A passionate and personal book about the writer's own love for a controversial architectural style.Whether you love or hate brutalist buildings, this book will explain what it is about them that elicits such strong feeling. You will understand the true power of concrete and of mammoth-sized buildings, but also some of the more subtle aspects of brutalist buildings that you may not have known or considered.Brutalist architecture, which flourished in the 1950s to mid-1970s, gained its name from the term ' Béton-brut', or raw concrete – the material of choice for the movement. British architectural critic Reyner Banham adapted the term into 'brutalism' (originally 'New Brutalism') to identify the emerging style. The architectural style – typified by buildings such as Trellick Tower in London and Unité D'Habitation in Marseille – is controversial but has an enthusiastic fan base, including the author who is on a mission to explain his passion.John Grindrod's book will be enlightening for those new to the subject, bringing humour, insight and honesty to the subject but will also interest those already immersed in built culture. Illustrated with striking drawings by The Brutal Artist, the book is divided up into a series of mini essays that explains the brutalist world from a human aspect, as well as an architectural, historical and even pop cultural angle. The book journeys from the UK to discover brutalism and its influence around the world – from Le Corbusier's designs in Chandigarh, India, to Lina Bo Bardi's buildings in Brazil.
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The Death and Life of Brutalism
1. How to Hate Brutalism, and Other Opinions
2. Concrete Beginnings: A Rough Time with Le Corbusier
3. Brutal Ethic or Aesthetic? The Moral Case for Brutalism
4. The Nitty-Gritty: How Brutalism is Made
5. Unbrutal Truths: The Modernist Rivals to Brutalism’s Crown
6. Big Brutes: Pioneers and their Peccadilloes
7. The World of Brutalism: Magical Features and Where to Find Them
8. Sculpture Club: The Grey Area Between Art and Brutalist Architecture
9. The Soul of Brut: Apartments and Other Machines for Living In
10. Civic Pride: The Heart of the City, Brutalist Style
11. Cash and Concrete: The Dizzying Rise of Corporate Brutalism
12. Brutal Landscapes: Adventures in Town Planning
13. Brutal Bling: Concrete as a Luxury Item
14. Welcome to the Lunar Module: The Cult of Space-Age Design
15. Lost Brutes: Demolition and the Absence of the Future
16. Ruined Brutes: When Rough Concrete Returns to Nature
17. Love Lifts Us Up: The Restoration of Brutalist Masterpieces
18. Gritty Urban Decay: How Brutalism is (Mis)Represented in Culture
19. Covetable Concrete: The Unlikely Fetishization of Brutalism
20. Emotional Concrete: How Does Brutalism Make You Feel Today?
B rutalism died on 3 March 1982. The Barbican Centre, part of an epic scheme of London Blitz rebuilding in the making since 1959, was opened by Queen Elizabeth, who said ‘What has been created here must be one of the wonders of the modern world.’ New commissions for brutalist buildings had been dwindling since the early 1970s, and a few more completions would straggle on until the mid-1980s in Montenegro, Lithuania and Crimea. After that, nothing. The whole architectural movement over, just 35 years since it had begun.
But that wouldn’t be the end of the story. In fact, for many of us, encountering, inhabiting and admiring these strange and sometimes shocking buildings, it was just beginning. Because one of the most fascinating aspects of brutalism – that uncompromising, dramatic, wilful architectural style of rough concrete and asymmetrical awkwardness – is that despite repeated attacks from the media, developers, even the Queen’s son Charles, loving brutalism has emerged as one of the most unexpected fetishes of the 21st century.
It’s strange, the places you are drawn to. My list of favourites includes a mess of modern relics: glass towers and streets in the sky; moderne villas and concrete cathedrals. I am charmed by the lost townscape of London’s Festival of Britain and its rugged South Bank successors. For Cold War cool, it is hard to beat Berlin’s Fernsehturm television tower or the heroic United Nations Building in New York. The improbability of the nine connected spheres of the Atomium in Brussels and the ‘stacked dishes’ of the Sydney Opera House leaves me giddy. Such buildings are the products of many different schools of modernism, encompassing heroic and humanist; Scandinavian and East Coast; hi-tech and primitive. I’m beguiled by the lot. Yet one style has grown to dominate all others. For most of us, brutalism is modernism.
Marina City, Chicago, USA.
