by Niall Gooch
Friday, 1
April 2022
Response
09:41

Good riddance to Britain’s Brutalist architecture

I won’t mourn the disappearance of our post-war monstrosities
by Niall Gooch
Robin Hood Gardens was demolished in 2017

Are you now, or have you ever been, a Victorian nostalgist? The charge is made in a recent Guardian article lamenting the thoughtless destruction of post-war Brutalist masterpieces. Apparently we are seeing a wave of demolitions of such buildings, cheered on by an unholy alliance of unscrupulous developers and the aforementioned nineteenth century-loving reactionaries who write to local newspapers to grumble about modern architecture.

It would take a heart of concrete not to laugh. How the wheel of fortune turns — sixty or seventy years ago, when the madness that took hold of town planners and architects in the mid-twentieth century was at its height, the shoe was on the other foot. It was the Brutalists and their fellow travellers, intoxicated by theory and ideology, who were the wreckers. Numerous British cities had their historic hearts totally destroyed. Centuries of modest, organic, human-scale development were obliterated and the wisdom of ages disregarded.

The list of lost treasures goes on and on. The finely-proportioned Sunderland Town Hall, finished in 1890 at the height of Britain’s nineteenth century prosperity, was demolished with indecent haste in 1971 (its entirely unremarkable successor has already outlived its usefulness and may face the wrecking ball itself before too long). Newcastle’s superb neo-classical Royal Arcade went in 1963, to be replaced by a motorway and a dull office block. The Attlee government refused to repair bomb damage to Liverpool’s Custom House and knocked down the whole thing in the late 1940s. The same city’s Cotton Exchange was ruined by modernist additions, while in Coventry — as in many other places — a city centre with fine old buildings was more or less totally flattened to make way for car parks, a shopping mall and a ring road. Old Euston station, with its magnificent pillared entrance hall, made way for new Euston, an uninspiring and doggedly functional terminus with no romance or playfulness.

In light of this litany of cultural disaster, there is a certain poetic justice in the current campaign of destruction being waged against modernist landmarks. I am not an architectural reactionary, despite my fondness for Victorian neo-Gothic with all the trimmings. I love interwar modernism, especially art deco and the International style, and what UnHerd’s Aris Roussinos calls “Anglomodernism” — the attempt to put a vernacular spin on the new forms of building and design that emerged in the twenties and thirties, which can be seen in a lot of English housebuilding in the years since the Second World War. There are even Brutalist buildings that work well in particular contexts, like Dunelm House in Durham.

However, certainly as far as big public buildings are concerned, the overwhelming architectural legacy of the years since 1945 is one of failure. Far too many large projects are distinguished only by an arrogant grandiosity, foolishly dismissive of past forms and the normal, reasonable preference of ordinary people for pleasant, neighbourly design. I have never forgotten a new building I encountered in Coventry, adjoining a public square, which presented to passing pedestrians absolutely nothing except a high blank dark wall. There was no charm to it, no attempt at harmony or playfulness. It was effectively a gigantic middle finger to the street, in a way that felt almost vindictive.

So no, I won’t mourn the disappearance of such monstrosities from our towns and cities. I just hope the theorists and the ideologues learn something this time round.

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John Riordan
John Riordan
4 months ago

I almost wholly agree, with the “almost” merely denoting that I’d go further than the author and declare Brutalism to be exactly what it sounds and looks like to everyone who must live near one of its examples – an assault upon their own existence.

Get rid of every last damn one of them, but take lots of photographs – lest we forget.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
4 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

They look miles better in photographs (and those artists drawings where people are always floating around in sunshine) than reality…one that went recently in Gateshead had some uses, it looked good when Michael Caine threw Alf Roberts (well..same actor) off it in Get Carter.
But really it was an ugly massive lump.
But getting a building into an iconic film is one way to give them a gloss and gain hipster fans (even though it didn’t work for the old Gateshead car park)

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

We managed to destroy 38 out of our 60* great Medieval churches, so that shouldn’t be too difficult.

(* Cathedrals, Monasteries etc.)

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago

You must remember that most of the architects and so called town planners of the 60’s were, proud, card carrying comrades of the Communist Party.
The damage they wrought made Adolph & Co look like mere amateurs..

R Wright
R Wright
4 months ago

If you’d told someone in the 19th century that one day Britain would let loose Brazilian and German Marxists loose on their city centres in order to effect social experiments on ordinary working people they would have laughed you out the room. Cities like Hull were destroyed by these arrogant utopianists.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
4 months ago

There is a brutalist building at a local college – an arts center, if you can believe it – where I worked for a mercifully short time. Hideous inside and out, it was also weirdly designed and inefficient, with loads of wasted space and rooms so disconnected from each other that you were left wondering if it wasn’t the result of some student project. The job there was similarly incoherent and when I left that concrete monstrosity for the last time it was with the relief of a just-released prisoner.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
4 months ago

I think people like streets and that kind of architecture…brutalist and any modern massive building destroys the street..and the *plaza spaces* become wind swept, rubbish dump spaces that nobody wants to be in.
If they weren’t that, you can bet your boots Hampstead’s leafy streets would have been razed, and massive concrete blocks thrown around with walkways and ramps for the new gentry to live in …But they are, and Hampstead hasn’t been.

