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Re-evaluating Brutalism

13th December 2016 - Simon Phipps


Re-evaluating Brutalism


Simon Phipps is a photographer and the creator of the New Brutalism collection of photography on Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter. He is a graduate in sculpture from The Royal College of Art. He grew up in Milton Keynes where his parents were architects involved in the design of the city. He has forthcoming exhibitions of his photography at the Foundry Gallery and The Architectural Association. Find Simon on Twitter and Instagram @new_brutalism. His new book, Brutal London, is a photographic look at a side of the capital which has been ignored for too long. The raw concrete and imposing mass of Brutalist architecture is undeniably part of the fabric of London's landscape - both visual and social - and part of our urban history. Below, Simon reviews the Brutalist tendency in post-war British architecture and the positive and lasting value of many of Brutalist London buildings.



The term ‘New Brutalism’ was first adopted in the 1950s after the term Nybrutalism was used to describe Sweden’s raw concrete 1950 Villa Göth. It was then taken up by Alison and Peter Smithson, who went on to play a pivotal role in the development of Brutalism in Britain. New Brutalism’s terms and attributes were further developed and formalised by architectural critic Reyner Banham as: formal legibility of plan, clear exhibition of structure and the valuing of materials for their inherent qualities ‘as found’. Banham further argued that good architecture derives from the correct interaction of structure, function and form, and requires a necessary conceptual element to achieve ‘memorability of image’, thereby becoming ‘great’ architecture.



The Brutalist tendency in post-war British architecture has come under derision and assault from self-appointed expert critics such as Prince Charles and more recently by John Hayes, Minister of State for Transport, who claims that Brutalist architecture is ’aesthetically worthless, simply because it is ugly’. However, its ideals, as realised in skilled and innovative design displaying in buildings such as Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower and Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre, can invoke the sublime with their expressed structure, massed forms and exposed materials of concrete, block and brick. The material and structural qualities, a disavowal of formality and anti-geometric plans allow for the necessary conceptual element that makes buildings like Trellick both memorable and great.


Trellick Tower, standing at 31 storeys, with a 35-storey service tower, has become the standout image of a Brutalist archetype. Situated within the otherwise low-rise Cheltenham Estate in North Kensington, the tower is a continuation of Goldfinger’s experiments in deck access, which he first developed at Balfron Tower in Poplar. The plan incorporated his famous ‘streets in the sky’, where walkways allowed inhabitants access to their own front doors. The strongly articulated and meticulously finished raw concrete frame has the unique hardness and uncompromising materiality that characterises Goldfinger’s buildings. Deep shadows created by the recesses and projections of the expressed architecture move hypnotically across the south elevation, modulated by sun and cloud. Soon after completion in the early 1970s, lack of management and maintenance, a concomitant rise in grossly antisocial behaviour, and a more general antagonism toward high-rise living led to years of neglect and antipathy. Trellick’s reputation plummeted, tabloids dubbed it the ‘tower of terror’ and it became a possible inspiration for the alienating and dehumanising concrete architecture of JG Ballard’s dystopian High Rise. Thankfully, those times have passed and Trellick Tower is now recognised as a masterpiece of Brutalist architecture.


But beyond a renewed admiration of celebrated brutalist archetypes in London, the shameful state of the dismal and feeble architecture which is now prevalent in our cities and countryside has, perhaps, allowed for the greater appreciation and rehabilitation of many of the buildings in the book. But the growing recognition of its merits has come too late for demolished buildings and developments under grave threat, where regeneration – meaning demolition – is sold as a popular fix. With such a severe housing shortage, one could question the sense of reducing thousands of good homes to rubble. Former occupants are left with little hope of gaining homes in the ‘affordable’ percentage of shiny new developments, and the cynical branding of a ‘sink estate’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Despite a longstanding campaign to attain listed status for the fortress-like and monumental Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar (left), attempts have failed – demolition is slated, and to use the telling jargon of the developer, the estate’s residents are being slowly ‘decanted’. The Heygate Estate, situated between Walworth Road and New Kent Road, was originally designed along Corbusian principles of order, symmetry and standardisation, set around abundant green space. Sadly, this blueprint for utopian living, which was once home to more than 3,000 people, did not translate well into reality and the housing deteriorated badly after years of neglect. Regeneration, rather than a more socially and ecologically minded refurbishment, was deemed necessary and demolition followed.  Was this really necessary at a loss of nearly 1,200 homes? Southwark Council spent £44 million on removing low- and middle-income residents from estates that were, in essence, structurally sound. International architectural and planning consultant Gensler provided research showing the Heygate homes could have been renovated, with tenants remaining in situ, for £17 million less than the cost of decanting the estate. At least this wanton destruction is partly offset by the increased listing and protection of significant architecture from this period, and the attendant consideration now given to renovation and repair.


It was wonderful to hear of the recent listing of Brixton Recreation Centre at Grade II, designed in 1970 for Lambeth Council by a team led by George Finch. The expressive red brick massing of Brixton Rec framed by sculptural concrete forms is recognised locally for its cultural importance and plays host to a multitude of activities from swimming to indoor bowls, exemplifying Finch's socialist beliefs and his efforts to create an inclusive building for everyone. Virtually unchanged since completion in 1985, its forceful detailing has stood the test of time. I'm very pleased to say that Brixton Rec makes an appearance in the Lambeth section of Brutal London alongside other magnificent buildings by George Finch such as Lambeth Towers. It is through the efforts of campaigning groups such as the C20 Society that the authorities are persuaded of the positive and lasting value of these buildings. I am hopeful that the book will contribute by acting as an incentive for people to roam, to walk the city and give consideration to the great wealth of Brutalist and modernist architecture bestowed upon London by visionary architects.



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