The 24-story Grenfell Tower in London, where a voracious fire that started in a fourth-floor refrigerator took 71 lives in June 2017, was what the British call a tower block, anchoring a housing project with three low-rise “finger blocks” extending from it in a grassy, fenced-in compound. Topped off in 1974, toward the end of a massive postwar housing-construction campaign, the original tower was a Brutalist concrete hulk with the familiar sterile, diagrammatic array of horizontal window strips. The tower recently had been given a shiny new exterior cladding that converted it into a high-rise firetrap.
Now awaiting demolition, Grenfell’s scorched cadaver is a grim reminder that legions of Britain’s modernist housing projects turned out to be newfangled slums that hardly improved on the old row-house slums demonized by planners and architects. Tower blocks and high-rise slabs—the slabs often inspired by Le Corbusier’s quintessentially Brutalist Unité d’habitation (1952) in Marseilles, an exotic rectangular structure raised on bulky stilts, or pilotis—proved particularly inhospitable to their lower-income inhabitants. These buildings’ ill-conceived designs and often shoddy construction facilitated everything from vermin and black mold infestations to rampant criminality. Many of the 4,500 government-subsidized tower blocks erected by 1979 have been demolished.
Ironically, the Grenfell fire occurred amid a wave of Brutalist nostalgia among British “creatives”—a parallel universe of artists, architects, graphic designers, art historians, and critics, along with the developers, PR types, and upwardly mobile professionals keeping their company—and on the heels of numerous book-length paeans to Brutalist buildings in Britain and elsewhere. With titles including This Brutal World, Concrete Concept, Raw Concrete, and Concretopia, these British productions serve as reminders that the Brutalist sensibility, epitomized by the histrionic structures that Le Corbusier erected during the 1950s and 1960s in béton brut—“raw,” rough-textured, exposed concrete—never died.
The most exhaustive and wide-ranging of the recent books is Elain Harwood’s Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945–1975, published in 2015. The very heft of Harwood’s ponderously oversize (measuring ten by 11½ inches), 703-page tome reflects the eagerness of elite institutions to bankroll the historical vindication of cultural dysfunction. Her magnum opus was published by Yale in association with Historic England, the governmental consultant on preservation that employs her, for the university’s Paul Mellon Centre for British Art. Sumptuously illustrated with James O. Davies’s color photographs, Space, Hope and Brutalism runs the gamut of building types, from courthouses to gas stations. Many of the buildings that Harwood covers are glassy, boxy structures that are modernist but not Brutalist; she presumably included “Brutalism” in her title to generate more buzz.
The book is prodigiously researched. Harwood’s introduction to her chapter on churches, providing historical background on British religious life before and during the period she covers, is magisterial. Her architectural commentary, by and large, is not.
World War II left Britain in urgent need of rebuilding. The Blitz destroyed 200,000 homes and left another quarter-million uninhabitable. In the severely overcrowded urban slums, often blighted by industrial pollution, families lived without indoor plumbing, and they shared outdoor privies with neighbors. Others found shelter in temporary prefabricated homes produced by the aviation industry. In 1946, the government legislated the creation of new towns that, along with extensions of existing ones, would eventually be home to more than 2 million Britons. Aside from the new towns, a multitude of urban renewal and greenfield-development schemes emerged during the economically vigorous 1950s and 1960s. Housing “estates” erected by city and other local councils, mainly for lower-income residents, sprang up at a vertiginous rate, along with new office buildings, civic centers, shopping centers, parking garages, schools, hospitals, factories, and university buildings. Some 1.5 million prewar homes were demolished in the three decades following the war. Old urban centers were transformed: “Post-war Birmingham rebuilt itself in austere raw concrete, like Kuwait and Hanover and Manila,” Christopher Beanland enthuses in Concrete Concept: Brutalist Buildings Around the World. But by the late 1960s, it was obvious that most Englishmen weren’t keen on the idea of Birmingham looking like Kuwait and Hanover and Manila.