Architect: Bertrand Goldberg.
If brutalism has a problem, it is that for years we have been told that it cannot – no, must not – be appreciated. This view sees the buildings as ugly brutes that squat on our town centres and destroy the historic fabric of our cities. They are seen as soulless, sordid and beneath consideration, and best ignored. Those of us who have refused to turn our backs on it have had to learn a whole new way of appreciating it. I think it is no coincidence that brutalism’s resurgence has coincided with the emergence of both the smartphone camera (the shy brutalist’s enabler) and social media (providing motivation to take more photos). Together, they have broken a taboo around appreciating and photographing raw concrete buildings – secretly at first, and now ever more openly. Back in the day, you’d have had to lug round a bulky 35mm camera with an assortment of lenses, announcing your intention to record a building to all and sundry. Then suddenly pictures could be taken furtively, quickly and without anyone noticing. Rather than unavoidably parading your interest, you could instead draw it to the attention of likeminded ‘brutalistas’ across the globe, aided by the magic of social media subject hashtags and geolocation. Of course, we’re now beyond that furtive era, and by the end of this book I expect you to be waggling your selfie stick around by your local bit of rough concrete and posting the resulting moody snaps on Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr. Oh, I see that you already are.
The evolution of brutalism is in some ways like that of the dinosaurs. Let’s break it into three chunks, the brutalist versions of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. In the brutalist ‘Triassic’ (pre-1950s), early forms emerged alongside other modernist styles, just as dinosaurs and reptiles grew and evolved together. Then in the brutalist ‘Jurassic’ of the 1960s everything became almost incomprehensibly massive. Looking at the size of brutalist buildings of this period, we can’t quite believe how they came about. Then, by the 1970s, some most extraordinary manifestations occurred. This is the late flowering of ‘Cretaceous’ brutalism. Just as the dinosaurs evolved to coexist with more nimble mammals, so brutalist buildings mingled with new hi-tech and postmodern creatures. An asteroid obliterated the dinosaurs, and the evolution of brutalism came to an abrupt end with its own cataclysmic event: the global financial crisis of the 1970s that hit and wiped out future brutalist schemes. Today, the landscape is forever altered. The dinosaurs may have gone but the bones of the buildings remain to tell their story.
To some, the continuing existence of brutalist buildings is as challenging as the existence of dinosaur fossils to a creationist. Built from grit and sand and stone, rocks that have been crushed to minute fragments and have outlasted millennia, these buildings might seem beyond our opinions. Brutalist hulks, with their concrete walls, dark windows and rain-stained balconies, stare down uncomprehendingly at our attempts to project love and hate on them.
But without love, buildings decay and fall down. People cared to construct them, and they must care – love – to maintain them too if the structures are to remain part of our landscape. Vandalism and graffiti can ruin them. Buildings suffer under the onslaught of snowdrifts and leaves, wind and rain, and can be fatally damaged or even fall down. Human intervention is necessary to keep them standing and to maintain their façades and defences, so that they might continue to thrive.
With brutalism there are no easy fixes. Despite the awkward asymmetry and sheer sculptural weirdness, these structures only remain standing through continued love and admiration. They might look like the toughest buildings on the block, but these are delicate blooms. With most being bespoke rather than off-the-peg creations, maintenance is an issue. No two buildings have stairs, windows, walls or roofs configured in quite the same way. People often think of brutalism as an inexpensive sort of architecture but, as Dolly Parton once said, ‘It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.’
In this book I aim to share my fascination for this extraordinary branch of architecture. I will take you through the different elements that make brutalism so special: its history and ideals, design and construction; the culture that surrounds it and its global impact; its brief flowering, sudden death and strange afterlife. We will travel back to its origins, meet the big names that brought it to life, rediscover some lost gems and explore brutalism’s place in art, culture and history. Each of the stories and buildings along the way will tell us something about what makes this form of raw concrete building so worthy of attention. There will be tales of great creativity or domestic harmony, and others that are darker, exploring brutalism’s flaws and the violence and destruction meted out by its critics.
For all its monolithic power, brutalism has never seemed more fragile or endangered. By learning to appreciate these buildings we can help preserve the riches of this strange and beguiling style. In this book I’ve tried to consider social history alongside art, architecture and design, to give some context to the work of the people who created brutalism. I’m aided in this by the enviable skills of The Brutal Artist whose beautifully detailed online illustration project has inspired many people’s love of architecture. Still, I can’t help thinking that if you need a book called How to Love Brutalism, then perhaps brutalism is not for you.
