Brutalist Architecture: Brutal or Beautiful?
From the 25th September to the 24th November 2013 English Heritage curated an exhibition about post-war architecture in the Quadriga Gallery at the Wellington Arch. ‘Brutal and Beautiful: Saving the Twentieth Century’ explored the importance of England’s recent architectural past and looked in particular at the most controversial style of the 1950s and 1960s, Brutalism.
What is Brutalism?
The dominant style of architecture between 1945 and 1975 was the Modern Movement, and some of England’s most important listed buildings of the period are traditional, even classical. But the mid-1950s saw the emergence worldwide of a more rugged style within modernism, which in Britain was termed ‘Brutalism’ by two of its early practitioners, Alison and Peter Smithson. The name has been much maligned and its origins have been much debated. It comes from the French béton brut, meaning raw concrete, and the related 1940s art movement Art Brut. The Times in December 1952 reported on criticism of Le Corbusier’s flats in Marseilles, the first Unité d’Habitation, for their ‘brutal realism’, and the historian Alan Powers suggests this may be the article the Smithsons later referred to as the source of the name.
By looking at what the Smithsons and their contemporaries wrote and at their early buildings we can get a better sense of what the style meant. They felt that simple, functional buildings erected after the war were becoming standardised, while dismissing the decorative flights of fancy of the Festival of Britain as excessive. They turned instead to a form of modern architecture that was honest - indeed expressive - of its materials, whether brick or timber, concrete or steel, and which was related to the latest designs by international architects including Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe as well as Le Corbusier. Their work also acknowledged the British qualities of red brick or our pre-eminence in pre-casting, and looked at our engineering tradition and made historical references.
Not all these buildings were large, and some are very small indeed. But the term came later to stand for very large concrete edifices in our major towns and cities, and it was used to disparage them when modern architecture fell out of favour in the 1980s.
Except where noted, the buildings in this essay have been designated (listed) and can be found by searching the National Heritage List for England.
Post-War Architecture in England: a Background to Brutalism
Many of England’s towns and cities experienced severe damage from intensive bombing during the Second World War (1939-1945). The war also saw a hiatus in repairs, added to earlier neglect and a backlog of slum clearance and new building that was only just beginning to be redressed in the late 1930s. Importantly, too, the war heralded a political change in favour of a programme of social reform that meant better schools, housing, and more facilities such as clinics and libraries, theatres and buildings for higher education. Not much was possible in the aftermath of the war, when shortages of materials and a straightened economy ensured controls on new building lasted until November 1954. What few buildings were built looked lean and functional with their simple shapes and flat planes of decoration.
Basterfield House, Golden Lane Estate, City of London © James O. Davies/English Heritage
The Modern Movement appeared in Britain in the late 1920s from the Continent, and a few eye-catching houses, flats and factories were built of shuttered concrete with clean, constructivist forms. By 1940 a gentler modernism was beginning to appear that was more suited to the English climate, using brick and even stone as well as concrete, and with monopitch as well as flat roofs. Many of its sources were Scandinavian, and Danish and Swedish - as well as Dutch - influences grew even stronger after the war. It was a gentle modernism, with splashes of colour and decorative patterns, and it was exemplified here by the Festival of Britain, where there was money for greater detailing and works of art. Very often, however, a simple functionalism predominated that reached its ultimate expression in the curtain wall, when a whole building was covered in a light frame of steel or aluminium that was infilled with glazing or opaque panels as required. With its clearly stated frame and bold colours, the early phases of the Golden Lane Estate, City of London (Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, 1953-7) are as striking as such architecture gets. Elsewhere, the subtlety of such building, and of the stripped brick classicism still widely used for prestigious offices or university buildings into the 1960s, seemed bland to a younger generation newly qualified after the war. Few buildings of the 1950s can be called Brutalist, however.