In her quest to redeem England’s generally dismal postwar architectural output, which she deems “as valuable as any in our heritage,” Harwood obscures as much as she reveals. What she has given us is less a history of postwar English architecture than of postwar English modernism’s greatest architectural hits, with major disasters conveniently excluded or glossed over, if not miscast as achievements.
The first indication that Harwood is on the wrong track comes in her preface, where she refers to the “hopes engendered by Clement Attlee’s Labour governments of 1945–51”—hence the “hope” in the title, which itself plays off the title of Sigfried Giedion’s hoary modernist gospel, Space, Time and Architecture, first published in 1941. The inevitable profession of faith ensues: “The values of the Welfare State [as envisioned by Attlee and his cohorts] formed me and I grew up believing that they would last forever. This book explores the framework of that belief as expressed in the architecture” of the postwar decades. Harwood is telling us that she does not regard architecture as an autonomous art, to be appraised on its own terms. It can be justified, to a significant degree, by good intentions—as a by-product of a progressive political ideology.
This fallacy underscores the unpleasant reality that in England, as in the United States, the poor routinely served as guinea pigs in welfare-state housing schemes that were part and parcel of what Norman Mailer denounced half a century ago as a “totalitarian architecture [that] destroys the past,” leaving its victims “isolated in the empty landscapes of psychosis.” Those with the least say in determining where they would live found themselves relegated to habitats that served not only to isolate but also to stigmatize them. Harwood fails to give this reality due emphasis, which is odd, considering that of the three pillars of the postwar British welfare state—nationalized medical care, expanded educational opportunity, and council housing—only the last crumbled. A couple of decades after Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 electoral victory, its share of the national stock had shrunk from more than one-third to one-eighth.
Harwood acknowledges an important phase of critical reappraisal as postwar architectural adventurousness, along with socialist “hopes,” withered under “the cold light of Thatcherism”—but her survey suggests that Britain’s cultural elite has consigned that reappraisal to oblivion. She barely mentions Prince Charles, though his 1988 BBC documentary, A Vision of Britain, along with the superbly illustrated book version published the following year, represented a frontal attack on postwar modernism, offering a traditional take on architecture and urbanism that resonated with the public. The prince’s vision has since been fleshed out in a superb new community, Poundbury, that he commissioned outside the city of Dorchester. Poundbury offers a compelling alternative paradigm to Brutalist dystopias and the commoditized suburban subdivisions that developers started plopping down in the 1930s.
Many of the buildings that Harwood’s book covers make you wonder whether it is really about architecture at all. Consider Park Hill (1961), a huge council-housing estate containing nearly 1,000 duplexes and single-level flats that partially replaced a demolished slum overlooking downtown Sheffield—a crime-ridden precinct that, for all its problems, had housed a resilient community. Laid out as four long, interconnected slabs inflected so as to form an utterly antiurban, vermiculated footprint, Park Hill owed an enormous debt to the Unité d’habitation. At every third story, it featured elevated open-air “streets” or “decks”—the Corbusian fetish of the day—that ran indoors and out, connecting the slabs. As at the Unité, the imagery was nakedly industrial, with the apartments stashed in a “bottle-rack” grid of concrete that soon assumed a depressingly drab tincture and also proved prone to spalling. A ruthless rationalism likewise asserted itself in the level height maintained throughout the complex, which ranged from four to 13 stories, despite the irregular, sloping site. Park Hill was less a work of architecture than a huge, strange contraption inflicted on the urban skyline. Visual amenity, such as it was, came in the form of soft-hued brick within the concrete grid.
As with many postwar housing projects, Park Hill offered practical amenities that residents had never before enjoyed: indoor plumbing, hot water, mechanical heating, even a sophisticated garbage-disposal system. Harwood mentions that, Britain’s many council-housing catastrophes notwithstanding, Park Hill “stood firm.” This is not true. By 1979, less than 20 years after its completion, Park Hill was an urban basket case—riddled with graffiti, terrorized by hooligans, afflicted with irruptions of black mold and the terrible stench resulting from waste-disposal blockages. Deserted decks and stairways provided criminals with multiple escape routes.