David Woolley
David Woolley
4 months ago

Brutalism taught us that architecture matters. You live in a horrible place, you work in a horrible place, you become a hospital administrator.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  David Woolley

Or a teacher in a Comprehensive School.

AC Harper
AC Harper
4 months ago

I was sad when the Tricorn Centre (see Tricorn Centre on Wikipedia) in Portsmouth was demolished. It was attractive brutalist architecture (from the outside) but I understand that it was unpleasant to work or shop there.

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
4 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

It was a wonderful building if you were a heroin addict.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
4 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

You missed the ‘un’ before attractive…

Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
4 months ago

The use of the word ‘monstrosity’ reminds me that when I was growing up, more than 60 years ago, with no interest in architecture, I learnt from listening to grown-ups that the word ‘Victorian’ applied to a building was always followed by the word ‘monstrosity’.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  Henry Haslam

St Pancras Station being the prime example.

David Simpson
David Simpson
4 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

and by way of contrast, the brick cube next door, the British Library. A sort of monstrous eff off to the glory of St Pancras

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Agreed but it’s much better inside, and a vast improvement on the ‘old reading room’.

William Shaw
William Shaw
4 months ago

Architects and their egos have a lot to answer for.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
4 months ago

It’s all about surfaces and quality of materials. Who knew that concrete looks terrible in a cold wet northern climate?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
4 months ago

Bill Bryson had a name for this: when speaking of a particularly terrible “modern” building erected in Savannah, Georgia, before a stop was put to it, he refered to it as the “f*ck you, Savannah” style of architecture.

I actually like a lot of modern architecture and these faux Tudor types of building make me cringe. However, these brutalist structures gave modern architecture such a bad name that many people just rejected it all out of hand, which is a great pity because it can be stunning when done properly, with sympathy for its surroundings and its purpose.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago

I know it is April Fool’s Day, but could you give us a few of your favourite examples?

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
4 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Helsinki main library.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Thank you, I don’t know it, but have always admired the Railway Station.
However having ‘googled’ it, I can see what you mean.

Last edited 4 months ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
4 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

All about materials. Brutalist concrete is horrible. Our county town- medieval and Georgian on three sides of market and central square. Ancient corn exchange on one corner. Council offices on one side of square. Brutalist nightmare. Visitors gaze in disbelief.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

‘They’ were trying to build “A Brave New World” and failed abysmally, leaving us to bear the cost.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
4 months ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Modernist architecture done well with great materials is lovely in the right context.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
4 months ago

The decision to demolish Robin Hood Gardens was taken in 2017, it is not totally gone yet but it will as the remaining tenants are decanted, I can see it still from my flat in Poplar. Yes it failed although part of the failure was poor construction and another part the appalling site overlooking the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. It should be remembered though that it replaced Grosvenor Buildings, an appalling Victorian slum tenement block. (you can find it on line). However from my window also I can see Balfron Tower, designed by Erno Goldfinger. It works well. There is modernist architecture and modernist architecture just as there were fine Victorian buildings and squalid Victorian slums

Dapple Grey
Dapple Grey
4 months ago

I think that many – most, even – of those in charge of commissioning these appalling buildings didn’t necessarily like them but they knew Tories didn’t like them and that was a good enough reason to build them.
Naturally, they didn’t live in tower blocks themselves.

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
4 months ago

During his term Trump signed an executive order for federal agencies to go back to using classical styles for any new buildings they funded. According to polls the classical styles were heavily favored by the population at large and even across the political divide. So of course Biden revoked that order during his first month. Back to brutalist for federal construction projects

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
4 months ago
Reply to  Sean Penley

Romanesque modern buildings are idiotically vulgar though. It’s not the temple of Juno for goodness’ sake

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
4 months ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

I would suggest the term vulgar is for the architects to argue over in this case. I think most people just like the idea of a building that looks nice. The state capitols as well as the older federal buildings look nice. The newer brutalist style look ugly. I don’t think most people care any further than that, nor do I think that’s a bad thing.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
4 months ago
Reply to  Sean Penley

Pretty ironic using Roman features in a democracy? The ghastly romanesque blob of the Virginia state capitol was appropriate I guess since both were slave based societies. As for houses such as Arlington. Ditto. Absurdly hyperbolic.

William Shaw
William Shaw
4 months ago

A surprisingly large number of buildings in Washington, DC are brutalist. All the others look like Greek or Roman temples. It’s a very strange mix.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
4 months ago

First signs postwar than the lower middles, with their complete lack of aesthetics and sense of style were taking over…they now are walking equivalents of these tastless eyesores in their white terylene shirts, shrunken acrylic rayon suits and pointy shoes…. as Government ministers… viz Shapps and Raab et al. ….

R Wright
R Wright
4 months ago

They weren’t from the lower middle classes at all. They tended to be well feted exiles from continental and/or third world countries, and highly respected by the British establishment.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Correct.
Amongst a cast of many, the most dangerous and odious were undoubtedly Harold Laski, Ralph Miliband & the truly dreadful Eric Hobsbawm. Their pernicious activity did more to poison this country than other triumvirate in our glorious history.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
4 months ago

We shall have to discuss this further.