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The notorious architectural style known as Brutalism grew out of the rigorous principles of European Modernism and dominated British architecture in the 1950s and 60s. Brutalism gave us the 1960s tower blocks and estates that are now so unpopular with the public. Britain suffered a large amount of destruction during the Second World War and its towns and cities needed rebuilding once the conflict had ended. Post-war reconstruction had to be achieved quickly and cheaply: this was not a time for esoteric debates about taste or style. 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, macho style that had a bloody-minded commitment to the principles of Modernism. Visually, it constituted a kind of ‘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 practised by young architects who had studied Modernism. The key influence was Le Corbusier, who was the most prominent architect in the world. In his later years, Le Corbusier began to explore the expressive and structural possibilities of concrete. He designed the Unité d'Habitation (1947-53) in the south of France. This is a megalithic structure in exposed concrete. The whole edifice is lifted off the ground on stilts in order to elevate it above the 'decay' and 'disorder' of the city.
Le Corbusier, Unité d'Habitation
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. He published a book called The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic in 1966.
Aerial view of Park Hill, Sheffield
Park Hill, Sheffield
A notorious example of Brutalism is Park Hill in Sheffield, a mass-housing scheme. This was designed by the architects of Sheffield City Council. Like Le Corbusier’s Unité d'Habitation, each dwelling is manufactured from standardised parts and the whole is finished in raw concrete. But instead of a single megastructure, it consists of a series of huge hexagonal complexes. We’ve come a long way from the Victorian terraced housing.
Or have we? These designs were full of patronising assumptions about the working class. For example, the rough concrete finish was meant to symbolise the strength and solidarity of the working classes. Likewise, the planners associated the working classes with terraced housing, so they 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.
This is Trellick Tower in London (1972). This 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 was where Ian Fleming got the name for his eponymous James 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.
Erno Goldfinger, Trellick Tower
Another example in Dunston Rocket in Gateshead, its form closely echoing the principle skyscraper in Blade Runner. This was designed by Owen Luder, but is scheduled to be demolished. Brutalism was extremely unpopular with the public and became symptomatic of the urban decay that has blighted British cities since the 1970s.
Owen Luder, Dunston Rocket