An even larger housing complex situated farther up the hill, Hyde Park, degenerated much more quickly. Completed in 1965, Hyde Park was designed along the same lines as Park Hill—though its gargantuan, long-since-demolished 18-story slab, Block B, presented an even more forbidding sight. Hyde Park, which Harwood mentions only in passing, immediately became known as a problem estate. In 1979, it had its day of infamy when a television set tossed off a balcony fatally struck an eight-year-old girl.
Local journalist Peter Tuffrey’s Sheffield Flats, Park Hill and Hyde Park: Hope, Eyesore, Heritage—whose title might seem to play ironically off Harwood’s but for the fact that the book appeared two years earlier—allows us to study a map and old photographs of the slum that Park Hill and Hyde Park supplanted. What we see are blocks, courts, and alleys teeming with row houses and low-rise tenements—streetscapes displaying a human scale, much solid construction, and considerable dereliction, all to be swept away by the desolation of the Corbusian superblocks.
Harwood doesn’t trouble herself with the Hulme Crescents (1972), another assemblage of concrete slabs on the vermiculated, “streets-in-the-sky” plan that rose from the blank slate of a demolished Manchester working-class district where 90,000 people once lived—“the human engine-room of the Industrial Revolution,” as Lynsey Hanley calls it in her largely autobiographical and often engrossing Estates: An Intimate History. The Crescents, designed to house more than 13,000, were conceived in emulation of Bath, the gorgeous Georgian city. Things didn’t work out that way.
“Almost immediately, the estate’s infrastructure began to suffer from the same problems that beset Park Hill and Broadwater Farm [a troubled north London estate]: leaky roof membranes, infestations of vermin and insects, uncontrollable damp, deserted walkways, and an endemic feeling of isolation,” Hanley notes. “The flats were so expensive to warm that many tenants never turned the central heating on, and communal areas were so difficult to maintain that the [city] council could not cope. When a small child died after falling off the top-floor ‘access deck’ of one of the Crescents in 1974, families decamped to the outskirts, belatedly following the rest of old Hulme.” The Crescents’ descent into chaos did make it possible for an anarchic punk scene to flourish in an upper-level hangout known as The Kitchen. The party ended with the estate’s demolition during the 1990s.
The Lancaster West Estate anchored by Grenfell Tower is a smaller-scale superblock. Its creation nevertheless entailed elimination of several streets. The result was a pocket of crime and deprivation in London’s now-gentrified North Kensington neighborhood. In debunking such schemes in her Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs highlighted the crucial importance of the traditional city street—tidy-minded modernists’ bête noire, due to its untidy juxtaposition of vehicular and pedestrian traffic—to the survival of civilized life in economically stressed neighborhoods like the old Park Hill or the North Kensington of half a century ago. One wonders just how often slum clearance of old row-house blocks, which might have been renovated to include modern conveniences—“mod cons,” as the Brits call them—was a wise idea.
Harwood doesn’t try to pin the widespread failure of low-income housing projects on Thatcherite cuts in maintenance and security budgets, the knee-jerk leftist explanation. She shows that postwar housing initiatives were being widely questioned a decade before Thatcher came to power. And she acknowledges that modernism never made a dent in the characteristic English aspiration to a house with a garden. People on their way up in life, especially if they were intent on raising families, were never likely to remain in high-rise council housing, no matter how well maintained.
Still, the folly of concentrating lower-income populations in tall buildings eludes her, just as it eluded the Tory government that, in 1956, introduced hugely generous subsidies for the construction of high-rises, relative to row houses and semidetached houses. Not only are tall buildings much more expensive to build and maintain than houses; they were not even essential to achieving the residential densities that postwar planners sought. Tall buildings are highly artificial and complex structures housing temperamental machines, like elevators, that require a heightened degree of maintenance, often by highly paid technicians rather than handymen with toolboxes and stepladders, as Hanley observes. Tall buildings also require an elevated degree of social discipline, as well as security features like intercom systems, closed-circuit TV, and doormen or concierges. The tower blocks and high-rise slabs at the Barbican Estate, the carefully developed, elaborately landscaped, intensely picturesque Brutalist “bankers’ commune” in the City of London, have been very successful. The appropriate synecdoche for the Barbican’s low-end counterparts, however, might well be a broken-down elevator littered with trash, defaced by graffiti, and reeking of urine.