Alison and Peter Smithson made their names with a school at Hunstanton, Norfolk, with an exposed steel frame in the style of Mies van der Rohe. Bricks used to infill the frame were stacked rather than bonded, to show they were not part of the structure, and a feature was made of an off-the-peg industrial Braithwaite water tank. But austerity meant that brick and concrete were the materials used for most buildings. James Stirling combined brick walling with exposed concrete floor plates and lintels in flats at Ham Common, built in 1957-8 with James Gowan, after he had reviewed Le Corbusier’s houses near Paris, the Maisons Jaoul, which combined a vaulted concrete shell with brick infill and tiled interiors. Le Corbusier was himself inspired by emerging third world building traditions that he had witnessed while designing a new state capital, Chandigarh, in India. The Maisons Jaoul were not widely imitated save in Britain, where Ham Common, with details inspired by Le Corbusier such as ‘L’-shaped windows and gargantuan concrete overflow spouts, inspired a genre of honest buildings in brick and concrete.
Many of the architects associated with Brutalism began their careers at the London County Council in 1949-50, when its Architect’s Department was the largest in the world. They included not only the Smithsons, who worked on schools, but also Bill and Gill Howell, John Partridge and Colin St John Wilson, all of whom joined a new Housing Division. They developed a ten-storey slab block of maisonettes inspired by the Unité d’Habitation, and examples by Bill Howell and John Partridge at Alton West, Roehampton (1955-8), are listed. The maisonettes offered the sensation of a house, but in a block that was economical to construct and which looked dramatic in a setting of eighteenth-century parkland enhanced by the architects themselves. The London County Council also gave work to architects in private practice, and two blocks of flats by Ernö Goldfinger, Balfron Tower (1963-5) and Trellick Tower (1968-72), inspired by an earlier, unbuilt scheme of Le Corbusier’s, have exposed concrete frames of immense quality, the board marking of the shuttering left as a pattern, or with bush hammering to expose the large aggregate. Concrete is a very personal material requiring skilled craftsmanship and, while having many of the qualities of stone, in the best hands it is a work of art impossible to replicate.
Trellick Tower, Greater London © James O. Davies/English Heritage
Concrete was popular, too, outside London, where council budgets were lower. One of the largest listed schemes is Park Hill in Sheffield by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith for the city council, from 1954-60 - a winding slab of maisonettes and flats entered along broad access decks entered directly from the adjoining hillside to which the block formed a continuation. Other countries developed the slab block into similarly snaking monoliths, but Park Hill’s use of contours in combination with decks or ‘streets in the sky, so wide that milk floats could run along them, was unique.
Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s later work at Golden Lane from 1958-62 adopted the style of the Maison’s Jaoul with arched vaults expressed on the elevations. At their still larger Barbican Estate of 1963-82 alongside, walkways were used to separate the residents’ private areas from public access to the integrated arts centre and central lake feature that create the sense of a complete village within the city. With its massive aggregate, the bush-hammered concrete is particularly fine here. With an arts centre as well as 2013 housing units, it is the largest single listed building in Britain and perhaps Europe.
James Stirling and James Gowan worked for Lyons, Israel and Ellis, a private firm that provided another important training ground for young architects, with a series of schools that include two at Oldbury Wells (East and West), Bridgnorth from 1957-60, now a single comprehensive, that made features of concrete frames, rooftop services and staircases. The style of Ham Common was repeated in additions to the School of Architecture at Cambridge of 1957-8, by Colin St John Wilson and Alex Hardy, and at Churchill College, Cambridge by Richard Sheppard, Robson and Partners, a scheme won in competition in 1959 and completed in 1966. It also informed the arched concrete construction infilled with local brick adopted at the University of Sussex, the first of a wave of new universities when commissioned from Basil Spence and Partners in 1959. Stirling and Gowan went on to combine concrete, brick, tile and glass still more forcefully with their Engineering Building for the University of Leicester, perhaps the greatest building of the period for its acknowledgement of traditional local materials and engineering traditions in a totally modern form, combining a series of dramatic, constructivist shapes on a tight plan.
