Brutalism: In Search Of The Architectural Sublime

Written by Carlo NavatoCreativity

Brutalism, the architectural movement that started in 1952 with the completion of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseilles, better known as Unité d’Habitation, divides opinion like no other form of architecture. Flourishing during the post-war period of European civic rebuilding, brutalism had its roots in the powerful, muscular, bunkers, shelters and military structural paraphernalia of Friedrich Tams’ Nazi constructions. It is, self evidently thus, not for the faint hearted, and in all but the Soviet east, had largely disappeared as a design movement by the late 1970’s.

© Carlo Navato 2017

Brutalism’s problems started with its etymology. A swift dictionary review reveals that its other meaning is ‘cruelty and savageness’ and this has lead to a common misconception. Brutalist architecture was not so named because of its totalitarian origins, nor its apparent forcefulness and aggression, but, rather prosaically from the descriptive phrase used by Le Corbusier in connection with his work at Unité, where he described the materiality of his masterpiece as ‘béton brut,’ meaning raw concrete.

In 1955 the architecture critic Peter Reyner Banham, a close friend of Alison and Peter Smithson, at that time Britain’s most flamboyant avant-garde architect couple who went on to design the massive, brutalist Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, and the sublime Economist building complex in St James’s, declared the emerging movement of raw concrete architecture the ‘new brutalism.’ The term ‘nybrutalism’ was architect Hans Asplund’s earlier playful description of a small house in Uppsala, in his native Sweden, designed in 1949 by his contemporaries Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm. Reyner Banham used this historical reference and expanded it by reference to Le Corbusier’s béton brut, into a bilingual pun, sensing mischievously, that the British arts elite would inevitably react with general horror to a civic architecture, both free of adornment and that sought to celebrate the rawness of unfinished concrete.

© Carlo Navato 2017

Arriving on this grand stage in 1968, the product of an Italian émigré father, himself born in 1928 under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini, and growing up in the London Borough of Croydon, an urban landscape replete with massive concrete flyovers, underpasses and point and slab tower blocks, made my eventual fascination with brutalism something of an inevitability. Daily interaction with a complex, brutalist structure — the Faculty of Urban and Regional Studies building at the University of Reading — whilst studying for an undergraduate surveying degree in the late 1980’s, put paid to any doubt about an ongoing fascination with this most difficult of built forms.

The fact is brutalist architecture was never meant to be easy. There is no reason why we should instinctively feel comfortable with it, coming as we do, from a culture that historically values above all else in its architecture, the quaint, the pretty, the accessible, and the easily digestible. Brutalism was a response to the utopian search for a vision of what post-war Britain could be. Heroic, bold, commanding and free of design fripperies, brutalist buildings were about honesty — uncoated concrete exteriors, massive frames and (often crudely) textured surfaces — architecture that eschewed frivolity and sought to avoid the somewhat effete result of much of the canon of earlier modernism. It was affordable in austere times.

© Carlo Navato 2017

In the hands of a masterful few, the drawing pen of brutalism was wielded with extraordinary results. The buildings that we got, too many of which have already been pulled down (crushed and recycled into road material for ever more lanes on southEastern motorways), were uncompromising, ambitious hulks imbued with complexity, character and intelligence — the very antithesis of the lightweight, insipid and uninspiring ‘stuff’ that passes for civic architecture today. What brutalism lacked in elaboration, decoration or colour, it more than made up for in form, shape and textural quality.

Concrete, the material of brutalism had its greatest heyday since those masterful builders extraordinaire, the Romans, completed the Pantheon 2000 years earlier. The story of brutalism is inextricably linked to the magic of concrete.