Park Hill surely fared better than Hyde Park for a time because it was a high-priority model project. “Community development officers” saw to it that old neighbors were relocated next to one another and helped them settle in. Twelve caretakers lived on-site and were on call around the clock. All very nice, all very expensive, and all thoroughly unfeasible on a large scale. Social breakdown at Park Hill and elsewhere involved original tenants being replaced by increasingly “antisocial” elements. Viable council-housing populations became harder to find in Britain as employment in factories and mines declined, a process that accelerated during the 1970s and 1980s.
Government funding cuts under Thatcher intensified the estates’ decline, as did rampant drug abuse—heroin and, later, crack cocaine. But the decisive blow to council housing was Thatcher’s popular Right-to-Buy program, launched in 1980. It allowed tenants to buy their homes at a steep discount and, in due course, lease or sell them to third parties. Councils were forbidden to use the proceeds to build new housing or even improve their existing stock. This led to a much larger role for nonprofit housing corporations, to which many councils transferred some or all of their estates—a process actively encouraged by Tony Blair’s Labour government after his election in 1997. In redeveloping ex-council estates, nonprofits have used the sale of homes on the open market to help subsidize “social” housing. (The policy sea change has not prevented a housing shortage that is particularly acute in southeast England, starting with London.)
A curious variation on this redevelopment theme is unfolding at Park Hill. The estate was landmarked—or “listed,” as they say in Britain—by the government in 1998. According to a British architecture critic, Harwood was instrumental in its designation. A poll taken by Sheffield’s daily newspaper, the Star, showed the public opposing the listing by a factor of seven to one. The city council, hopeful of attracting a buyer, felt otherwise. The city, however, wound up handing Park Hill over to a hipster redevelopment outfit, Urban Splash, for free. And for the complex to be economically viable, it had to be significantly altered, not submerged in the familiar preservationist formaldehyde. The first portion to be redeveloped has gotten some sparkle in the form of shiny aluminum metal panels tinted red, orange, and yellow, supplanting the old brick infill. Interior decks have been narrowed, and apartment windows now look out on them, an obviously necessary security feature that the original design lacked. More than that, key fobs are now needed to access the decks from the ground level. Plans for the remaining redevelopment, to be completed in 2021, include student housing and a $29 million artists’ colony featuring apartments and studios, research facilities, a gallery, shop, and café, and a sculpture garden. Originally conceived as a city on a hill for working-class Sheffielders, the new and improved Park Hill will be a predominantly market-rate safe space for creatives. It is not the only ex-council estate experiencing such a transformation.
In addition to architecture that reflects a socially progressive agenda, Harwood focuses on technologically progressive architecture, as if the two went hand in hand. She is intrigued not only by buildings that incorporate new materials but also by those that incorporate industrial processes of production, especially new prefabrication systems, or even the look of consumer products.
The reader is thus treated to endless references to new systems, techniques, and materials as well as their manufacturers: Bison, Chisarc, Freyssinet, Magnel-Blaton, Zeiss-Zywidag, Wallspan, WindowGrid, prestressing, post-tensioning, space frames, Vierendeel trusses, gunite, Galvatite, Vitrolite, Forticrete, CorTen, neoprene, glass-fiber-reinforced polyesters (i.e., plastics), and so on. Harwood includes all manner of space-age nomenclature, with rudimentary window transoms transformed in architect-speak into “photobolic screens.” The 70-acre Aylesbury Estate (1977) in the London borough of Southwark, one of the largest public-housing complexes in Europe, soon became a national byword for urban mayhem. But Harwood merely refers to it in connection with large-scale deployment of the 12M Jespersen prefabricated panel-construction system.