Engineering Building, University of Leicester © James O. Davies/English Heritage
Buildings in the 1960s grew larger, encouraged by economies of scale and the desire to integrate better services, car parking and different building uses in a single block. The University of East Anglia, commissioned from Denys Lasdun in 1962, was planned as the ‘five minute university’ in which a spine of teaching facilities and close-knit student flats were arranged of linked walkways. Built in 1964-8 the flats are famous for their shape of zig-zags or ziggurats, each floor set slightly back from the one below – subtly reducing floor heights while creating a monumental composition of fascinating geometry and beauty in an open landscape.
Places of Worship
Concrete’s ability to span large auditoria with struts or shells cast to any form, with concealed top lighting means it can take on dramatic shapes, as seen in light shell structures such as the former Commonwealth Institute of 1960-2 by Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, in 2013 being converted to the Design Museum. Elsewhere, heavier structures can suggest a sense of wonder that verges on the spiritual as well as Brutalist, and concrete was extensively used in church architecture. Many of the finest examples are in Scotland, where Isi Metzstein and Andrew MacMillan of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia were inspired by Le Corbusier’s work, notably his Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp completed in 1954. In England Le Corbusier’s influence can be seen mixed with Arts and Crafts and vernacular influences in churches by George Pace, such as St Mark, Broomhill, Sheffield, of 1958-63, and the William Temple Church in Wythenshawe, Manchester, of 1964-5.
Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool © Mr Brendan Oxlade LRPS
A purer geometry that combines the honest expression of materials with Renaissance proportions and centralised planning is found in the work of Robert Maguire and Keith Murray, beginning at St Paul’s Bow Common, London, when built in 1958-60 at the vanguard of the Liturgical Movement in Britain that sought to bring celebrant and congregation closer together. St Paul’s has a central altar, as does Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, a design won in competition by Frederick Gibberd in 1960 and completed in 1967. Its soaring concrete ribs - inspired by Oscar Niemeyer, who built a similar cathedral in Brasilia, and by Marcel Breuer’s St John, Collegeville, Minnesota - have led the building to be described as ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’. Rather different is Clifton Cathedral in Bristol, by Sir Percy Thomas and Partners from 1969-73, which has a more abstract form, with a tough exterior of concrete panels cast with granite aggregate and a concrete shaft rather than a spire. Inside, however, the board-marked concrete suffuses a delicate, even light around a fan-shaped nave.
Artists like William Mitchell took the very roughness of concrete as the basis for mural decoration that was often massive in scale, and was cast from giant carved polystyrene moulds. His work can be seen at Liverpool Metropolitan and Clifton cathedrals, as well as in schools, underpasses, public houses, and the former Lea Valley Waterworks in Hatfield.
The term Brutalist is most commonly associated with the shopping centres and car parks that grew up as Britain’s towns and cities were redeveloped to suit the motor car and modern retail patterns in the 1960s. The urban motorway and underpass saw concrete used on an unprecedented scale, while car parking and modern services not only swept away old street patterns but often the very ground level. The most dramatic example to be listed is Preston Bus Station of 1968-9, with car parking set over what was the largest bus station in Europe at the time. Upswept balconies were modelled using plastic moulds to give an unusually smooth finish.
Preston Bus Station © James O. Davies/English Heritage
Concrete was an important material in cities, where fire regulations limited the use of steel on very big buildings. Centre Point, built in 1961-6 by Richard Seifert and Partners with George Marsh the partner in charge, is a good example of the use of pre-cast panels, capable of being constructed more precisely and with better standards of finish than concrete poured in-situ. Pre-casting was essential here because its location on a small traffic island limited scaffolding and site construction. It is not, however, a truly Brutalist building, for the panels impart a rhythm of light and shade that suggest movement rather than mass; its origins are in the work of Niemeyer in Brasilia and Gio Ponti’s slim Pirelli Tower in Milan. Seifert’s office continued to create distinctively shaped towers, of which the best-known (unlisted) examples are London’s Tower 42, formerly the Nat-West Tower, of 1973-81 and the Alpha Tower in Birmingham of 1969-72.