Cook lime at 1480°C, crush to powder, add to sand and aggregate, mix with water, leave to harden. Result concrete. 7.5billion cubic metres of the grey goo are poured every year around the world — 1 cubic metre for every man, woman and child on earth. It is the most ubiquitous of building materials, always present, mostly unnoticed, a perfect canvas for architect, engineer and artist. Concrete: austere, bleak, cold, hostile, utilitarian; but also durable, reliable, efficacious, lively, warm. It is materiality made visible, with its evident craftsman’s marks, shutter patterns, and its endless textural variants. This king of materials, which has phenomenal inherent compressive strength, when combined with steel reinforcement, permits uninhibited sublime architectural rhythms to be made real.

© Carlo Navato 2017

In Britain brutalism was championed by a number of pioneering architects, not least Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith who created the peerless Park Hill Estate in Sheffield and the Smithson’s with their ‘streets in the sky’ redevelopment at East India Dock to create Robin Hood Gardens. But concrete brutalism was never loved here and as the utopian dreams of the 60’s and 70’s, became the free market exhibitionism of the 80’s, its practical, simple offering was relegated behind the shiny steel and glass of the high-tech movement, and the tangled cultural, literal and artistic confusion of post-modernism. Of the three magnificent brutalist works by Rodney Gordon and Owen Luder — Eros House in Catford, Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre, and Gateshead’s Trident Car Park, two are gone and the third, Catford, is under threat. Park Hill was criminally neglected for many years before Urban Splash started a programme of refurbishment that lead to a Stirling Prize nomination in 2013; UK architecture’s best picture Oscar. Robin Hood Gardens is set to go in 2017/2018 and the awesome Preston Bus Garage by Ove Arup and Partners, only narrowly avoided the wrecking ball. Erno Goldfinger, so famous at the time he designed the peerless Balfron Tower, a stone’s throw from Robin Hood Gardens, and its sister Trellick Tower in Kensington, that he had a Bond villain named after him, has fared better — both his iconic works having the statutory protection of listing, as does Patrick Hodgkinson’s Brunswick centre in Bloomsbury. Even the apotheosis of brutalism in this country — the monumental National Theatre — Sir Denys Lasdun’s Thames-side cultural masterpiece, would be demolished and crushed back to dust, if our future King, HRH The Prince of Wales, had his wish. Sadly another great brutalist landmark — John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library, was demolished in 2016 to make way for new office buildings in the re-developed Paradise Circus.

© Carlo Navato 2017

So brutalism’s history here has been complex. In 2003, just five years before his death, Rodney Gordon told celebrated architect David Adjaye, as they stood atop the Tricorn before its subsequent demolition, that: “Any piece of architecture worth being called architecture is usually both hated and loved.” Brutalism is not beautiful architecture, it is beyond that. If sublimity, as Burke suggests, has the power to compel and destroy us, then brutalism has it –not for nothing is it the architecture of choice for the dystopian vision of A Clockwork Orange and Get Carter. Perhaps the tide is turning now as a new generation, looking for a connection back to seemingly less complicated times, starts to place a value on these hitherto much maligned assets.

In his utterly compelling two part piece for the BBC, “Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloody-mindedness,” Jonathan Meades reminds us in his inimitable way, that whilst brutalist buildings never asked for our love, they do deserve our respect, something that hitherto they have had precious little of. “There was good brutalism and bad,” he tells us, “but even the bad was done in earnest.” It is that alone, if nothing else, that sets brutalism apart from the congealed stylistic mess that we have to tolerate in our present day metropolitan civic architecture. Jonathan Meades lives in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. It is known locally in Provençal French as *La Maison du Fada — *‘the nutter’s house’. This seems entirely appropriate given Meades passion for, and fascination with, brutalism, undoubtedly the most difficult of architectural forms to love…

Written by
Carlo Navato
Design Obsessed Real Estate Developer
Carlo has been making spaces of all shapes and sizes since childhood. Designing and building have been his lifelong passions and he began work in the construction industry straight out of school. He combined the learning from the rigours of life on building sites with a professional career as a Chartered Surveyor, before moving into the entrepreneurial world of property development in the late 1990s. Having started out building workspaces, he fo...

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