Of course, new materials could accentuate the “wow” factor in new buildings. Mondial House (1975), for example, was a mutant eight-story ziggurat clad in bright white plastic. Perched on a deeply shadowed podium at a high-profile London site on the Thames’s north bank, it was built by the post office as an attention-grabbing structure housing a major telephone exchange. “[I]t was likened to the adding machines and Polaroid cameras popular at the time,” Harwood writes. And, like that of Polaroids, its shelf life was limited. It was knocked down in 2006.
Experiment with prefab systems, on the other hand, was inevitable where crash programs of postwar baby-boom home and school construction were concerned. But new materials and systems have their sinister side, especially when official corner-cutting and incompetence come into play, as they all too often have in the annals of Britain’s council housing. All indications are that the Grenfell Tower fire, currently the subject of an official inquiry, is a historic case in point. The building’s original cladding consisted of prefab concrete panels, which contributed to its drab appearance and provided inadequate insulation. Not long before the fire, a cheap, colorful new cladding was grafted on, its main components bearing the usual space-age trade names—Celotex RS5000 and Reynobond PE. Insulation foam that emits a toxic combination of hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide fumes when it burns was attached to the original panels. A narrow ventilation cavity separated the foam from a thin “rainscreen” veneer, a panelized sandwich cladding with aluminum on each face and a polyethylene core. The cavity functioned as a chimney during the fire, but the rainscreen’s core as well as the insulation foam was flammable. The fire therefore swiftly engulfed the exterior of the building.
It’s not a new story. While “visionary” architects and planners were selling council officials on the idea of leveling down-at-the-heels neighborhoods to make way for the towers and slabs, developers sold them on cheap prefab building systems that required a minimum of skilled on-site labor, which was in short supply during the postwar decades. An epidemic of substandard construction ensued. The most notorious case, prior to Grenfell Tower, was Ronan Point in east London’s Canning Town. Here the Danish Larsen-Nielsen system of prefab, reinforced-concrete panels was employed half a century ago in the construction of eight towers, or “points”—including Ronan—over 20 stories high, though the system was not designed for buildings taller than six. Incredibly, though load-bearing, Ronan Point’s panels were connected to one another by nothing more than a few bolts, which promptly began to rust because joints weren’t even sealed. A kitchen gas explosion early one morning in May 1968 left Ronan, which had been completed only two months earlier, looking as if it had undergone a partial renovation by Frank Gehry, with a stack of living rooms collapsed on one another. Thanks to the early hour, the death toll was limited to four.
Elsewhere around London, the demolition of Euston Station and its magnificent gateway, Euston Arch, prompted an uproar similar to that caused by the destruction, also during the 1960s, of the original Pennsylvania Station in New York. Euston dated to the 1830s and 1840s. In addition to the arch, its majestic Great Hall had a civic status akin to that of the old Penn Station’s general waiting room. Harwood doesn’t mention the uproar, let alone the enduring unpopularity of the hopelessly banal new Euston Station that was completed in 1968. Meantime, large-scale redevelopment to accommodate offices, housing, and a shopping center at a historic south London crossroads, Elephant and Castle, was widely regarded as a failure, with the road-ringed shopping center a beached whale afflicted with poorly designed pedestrian access. Mandarin planner William Holford’s reconstruction of Paternoster Square next to St. Paul’s Cathedral was another architectural dud, done away with in a matter of decades.
Thankfully, proposed urban-renewal schemes came to naught at familiar London venues like Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, and, last but not least, Whitehall—where Cambridge architectural eminence Leslie Martin humbly proposed to demolish everything standing between the Palace of Westminster and Downing Street, including Gilbert Scott’s Home and Colonial Office and Norman Shaw’s Scotland Yard, to make way for a mini-Brasília. The sensibilities excited by such ill-conceived schemes were nakedly elitist—another crucial issue that Harwood acknowledges only in passing.
