Brit Brut: a broad overview of Brutalism in Britain today
By Ross Brown
[Speculatively written for CLOG: Brutalism in October 2012, but was not published]
Brutalism is only now emerging from a sixty-year shadow cast by its self-appointed patriarch, the architectural critic and theorist Reyner Banham. In 1955, Banham provided an intellectual validation and codification for Brutalism: a design sensibility emphasizing the morality of rendering buildings formally legible, structurally explicit and materially truthful.1 Inevitably, this high-art discussion of Brutalism as an ‘ethic’ disqualified the majority of what was subsequently built. Banham saw this later ‘aesthetic’ Brutalism as aberrant. 2 Ultimately, Banham’s distinction between the ethic and the aesthetic has tainted Brutalism. Only once disentangled from Banham’s narrative can Brutalism be fully appreciated as an architectural style as rich, complex and rewarding as any before or since.
Brutalism experienced several metamorphoses over the two decades it dominated British architecture. From the Smithsons’ embryonic un-built project for a house in Soho, through their skeletal Hunstanton School in Norfolk, to the muscular social-housing of Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, Brutalism was exclusive to neither material nor type. Amongst the malaise of postwar urban renewal and social upheaval, committed Brutalists, whether or not they associated themselves with the term, produced architecture of immense imagination which was well designed, well detailed and well built. Materials were robust and palettes restrained; exposed concrete was to become synonymous with Brutalism, not least because of the etymological association with Le Corbusier’s ‘béton brut’. Pre-cast & cast in-situ concrete became art-forms in themselves: architects and artists experimented with surface texture by varying formwork prior to casting, and chemical treatments & mechanical processes after casting. Concrete’s versatility in structural, tactile and aesthetic capacities is unparalleled. British Brutalists often paired concrete with brick, and in the 1970s developed modest, quietly self-assured – less expressive, but equally valid – manifestations of Brutalism in brick alone.
British Brutalism’s vulnerability has been underscored by the inclusion of three prominent examples on the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List: London’s Southbank Centre, Birmingham Central Library and Preston Bus Station.3 All three are admired by specialists and lauded by a growing public, but are at time of writing subject to impending redevelopment or demolition. This is symptomatic of wider shifts in societal expectations of the built environment which are rendering postwar buildings prematurely redundant at an ever-increasing rate. Functional and environmental deficiencies are routinely cited as justification for demolition, but it is clear that buildings often fall victim to personal aesthetic or ideological prejudice.
Brutalism was and is ubiquitous: we are still surrounded by it. A small minority of these buildings are respected and cared for, some remain in original condition through neglect, and many have been badly treated or demolished. We can no longer build Brutalism: it is so direct in its expression of structure, construction and material that little else has a place. Even well-meaning remedial modifications often ruin buildings from this period. Brutalism’s integrity is attacked as its inadequacy, its severity as its paucity. It is for us as architects, designers and historians to communicate Brutalism’s intrinsic qualities before our towns and cities are deprived of them indefinitely.
- Reyner Banham, “The New Brutalism”, Architectural Review 118 (December 1955), 354–361.
- Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (London: The Architectural Press, 1966).
- “British Brutalism”, World Monuments Fund, accessed October 31, 2012, http://www.wmf.org/project/british-brutalism.