Museum of London, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and other civic buildings. The estate’s residential buildings include three towers of forty-two storeys, which form part of the City skyline.


Built at the height of the Brutalist movement, the thirty-five acre site is notable for its cohesiveness in a way other modernist buildings have been unable to achieve. The Queen at the estate’s official opening in 1982 called it ‘one of the wonders of the modern world’. But its detractors do not find themselves without company. The Barbican Centre was voted London’s ugliest building in a 2003 poll. The Barbican’s own website also makes reference to its controversial reputation, stating, ‘Since opening in 1982, the Barbican has long been the source of amazement and inspiration – as well as controversy.’  The Estate has received protected status from the government and its central location remains popular for residential occupation. It is likely to remain a fixture of the City well into the future.


Other famous examples of Brutalist architecture in London include: Trellick Tower, Centre Point, The Ministry of Justice and Brunel University Lecture centre. The site at Brunel University was used in the 1971 film A Clockwork Orange as the site of the Ludovico Medical Facility. Brutalist architecture became identified with modernism, iconoclasm and dystopia in film and media. An interesting question to ask is how did an architectural style originally conceived with utopian aims become identified with dystopia in popular culture?


Films such as Alphaville (1965) and Blade Runner (1982) show a gritty dystopia consisting of Brutalist structures. The new style of architecture built to overcome overcrowding and slums was often not given the resources and upkeep needed. The governments and organisations which commissioned them should have allocated more for their long term needs, especially after Brutalism became unpopular. They often became synonymous with poverty and urban decay. Whereas some continue to be successful, such as the Barbican, others, like the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth were under maintained, reviled and seedy. Voted the most hated building in Britain by a 2001 BBC Radio 4 poll, the Tricorn Centre was demolished in 2004.


Edinburgh has its own controversial brutalist buildings. Argyle House near the castle has faced calls for its demolition, being called an ‘eyesore’. Nevertheless there has been push back to save this large and noteworthy example of modernist architecture in the Scottish capital.


Brutalism as a style could have a renaissance in the future. Its geometric temples range from university buildings to government departments. Anti-bourgeois and unpretentious, it appeals to an innate egalitarian nature. But this renaissance does not show signs of stirring.


A 2008 Financial Times article documents the twenty-first century disdain for the architectural style: ‘Brutalism, an aesthetic based on bulky cliffs of concrete, remains locked up in its filthy, rain-stained bunker, dismissed as modernism’s idiot relative, reviled, unpopular, a manifestation of everything that went wrong with architecture.’


Brutalist architecture emerged as a counter point to the more frivolous and gilded architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. Leaders and bureaucrats wanted to craft a brave new world after two world wars. A world based on the eradication of poverty and mass efficient urban living. Brutalism largely ended alongside the receding of socialist ideals and rise of neoliberalism in the 1980’s. The new high-tech architectural style of Late Modernism and Deconstructivism took its place. Brutalism would always struggle as a long term trend due to its unpopularity with private individuals and corporations. But ultimately its ideals of strength, functionality and egalitarianism are laudable even if the results are an alienating cityscape.

Image: Yusunkwon

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