After Ronan Point, funds for urban redevelopment and ambitious council-housing projects became scarcer because of a worsening economic climate. Support within the political establishment was drying up, too. An active preservation movement had arisen in town and country to resist the rampant destruction of old buildings. Slum dwellers insisted that their neighborhoods be rehabilitated, not demolished. Modernist architects were increasingly seen as arrogant types bent on inflicting repellent structures with leaky flat roofs on their client-victims.
It wasn’t long before architectural historians and critics were writing books with titles like The Rape of Britain, while a popular 1970s novel portrayed a middle-class descent into savagery in a brash new London high-rise. Stanley Kubrick employed a system-built concrete housing development outside London, Thamesmead South, as an empty landscape of psychosis for A Clockwork Orange (1971), his cinematic version of Anthony Burgess’s novel about a violent gang of bowler-hatted thugs in a strange new Britain. More recently, widely publicized polls dubbed “Crap Towns” and “Demolition” have allowed the public to vent its resentment of the nation’s architectural disfigurement—epitomized, Hanley notes, by a rogues’ gallery including Park Hill; Birmingham’s Central Library (1973, demolished 2016), an upside-down concrete ziggurat that, in Prince Charles’s words, looked like “a place where books are incinerated, not kept”; Portsmouth’s Tricorn shopping center (1966, demolished 2004), a forbiddingly discombobulated Brutalist colossus; and a bizarre Cubist assemblage of concrete blocks, the open-air “Apollo Pavilion” (1969), bestowed on culturally hidebound miners in a County Durham new town who found themselves housed in badly built, flat-roofed cubes.
Harwood divines a link between waxing animus toward modernist architects and waning support for “the technocratic welfare state”—which, of course, was a bipartisan, Labour-Tory phenomenon, at least prior to Thatcher’s election as prime minister. But maybe people just got fed up with lousy buildings.
The term “Brutalism” is a bit tricky. While it typically refers to concrete buildings inspired more or less directly by Le Corbusier, a fad called New Brutalism was heralded in Britain by a boxy, un-Corbusian school building of 1953 in the seaside town of Hunstanton, Norfolk. It was modeled on a Mies van der Rohe building at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The Hunstanton school’s exposed steel frame, exhibiting an exiguous modernist take on classical proportions, is configured as a grid of rectangles successively broken down into infilling panels of brick or glass. The school qualifies as an excellent example of what the late Henry Hope Reed would call anorexic architecture. But what is brutal about it? Well, its factory-like exposed structure and pipes and freestanding, industrial-looking water-tank tower might have seemed a tad brutal back in the 1950s, though they’re old hat by now.
Brutalism’s common denominator was that it wasn’t about aesthetics but authenticity. What is authenticity? Whatever the au courant modernist happens to think is the real deal. “Authenticity” is, in fact, the most important word in the modernist lexicon. Unfortunately for millions of postwar Britons, it is a fairly reliable antonym for “beauty” or “domesticity.” Its modern roots lie in the separation of authentic or genuine artworks from fakes. So far as architecture is concerned, however, the term is totally subjective. Brutalism’s pathologically materialistic criteria for authenticity include the use of industrial materials and emphatic exposure not only of a building’s structural system but also of functional innards such as stairwells, elevator cores, ductwork, and so on. Yet Brutalism’s “much-vaunted authenticity was itself a species of artifice,” as John Grindrod observes in Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain, “with schools, offices or houses ‘dressed up’ as factories, power stations or machines.” (Grindrod’s book—well researched, engagingly written, and generally misguided—is by far the best of the recent paeans to Brutalism.)
The Brutalist sensibility welcomed ugliness, of course: the more visually transgressive the structure, the more points for authenticity it was apt to score. England’s modernist buildings, however, have found a number of ways to be brutal. Skimpy construction has the rather brutal side effect of making the Hunstanton school “freezing in winter, boiling in summer,” as its caretaker informed Grindrod. There’s also the brutally depressing appearance of gray, dirt- and rain-streaked concrete buildings on those gray, wet British days, not to mention the brutal wind tunnels created by perching slabs on Corbusian pilotis, a practice that postwar architects pursued with neurotic insistence in Britain and elsewhere.