Paul Klee once famously remarked that ‘drawing is taking a line for a walk.’ Brutalism, it seems to me, is taking a line for a drive in a fast car, a subtitled film and a jazz cigarette. So get comfortable, fasten your seat belt and prepare yourself for a bumpy ride.
M ost of my friends and family don’t like brutalism. I sometimes wonder what they must think when a photo of yet another concrete edifice appears on my Facebook page, or hear my tales of exploring behind the scenes at the National Theatre. Yes, that sounds really interesting, John. Not that I fall instantly in love with every grey, rain-stained hulk I see. The first time I heard ‘Kiss’ by Prince I doubled over laughing at his squeaky voice, the barely there instrumentation and the absurdly forward lyrics. But by the third time, I was convinced it was the greatest song I’d ever heard. For me, learning to love buildings often follows a similar pattern. Some are immediately charming and loveable. With others it sometimes takes me a couple of goes to ‘get’ it. And they are often the ones I end up loving the most.
There are people who throw out the phrase ‘monstrous carbuncle’ in relation to modern architecture as readily as Harry Potter would throw a spell. For them exposed, unadorned concrete seems a threat. Perhaps they think their boldly expressed dismay can magically transform blocks of flats or city centres into half-timbered thatched cottages or picturesque villages. Certainly there have been stylistic movements – Neo-Vernacular or New Classicism, for example – that are eager to cosy up to these more conservative contemporary attitudes.
Opponents of brutalism often seem to think that the people who like it are kidding themselves. They think it’s intellectual posturing, a game played at the expense of the people who actually have to use these buildings every day. I am sure there are a few brutalistas to whom this applies, just as there are arch-ironists trumpeting everything from Baroque to mock Tudor. Accusations of elitism, what you might call let-them-eat-cakeism, hang over much discussion of modern architecture. They conjure up damaging images of thoughtless dilettantes condemning the poor and unfortunate to live in modernist housing estates, riddled with ‘concrete cancer’ and crime, places they wouldn’t themselves dream of living in. Yet that doesn’t explain why there are people queuing up to grab refurbished apartments in raw concrete masterpieces, such as London’s Balfron Tower or Keeling House. Even if there are people who evidently like the buildings, this in turn throws up disturbing visions, of class cleansing and the privatization of council housing. Behind both scenarios, intellectual elitists or incoming apartment-dwellers, lie the real lives of those who have lived in brutalist flats since they were built. Their voices are usually ignored and selectively edited out of histories of the era. It is undeniable that many thousands of people were delighted to leave overcrowded, insanitary Industrial Revolution slums, and loved their new brutalist homes.
In the wake of the terrible Grenfell Tower fire of 2017, the reality of modern life in what remains of post-war social housing in Britain has been exposed. There are arms length management bodies, complex contracts for maintenance and refurbishment and decisions made over the wishes of the residents. They have combined to make many in social housing feel as powerless and exploited as the inhabitants of the 19th century-slums these buildings had been constructed to replace. These are not the fault of the buildings, but this political and market-led undermining of mass housing affects the lives of millions.
There have long been political reasons to undermine brutalism. These go back to the 1970s, and to the rise of free market economics that sought to sweep aside the post-war welfare states across Europe. Brutalism was one of the modern forms of architecture that came to be associated with the rise of council housing after World War II, and so it came under decades of sustained ideological attack by free marketeers in both government and the media. We are still seeing the results of this now, with council houses sold off in Britain and the remaining defunded social housing blocks blighted by maintenance and social problems, dismissed as a failure and demolished to make way for expensive private housing. The Grenfell Tower fire has to be seen against a political backdrop where regulations that might have helped save the lives of its overwhelmingly working-class tenants have been stifled. Criticism of brutalism is often tinged with class hatred, a desire for gentrification and a ‘not in my back yard’ wish for these easy symbols of poverty or immigration to be swept away.
The more superficial criticism is that modern architecture is ugly. Pick your brutalist insult: drab grey shitholes, monstrous carbuncles, depressing to look at, grim and joyless, a festival of monotony, a concrete jungle. Such views seem prevalent in local authorities and management boards, often keen to defund modern buildings so as to hasten their failure and collapse. Perhaps they have an eye to replacing them with the kind of red brick invisibles or glass box unknowables that developers favour today.
