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The Alexandra Road Estate, designed by Neave Brown. Credit Image: Oxyman via Wikimedia Commons

Architecture critics love concrete – but they’re the only ones

“Modernist architecture is inherently totalitarian: it brooks no other, and indeed delights to overwhelm and humiliate what went before it by size and prepotency, or by garishness and the preposterousness which it takes for originality, and which turns every townscape into the architectural equivalent of a Mickey Finn.”

So wrote Theodore Dalrymple in the Salisbury Review earlier this year. Yet modernist architecture continues to delight critics, much to the chagrin of the everyday man and woman on the street who has to live with it day in day out.

Don’t believe me? An article in Psychology Today suggests that “modernism’s restrained quality is fundamentally in tension with the idea of delight”. Conversely, Georgian architecture makes people happier, according to findings of what people look for in a town to live in. A YouGov poll from 2009 found that 77% of people prefer traditionally designed buildings, while only 23% liked contemporary styles.

But still last month it was announced that Neave Brown, one of the fathers of modernist architecture in Britain, had won the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal. The Guardian ran an article praising Neave for his vision and suggesting that his modernist style is one that “sorely needs to be revived”. Alongside the text, there featured a variety of images demonstrating Neave’s architecture; row upon row of blackened concrete and rusting metal, reminiscent of East Berlin in 1989.

Also published in The Guardian this month was a profile piece on David Adjaye, the architect chosen to design the new Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens by the Houses of Parliament. Adjaye is the current modernist architect of choice, who received a knighthood in this year’s New Years Honours list for services to architecture (meanwhile Quinlan Terry, the leading classical architect whose buildings have won countless Georgian Group prizes, has to make do with a meagre CBE). The Guardian piece praised the “powerful” design, despite the fact that its location has faced much criticism. Continuing in the totalitarian vein, Michael Daly, the director of Artwatch UK, pointed out:

“Why has a designer who believes monuments are not be looked at but “experienced” been selected to befoul an important civic green riverside space with an aggressively ugly, oversized structure which seems to mimic the reinforced concrete German U-boat pens of the second world war, in supposed honour of Holocaust victims and at a cost of £50m?”

It would seem that the critics and the Royal Institute of British Architects simply don’t learn. People don’t want modernism, and they don’t want concrete. For proof, look no further than the Guardian’s comment section after the Adjaye announcement.

The same critic who wrote about Neave Brown penned a similarly flattering ode to the brutalist architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha back in February. He praised da Rocha’s love of concrete and suggested that it might “soften with time and use.” But concrete doesn’t soften. It blackens.

And it grows uglier and more totalitarian with time and use.