Incompetence can be brutal, too. Grenfell Tower and Ronan Point are reminders, and they’re not alone. In 1973, a fire at the Summerland leisure center on the Isle of Man took some 50 lives. Summerland, which had opened only two years before, was another Brutalist firetrap—clad in snazzy flammable materials including an acrylic plastic sheeting marketed as Oroglas. Then there was the 1960s residential complex built at the University of Surrey by a prominent modernist firm, the Building Design Partnership, which was “found too impersonal, attracting a high suicide rate,” as Harwood blithely informs us. It was replaced by buildings that actually looked like houses.
Modernism, as the British classicist Raymond Erith observed decades ago, defines itself in terms of what it is not—which is to say, not traditional—not in terms of what it is. It has accordingly pursued different avenues, some more worthwhile than others. Not all the modernist work in Space, Hope and Brutalism is bad. But the rate of aesthetic dysfunction in this book vastly exceeds that of an architectural culture worthy of the name. Nowhere does one encounter anything like a set of forms that would empower an architect to create a modernist equivalent of Bath, as the designers of the Crescents aspired to do. This is of no concern to creatives, who typically fail to see architecture as having anything to do with enduring forms. Not only are latter-day Brutalist enthusiasms in large measure a politicized, left-wing phenomenon, as architecture historian Barnabas Calder grants in his sometimes informative but more often overheated Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism; they are also sustained by a nihilistic post-punk emotivism typified by a hipster blog, F*** Yeah Brutalism—without the asterisks, needless to say. Hence the irony that perhaps the most visually engaging Brutalist complex in Britain, its trio of repellent high-rise towers notwithstanding, is that 40-acre “bankers’ commune,” the Barbican, erected between 1959 and 1982 on what was previously a Blitz-ravaged wasteland dotted with warehouses, an old church, and remnants of a Roman wall.
Though marginalized by Britain’s cultural elite, Erith and other traditional architects remained active in the postwar decades—despite the ongoing increase in the cost of labor and materials that was thought to necessitate modernist efficiencies such as industrialized building systems. This countercultural cohort gets some attention in Harwood’s book, but not enough. In terms of quality, if not quantity, traditional designers outshone their modernist counterparts in the categories of government buildings, academic buildings, churches, and council housing. Barriers confronting today’s classically oriented architects and urban designers include an elite culture that values “iconic” novelty and shock effect as ends in themselves, along with a financial culture geared to quick returns, rather than the “patient capital” required for the construction of humane as well as urbane buildings and neighborhoods that appreciate in value over the long term because they’re loved. Curiously, Britain’s big-name postwar architects have shown a pronounced tendency to reside in such traditional architectural settings, as if in defiance of the buildings they’ve inflicted on others.
Yet the mayhem continues. Like Manchester’s Toast Rack (1960), a vocational college building known for its concrete enfilade of parabolic arches, latter-day skyscrapers disfiguring London’s skyline, though exhibiting more glass, steel, and aluminum than concrete, have attracted their share of Brutalist monikers: the Gherkin, the Shard, the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater. It is a modernist commonplace that Brutalist architecture is going through the same phase of reevaluation that Victorian architecture did after a period of opprobrium. The eclectic, often picturesque architecture of the Victorian era, though, is part of the humanist tradition; it assumes its minor station within a historic continuum extending back in time for thousands of years. Brutalism summarily rejected that continuum, presuming to erect a radically dehumanized new architecture on the rubble of a demolished tradition. It had no interest in the visual logic of historic architectural idioms and no grasp of the functional and spatial logic of historic urbanism. For that reason, Brutalist nostalgia can only be regarded as a benighted, cult-like phenomenon. And any idea that a significant portion of the modernist buildings covered in Space, Hope and Brutalism warrants listing qualifies as a “mod con”—and not in the British sense of the term.
Top Photo: Collapsed flats in east London’s Ronan Point, the epitome of substandard construction (TRINITY MIRROR/MIRRORPIX/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)