The ugly truth about brutalist buildings
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