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Brutalism was a notorious architectural style that grew out of the principles of European Modernism. It was practiced in Britain during the 1950s and 60s. Brutalism created the 1960s tower blocks and estates which are now so unpopular with the public.

Keywords: beton brut, architectural style, modernism, brutalism,1960s, tower blocks, le corbusier, denys lasdun, alison and peter smithson, erno goldfinger, modern movement, architecture, gateshead car park, trellick tower

Brutalism was a notorious architectural style that grew out of the principles of European Modernism. It was practiced in Britain during the 1950s and 60s. Brutalism created the 1960s tower blocks and estates which are now so unpopular with the public.

Britain suffered a large amount of destruction during the war. Post-war reconstruction had to be achieved quickly and cheaply. This was not a time for debate about architectural taste or style, therefore a new architecture developed that was based on pre-formed concrete. The buildings were cheaply-built and utilitarian in character.

As the name suggests, Brutalism was a very stern, aggressive style that had a bloody-minded commitment to the principles of Modernism. Visually, it constituted a “fossilisation” of Modernism. The light, ethereal forms of Modernism were replaced with heavy, solid masses interlocking in complex, abstract patterns. The finish was deliberately harsh and rugged.

Brutalism was practiced by young architects who had studied Modernism. The key influence was Le Corbusier. In his later years, Le Corbusier began to compulsively explore the expressive and structural possibilities of concrete. He designed the Unité d’Habitation (1947-53) in the south of France. This was intended as low cost housing for the working classes. It is a megalithic structure in exposed concrete. The whole thing is lifted off the ground on stilts in order to elevate it above the decay and disorder of the city and it has a rigid geometric form.

Unité d’Habitation (1947-53)

This had a strong influence on post-war architecture in Britain. Le Corbusier described his choice of material as béton brut or “raw concrete”. The British architectural historian Reyner Banham adapted the term béton brut into “Brutalism” to define the emerging style. A notorious example of Brutalism is Park Hill in Sheffield, a mass-housing scheme. This was designed by the architects of Sheffield City Council. Its main inspiration was Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. Like the Unité, each dwelling is manufactured from standardized parts and the whole is finished in raw concrete, but instead of a single mega structure, it consists of a series of huge hexagonal complexes.

Park Hill in Sheffield

Most architects and planners were – and are – middle class and well-educated, but in this case they were designing mass housing for the working classes. This can cause problems because middle class planners do not necessarily understand the tastes and needs of working class residents. Many of these designs were pervaded by patronizing assumptions about the working class.  For example, the rough concrete finish was meant to symbolize the strength and solidarity of the working classes. Likewise, the planners associated the working classes with terraced housing. They therefore designed elevated walkways, or “streets in the sky” as they were called, which were supposed to simulate working class terraces. The inward-turned, introverted blocks were designed to generate a communal spirit and bind communities together. This was dangerously close to social engineering.

Trellick Tower in London (1972) was a mass housing project built by the Greater London Council. It was designed by Erno Goldfinger, a Hungarian Modernist who was heavily influenced by Le Corbusier.  This is where Ian Fleming got the name for his bond villain.  Trellick Tower is designed as a giant vertical slab with a dramatic freestanding access tower linked by walkways. The building soon developed a bad reputation for crime and vandalism. It helped to make the public hostile to Modernism and suspicious of the architectural profession.

Trellick Tower, London (1972)

Brutalist buildings were actually built with a socialist ethos. As part of the new Welfare State, the Labour government that came to power after the war tried to create a more egalitarian society. They built new schools and hospitals, as well as new universities and polytechnics. The Brutalist style was used for many of these. We might ask how Brutalism can be seen as democratic when it is so harsh and unforgiving? Like Modernism, it used one style for all purposes. There is no hierarchical distinction between a house, a factory or an art gallery, and this does represent a certain democratic ideal. Of course, most people find this unifying image repellent, but even so Brutalism tried to act as a democratic leveller and to undermine elitism within British society.

No. 50 Queen Anne’s Gate is an office block in Westminster designed by Fitzroy Robinson & Partners with Basil Spence (1976). This was the headquarters of the Home Office between 1978 and 2004. It is an imposing concrete totem – top-heavy with a base composed of cellular units. This was a very common feature in Brutalist buildings. Overall, it is very grim and severe. It looks like an impenetrable fortress, which is an unfortunate association. Of course, it might have been deliberate, an attempt to symbolise the government’s authority.

No. 50 Queen Anne’s Gate

Newcastle City Library (demolished) was another building designed by Basil Spence. The library shows the direct influence of Le Corbusier’s Dominican monastery of La Tourette near Lyon (1953-7). This was one of Le Corbusier’s last major works. Both have vertical concrete mullions over the windows. Both have rough execution, using the texture of concrete and both are dominated by overhanging forms. The concrete has a wood-grained surface, indicating that it was cast from wooden moulds. This is an example of Modernist truth-to-materials – revealing how it was made and constructed. So Brutalism followed Modernist principles.

Newcastle City Library

Monastery of La Tourette

A local example is Gateshead Car Park (1962), which is famous because it features in Get Carter, a British gangster movie that was filmed in the North East. This was designed by Owen Luder, a former president of the RIBA. It has seven tiers of concrete decks. Like Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation, the whole structure is raised on columns, and like Trellick Tower it has an almost freestanding access tower. The tower has a continuous rhythm that is punctuated by a solid block of concrete. Again, it is like an abstract sculpture.

Gateshead Car Park (1962)

Not all Brutalist buildings were cheaply built. The National Theatre (1976) in London is a building of quality that used the democratic ideal of Brutalism to good effect. This was designed by Denys Lasdun. Although the raw concrete is harsh and severe, there is a complex interlocking of forms and sophisticated spatial treatment. Prince Charles said the National Theatre looked like a nuclear power station, but it really demonstrates the best of Brutalism. The finish is stark and austere, so there is nothing to detract from the basic composition. It is extremely well-composed, with long cantilevered decks reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright.

National Theatre (1976)

More extensive was Denys Lasdun’s design for the University of East Anglia. This was a hall of residence with classrooms behind. The residential quarters have a pyramidal massing. The glazed surface is unusual in Brutalist architecture, but it gives a crystalline effect. At the rear, there is a block with a continuous, unbroken axis and a sculptural composition of volumes which is more typical.

University of East Anglia

In conclusion, post-war reconstruction was largely carried out in the Brutalist style, which was a derivative of Modernism. Brutalism was associated with a socialist ideology: it tried to eradicate hierarchical distinctions between building types and, to some extent, between people. Unfortunately, concrete weathers badly and the buildings quickly deteriorated. Brutalism became extremely unpopular with the public. The failure of Brutalist structures was a symptom of urban decay, and led to the unpopularity of both the architectural style and the ideology behind it.

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