The material, concrete, is the reason most people give for dismissing brutalist buildings. Let’s not mention that concrete appears in many of the most picturesque places in Britain – forming the piers and sea defences along our coast, or the steps through steep terrain – and is as ancient as the Romans. Perhaps behind this, these critics don’t hate concrete so much as they hate cities. While fine in a wild landscape, seen in a city this oddly primitive material created from much older particles is dismissed as brash and aggressively modern. Those of us that live in cities appreciate the joy of their diversity – of the people, the districts and the buildings themselves. As time passes, brutalism becomes integrated as part of our historic fabric. Like the dormant volcanoes that have created the dramatic landscape of Edinburgh, say, it is no longer a threat. The fear, however, is that brutalism is going extinct.
Y ou might have thought the first building to have the word ‘brutalist’ attached to it would have been a modest affair. A town house or a small villa, perhaps, built out of the way as a quiet experiment that would lead to bigger things. Instead, the first bit of overt brutalism was 12 storeys high, contained 337 apartments, a hotel, shops, a restaurant, a medical clinic, laundry, kindergarten and a gym – with a running track on the roof. This was Le Corbusier’s housing unit, or Unité d’Habitation. It was not so much a block of flats as a whole vertical city.
For Le Corbusier (the pseudonym of Swiss-born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), the Unité’s brutality was the least of its attributes. He’d designed the structure around an idealized human form that he called the Modulor. The resulting semi-abstract figure might also have been his idea of the perfect resident: silent, decorative and, most importantly, created by him. The block itself was an experiment in living as a revolt against sprawling suburbanization. It was to operate as a machine, providing everything the inhabitants needed. These ideals went back to the 1920s, when Le Corbusier first became obsessed with a vision: cities constructed entirely of towers in parkland. This he explored in his 1925 Plan Voisin, imagining the demolition of a large area of Paris and its replacement with 60-storey towers surrounded by low-rise flats and green. The Unité d’Habitation, built 20 years later, showed he had lost none of his desire to shock.
Le Corbusier had adopted his pseudonym at the age of 33, when he became a journalist. His first major book, Towards an Architecture, was published in 1923 and was wide-ranging and confrontational. He gave readers a choice – architecture or revolution? – and contributed one of the most enduring tenets in modern architecture, the functionalist’s creed – a house is a machine for living in. As one might have expected, the book included construction plans, such as his ‘Dom-Ino’ frame – a two-storey house stripped back to show just the two floors, flat roof and supporting pillars between, somewhat resembling a coffee table. He was showing the potential of reinforced concrete, the free plan and free elevations it enabled in contrast to the heavy masonry and structure of traditional building techniques. With his prototype mass production house, ‘Citrohan’ he took lessons from the manufacture of cars and the design of aeroplanes and ocean liners. And he didn’t stick to individual buildings – there were town planning ideas as well. The ‘Ville Contemporaine’ was based on earlier work by French architect Tony Garnier, where giant tower blocks sat at regular intervals in parks, gardens and playgrounds, away from a high-speed road network. Then there was a town raised up on pillars, where cars circulated on the ‘service’ level below and people roamed an artificial landscape on the first floor.
Unité D’Habitation, Marseille, France. Architect: Le Corbusier.
Towards an Architecture wasn’t merely a book about design, it was a compelling series of statements linking ancient to modern, science to art and building to city. ‘A man of today reading this book may have the impression of something akin to a nightmare’ teased his translator, the English architect Frederick Etchells, like Alfred Hitchcock gleefully introducing a macabre story in his TV series. Etchells’ introduction was instructive on how Le Corbusier’s work was likely to be received in Britain: ‘I have no doubt that some of the French work illustrated in these pages will appear unpleasing to many of us,’ he remarks, emphasizing the gulf between Continental modernism and the conservative British architecture establishment of the day. The remark was prophetic when it came to Le Corbusier’s later adoption of brutalism.
The ‘brut’ in ‘brutalism’ did not come from Le Corbusier, but rather from the material that he was using to construct his enormous housing unit: raw concrete, or béton brut. This sense of ‘raw’-ness is
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