The Brutalist revival
Once maligned as ugly and oppressive, Britain's brutalist buildings are now enjoying a surprising revival with TV appreciations, new books and expensive rental listings. But does the new vogue for béton brut ignore the politics behind the movement? And in the midst of a deep housing crisis can Brutalism offer any meaningful solutions? Philip Kleinfeld finds out.
At the northern end of Golborne Road in West London, the Trellick Tower looms dramatically over a landscape of low-rise council blocks and terraced houses. Stretching 31 stories into the sky, its raw, exposed concrete, detached service tower and connecting walkways offers as uncompromising an example of Brutalist architecture as you can find in Britain’s capital.
For its architect - Hungarian émigré Ernö Goldfinger - the Trellick Tower was supposed to offer cutting-edge design and life-changing amenities for working-class tenants. But when a fire hydrant was opened on Christmas Day 1973, flooding the lifts and corridors and blowing fuses, things quickly went downhill.
Subsequent stories of rape, suicide and social decay cemented the Trellick Tower’s reputation as one of Britain’s most hated council blocks, as well as inspiring J. G. Ballard's 1975 dystopian novel High Rise. More than a failed building, it became a visual representation of a failed ideology: a 98 metre high symbol of everything supposedly bad about post-war socialism.
Two and half decades later, something unexpected happened. In 1996, English Heritage published a report calling Ernö Goldfinger a “pioneer”, British council housing “the best in the world” and the Trellick Tower the “cream of what was produced”. Shortly after, in December 1998, the building once dubbed “The Tower of Terror” became Grade II listed, alongside a slew of other modernist buildings.
Fast- forward a few more years and today Brutalism appears to be experiencing an all-out revival. On Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram people share the most striking examples of concrete buildings they can find. On TV these buildings have received appreciations from Jonathan Meades and Tom Dyckhoff. And on Zoopla you can now find a taste of urban authenticity high up in the Trellick Tower for as much as £800,000.
How did this happen? According to architectural historian Barnabas Calder, the most obvious explanation is simply that enough time has passed. “It’s a basic process that happens with any period of architecture after a certain amount of time,” he says.
“For example, Victorian architecture was truly hated through much of the 20th century until the 1950s and 60s, when a small avant-garde started to like it. By the 1980s you couldn't say anything against it. Today there is a large percentage of the population who were born after Brutalism had finished and therefore see it as much a part of the landscape they grew up with as Georgian houses.”
The present political moment, defined by right-wing populism, a crisis of the left and nearly ten years of austerity, has also played a role, Calder adds. “The fact that Brutalism is strongly associated in many people's minds with the welfare state at a time when it is under attack makes it a particularly appealing rallying point for the left and centre-left,” he says.
There’s also the impact of new technology. In 2014, graphic designer Peter Chadwick launched This Brutal House, a Twitter feed he uses to share images of Brutalist architecture. It quickly gained cult status and now has a following of over 33,000 people. “I think that this revival came about via social media,” Chadwick says. “People use their camera phones, take pictures and put them up on Instagram and Tumblr. It was a real touchpoint for the whole process of this revival.”
“The greatest flowering of architecture the world has ever seen”
Whatever the reason, for Calder the reassessment of Brutalism is long overdue. In his new book Raw Concrete he argues that Brutalism represents “the greatest flowering of architecture the world has ever seen...the high point of architecture in the entire history of humanity”.
“It relates to some fairly simple, measurable facts,” he explains.
“Brutalist architecture profits from occurring in the cheapest and most energy abundant period there had ever been in human history. It was a time when concrete and steel were cheaply available for the first time, architects were better trained than ever before and were supported by a new phenomenon of the advising/consultant engineer. Put together this made it possible to do things with new materials that nobody could ever have dreamt of. It was an extraordinary period of boom, excitement and conviction.”
Despite that history, one thing the present revival appears to lack is an interest in actually building new homes. According to Oli Mould, lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, that indifference flies in the face of what the founders of British Brutalism - the so-called “New Brutalists” - wanted to achieve.
Brutalism: ethic or aesthetic?
“From a housing and urban perspective, drawing on people like Raynor Banham and the Smithsons, Brutalism is about social housing, the rejection of privatised space and encouraging communality and social living,” Mould says. “Today there is a generational amnesia around modernism and Brutalism. Its social utility has been lost and people now see it as this sort of kitsch, funky, concrete aesthetic that would just be 'amazing to live in’.”
Of course, for some, even that aesthetic revival goes too far. Back in November transport minister John Hayes argued that Brutalism is “aesthetically worthless” and embodies a “cult of ugliness”. That followed a call by former Prime Minister David Cameron earlier in the year to knock down 100 “brutal” estates.
For Mould none of this is particularly surprising. “Cameron's conservatism, which has dominated the country post-financial crisis, shuns public space,” he says. “It is all about the privatisation of our daily and social lives.”
What it does show though, Mould adds, is that if Brutalism can be revived as something more meaningful than a simple aesthetic pleasure, it could offer a genuine challenge to the status quo.
“They don't want to encourage these kinds of buildings because they fly in the face of what they stand for,” he says.
“If Brutalism as an architectural and political ideology was to grow and be maintained, I think you would very quickly see them slip out of power.”