The Smithsons produced only one office complex, for the Economist magazine. A complex of four elements, including a bank (now a restaurant) and accommodation for the adjoining Boodle’s Club, its shapes are simple and their proportions are elegant, with narrow frames, enamelled windows and Portland stone cladding. What was important was its relationship to St James’s Street, with the main office tower set back, and the walkway between the blocks that included a new piazza. Pedestrian routes, in an era where rapidly advancing car ownership was causing alarming numbers of deaths on the roads, was an important part of Brutalist thinking as the scale of buildings grew so large as to constitute town planning schemes. The Smithsons wrote extensively in the 1970s on ‘mat buildings’, neutral and generally relatively low but very flexible buildings designed to be personalised by their changing users. Their unlisted buildings at the University of Bath, of which the most significant is Building 6 East of 1979-81, are late examples.
Centre Point © James O. Davies/English Heritage
Movement through buildings, the integration of services and particularly of car parking, and the creation of flexible, multi-functional spaces were features of the great 1960s complexes most commonly termed Brutalist. Many of the most remarkable examples have been demolished, notably the unlisted Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth and Treaty Centre in Gateshead, both by Owen Luder and Partners, while others have been partly demolished or radically altered. A butchered survivor is the unlisted Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester. First planned in 1959 by Covell, Matthews and Partners, it replaced bomb-damaged warehousing. As realised in 1965, it contained car parking, a public house, petrol station a shopping arcade and a high-level traffic-free walkway all set under three distinct towers, including 24-storey offices and a lower block with a folded plate roof. Its finishes featured the monumental board-marked concrete and chunky plastics that briefly signified 1960s’ high living. As the design evolved, so it evolved from a straightforward series of blocks to take on these more spirited forms and materials, the critic Ian Nairn remarking in 1966 that ‘the way in which all of the parts of the Piccadilly Hotel have grown knobs … is a potted history of recent architectural fashion’. The result is one of the most potent syntheses of High Brutalism, not beautiful, but seething with detail and inspiring a sense of wonder – a curiosity as to why such a complex building should have been attempted together with amazement at the ambition of the early 1960s, when Britain’s continuing prosperity seemed assured.
A late example of the genre that has a greater sense of proportion and a more logical plan is the listed Brunswick Centre in London, built in 1967-72 to the designs of Patrick Hodgkinson but never completed, which combines a medium-rise residential scheme of nine storeys on top of a shopping centre with a basement cinema and car parking. The mix of functions within a single structure, here a pair of ‘A’-frames, has led it to be celebrated as a major ‘megastructure’, an example of extreme Brutalism in its planning only made possible by large concrete spans and a three-dimensional sense of geometry, although its concrete is light and was always intended to be painted.
Brunswick Centre © James O. Davies/English Heritage
To find out more about this exhibition and others that are being held, please visit the exhibitions page on the English Heritage website. A slide show of some of the buildings featured in the exhibition is available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24638671.
More information about English Heritage’s interest in understanding and protecting Later Twentieth Century architecture can be found here on our pages about designation and the National Heritage Protection Plan (NHPP).
To learn more about the nation’s designated (listed) buildings, please visit the National Heritage List for England.
Other important examples of late twentieth-century architecture also feature in some of our other What’s New stories on PastScape: Architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, Post War Architecture, Festival of Britain 60th Anniversary and Late 20th Century Architecture in the Time of Elizabeth II.
Publications that may be of interest
Bullock, Nicholas. 2002. Building the Post-War World, Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Britain, Routledge.
Harwood, Elain. 1999, second edition 2003. England: A Guide to Post-war Listed Buildings. Batsford. (A new, expanded edition is due out in 2015).
Harwood, Elain. 2014. Space, Hope and Brutalism. Yale
Powers, Alan. 2007. Britain. Reaktion Books
Smithson, Alison and Peter. 2001. The Charged Void: Architecture, Monacelli Press.
The 1960s, Twentieth Century Society, 2002
The 1970s, Twentieth Century Society, 2012