The ugly truth about bru­tal­ist build­ings

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Front Page -

When it was an­nounced last month that the own­ers of the Royal Fes­ti­val Hall were hop­ing to in­stall a big plas­tic bar on the roof of the Grade I listed build­ing, there fol­lowed an im­me­di­ate out­cry. The Royal Fes­ti­val Hall “rep­re­sents the best of 20th-cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture in this coun­try and… should be cher­ished rather than treated in such a shock­ing and in­sen­si­tive way,” said Grace Ether­ing­ton, of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury So­ci­ety, a char­ity help­ing to pre­serve mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture. It’s cer­tainly dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a Grade I listed build­ing from any other era be­ing treated with so much dis­dain, but those con­crete post-war build­ings that are de­fined as bru­tal­ist are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to de­mo­li­tion or un­sym­pa­thetic al­ter­ation.

Para­dox­i­cally, bru­tal­ism’s pop­u­lar­ity among the pub­lish­ers of big cof­fee ta­ble books shows no sign of abat­ing. Phaidon’s At­las of Bru­tal­ist Ar­chi­tec­ture is the lat­est, and is an am­bi­tious at­tempt to give bru­tal­ism a much wider scope and time frame, fea­tur­ing al­most 900 mas­ter­pieces from more than 100 coun­tries. Bru­tal­ism in its orig­i­nal form was about ap­pear­ance – the stark, an­gu­lar con­crete we as­so­ciate with build­ings such as the Na­tional The­atre. But it was also about so­cial ide­al­ism, us­ing ar­chi­tec­ture to cre­ate a more egal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety, which was why it was of­ten ap­plied to mu­nic­i­pal spa­ces like town halls, li­braries, hous­ing es­tates and the­atres. This at­las fo­cuses very much on the aes­thet­ics rather than ethics, em­pha­sis­ing that this was a global style and one that con­tin­ues to in­flu­ence con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tects.

“Bru­tal­ism has been much ma­ligned,” says the book’s ed­i­tor, Vir­ginia McLeod. “Even hated some­times. I can’t think of an­other style of ar­chi­tec­ture that has at­tracted such in­ten­sive neg­a­tive emo­tion. Many of these build­ings have been de­stroyed, some­times be­cause they were al­lowed to get into such a chronic state of dis­re­pair, which was the ar­gu­ment with the Robin Hood Gar­dens es­tate [in east Lon­don]. This in­cludes build­ings of huge ar­chi­tec­tural sig­nif­i­cance, and I’ve in­cluded them in the book for the record, so we can try to avoid los­ing any­thing else of qual­ity.”

McLeod hopes the book will el­e­vate the de­bate about what con­sti­tutes bru­tal­ism, and also raise aware­ness of build­ings cur­rently sched­uled for de­mo­li­tion. “It’s not a uniquely Bri­tish prob­lem. We list all the build­ings that have been de­mol­ished, are sched­uled to be de­mol­ished or are in poor con­di­tion, and they come from all over the world,” she adds. “To­gether they make a con­sid­er­able loss for our ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage.”

The UK build­ings cur­rently un­der threat in­clude Durham Uni­ver­sity’s stu­dent union, Dunelm House, and Maryle­bone’s strik­ing Wel­beck Street car park, which awaits the sledge­ham­mers.

For Barn­abas Calder, a trustee of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury So­ci­ety and the au­thor of Raw Con­crete: The Beauty Of Bru­tal­ism, books like his own and Phaidon’s at­las could even be in­ad­ver­tently has­ten­ing the demise of bru­tal­ist struc­tures. “The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion for post-war ar­chi­tec­ture is ab­so­lutely ter­ri­ble,” he says. “The re­vival of in­ter­est might even be giv­ing de­vel­op­ers a feel­ing they have to get on with [knock­ing them down]. In the case of Dunelm House, if they waited an­other 10 years there’d be ab­so­lutely no chance any­body would think it’s re­motely OK to pull down a build­ing as im­por­tant as that. But at the mo­ment there’s still a large pro­por­tion of peo­ple who will wave it through.”

Dunelm House is a wa­ter­side cuboid fan­tasy com­pleted in 1965 by Ar­chi­tects’ Co-Part­ner­ship and Ove Arup as a stu­dents’ union, but it has since out­grown the space. That prompted Durham Uni­ver­sity to ap­ply for a Cer­tifi­cate of Im­mu­nity from List­ing in 2016, which would al­low them to re­place the build­ing with some­thing less con­crete. In op­po­si­tion are cam­paign­ers such as James Perry, a lo­cal ar­chi­tect and plan­ner. “I want to scream at these peo­ple,” he says. “One day they will re­gret los­ing these build­ings. There’s much more gen­eral in­ter­est in post-war hous­ing and build­ings, but that hasn’t reached the North East yet, so there’s no aware­ness that we have a fan­tas­tic build­ing in a stun­ning lo­ca­tion. The uni­ver­sity only sees a big main­te­nance bill.”

This goes back to the ques­tion of whether the her­itage in­dus­try in gen­eral has suf­fi­cient un­der­stand­ing or sym­pa­thy of bru­tal­ism as a dis­tinct ar­chi­tec­tural style in the same way it might if some­thing was baroque or neo-gothic. “Si­mon Thur­ley [for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of English Her­itage] has said that it is ap­pro­pri­ate to have dif­fer­ent rules for how you han­dle a post-war build­ing be­cause it’s not about the fab­ric, it’s about the idea,” says Calder.

“So even when some­thing is listed it’s not safe. Look at the Com­mon­wealth In­sti­tute [now De­sign Mu­seum in Lon­don] or Sh­effield’s Park Hill es­tate or Goldfin­ger’s Bal­fron Tower [in Po­plar, east Lon­don] – they are Grade II* listed and the­o­ret­i­cally have the same pro­tec­tion as a build­ings like Har­rods, where no­body would be­gin to con­sider the level of de­struc­tion that’s been vis­ited on those three. It’s com­pletely against all prece­dent for how we deal with listed build­ings. Mean­while, other in­ter­na­tion­ally sig­nif­i­cant build­ings like the Hay­ward Gallery and Queen El­iz­a­beth Hall can’t even get listed. On what imag­in­able cri­te­ria can such an im­por­tant and beau­ti­fully made build­ing be re­jected?”

It’s this lack of suf­fi­cient pro­tec­tion – plus the fact that bru­tal­ist build­ings of­ten have a huge foot­print – that makes them such an easy tar­get for de­vel­op­ers. “The pres­sure of money in a prop­erty mar­ket that is as rich as ours means that peo­ple will al­ways de­mol-

Switch House at the Tate Mod­ern, above; Wel­beck Street car park in Lon­don, be­low, which awaits de­mo­li­tion

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