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Architectural Thoughts On: Brutalism

This month our resident expert, Róisín Hanlon, discusses the most unfairly maligned of architectural movements

Brutalism is certainly one of the most contentious styles of architecture. Characteristics of the style include; strong lines, geometric forms, raw materials, exposed structure and “memorability of image”. Though often decried as ugly and bleak, many key brutalist buildings were designed by City councils in the post-war period with a hopeful ethos. Pioneering new ways of building high-density, affordable housing that was also low-rise and liveable. In the 60s and 70s brutalism was synonymous with socially-progressive architecture, but by the early 21st century it was synonymous with car parks. 

In recent years people are rediscovering brutalism and it has started to shake off this drab image, to some controversy. Unlike many other styles, everyone has an opinion. And those opinions tend to be strong. Preston Bus Station and Birmingham Central Library are both great examples of just how engaged the public can get over brutalist monuments. Whilst some people can’t wait to see the wrecking balls out in force, others are signing petitions and campaigning. Ian Fleming famously named one of Bond’s adversaries after architect Ernö Goldfinger – such was his hatred for the style.  

So what is it about brutalism that means it has such a vivid place in the public consciousness? Perhaps it is the fact that this is a style that loves the lens, and is therefore prevalent in all media forms: The uncompromising forms of brutalist structures make it a favourite subject of photographers. Simon Phipps grew up in 1970s Milton Keynes as the son of two architects, and is now a photographer who often chooses brutalism as his subject. His choice of black and white imagery allows the forms, surfaces and contrasts to highlight “a stripped down aesthetic for a bare bones architecture”. Quality of surface is such an important aspect of this style and is shown so eloquently in his photos. He captures a curving concrete staircase at Eros House, by Rodney Gordon. You can tell the concrete has been poured on site into wooden shuttering, as you can see every grain and knot imprinted upon the concrete. It is a tactile image – you know how it would feel to trail your fingers on that bannister. 

The clean lines and stark materials of this style also mean that it can be something of a canvas against which to frame a subject. Cinematographers frequently use brutalism in movies, TV and music videos for sets. The style has been used as a way of locating the viewer in the past. It often sets the scene for spy movies – instantly placing us in a midcentury Cold War atmosphere. BBC One’s The Game used Birmingham’s Central Library extensively. The central open core, surrounded by glazed offices – originally promoting openess and transparency – leant itself brilliantly to an office full of suspicious spies watching and suspecting each other constantly. 

When not taking us back to past times, brutalism is also often used to place us in the future. In Channel 4’s recent Electric Dreams locations such as Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road Estate was used as a backdrop; immediately giving the impression of a severe and gritty reality. Ben Wheatley’s High Rise uses a fictional brutalist tower block as the setting for his adaptation of the JG Ballard novel. Starting as an affluent and aspirational haven – with all modcons included in the building so no one ever has to leave – the population begins spiralling into a tribal anarchy, fighting over the resources that seems so lavish. Several sites were used as filming locations, in particular Bangor Leisure Centre. The forms and surfaces of the locations are as much a feature of the film as any of the characters; taking centre stage in most frames. And this says a lot about the duality of brutalism, the same sets and structures can depict at once – a glamorous, sensuous structure as well as a daunting, overbearing monolith. It all depends on the frame through which you look at it. RH

Words by Roisin Hanlon
Image Credits: Courtesy of Phaidon. Grand Central Water Tower. GAPP Architects & Urban
Designers, Midrand, South Afica, 1996