In Praise of Architectural Brutalism

The sublime simplicity and beauty of Preston Bus Station.

During the first lockdown there appeared to be a collective desire to recalibrate or to go ‘back to basics’. Investment bankers suddenly realised that they had missed their true vocation and that, had things been different, they would have been humble artisan bakers. Meanwhile, others lounged around at home knitting sweaters and tending to their organic courgettes. Suddenly, we realised that we needed to exercise for about sixteen hours a day and so the promenades of the Fylde became packed with pale and earnest figures cycling, running, segueing and power walking. It appeared as if most of humanity came to believe that their lives would not be complete unless they purchased at least one bichon frise puppy. It was like the ‘Good Life’ but without the humour.

Were these merely affected fads or was there perhaps something rather more profound going on? Of baking and knitting I did little, but I did spend an inordinate amount of time mowing grass and tending to the goats. Were it not for my professional responsibilities, I would have grown a long shaggy beard and pottered around in a T-shirt and shorts for much of that time. I would have indulged in a fantasy of returning to nature.

During this period, a completely unexpected joy that I stumbled across was the Facebook Brutalism Appreciation group. It is a forum for people devoted to photographing and celebrating brutalist buildings around the globe. From examination halls in Belgrade University to housing complexes in Novograd, the page is teeming full of concrete edifices that some might judge rather ugly. Personally, I feel that there is something rather glorious about many of these structures and they stir my nostalgic sensibilities.

The dedicated purists and fanatics that this Facebook group attracts often indulge in furious arguments about what precisely constitutes brutalism. The utilitarian or functionalist simplicity of Brutalism emerged in the 1950s within the context of post-war architectural modernism. Bare building materials and structural elements are championed over decorative design. Rough unusual shapes, modular elements, heavy looking materials, small windows and straight lines all serve to characterise a style that can appear austere and cold.

Brutalism tended to be employed for new housing schemes and institutional buildings. In the age of post-war reconstruction, Brutalism was intended to herald a brave new world. The visionary zeal of its principle architects spoke of an idealism that dared to imagine a better society. There was something brave and daring about these buildings, and their audacious simplicity seemed to scream modernity and a rejection of that had gone before. These were buildings conceived on an epic scale but so often let down by shoddy craftsmanship and an inability to perceive that what worked within the context of an architectural model did not always translate well to the reality of high-rise living. There were exceptions, and the Barbican Centre in London is perhaps one of the finest examples of a well-planned modern housing estate which incorporates a library, shops, music conservatoire and arts centre.

In the mid1990s, I attended the Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama (pictured in the foreground). It was situated in the heart of that most Brutalist of wonderlands, the Barbican Centre.

Much of Britain’s brutalist landscape has been demolished due to the fact that many of the buildings did not stand the test of time. Belatedly, efforts have been made to preserve buildings such as Preston Bus Station, as we have come to recognise their extraordinary historical significance. For me these buildings are about utopian dreams. Futurama wrought in concrete. These buildings are a physical manifestation of that most precious of human commodities – hope. Some such buildings are exquisitely beautiful whilst others are clumsy behemoths that appear to desecrate the landscapes within which they are situated. Nevertheless the motivating spirit of Brutalism is something worth celebrating. Recently, the brutalist architect, Owen Luder, died at the age of 93. Described in one obituary as Britain’s ‘unluckiest architect’, Luder suffered the distress of seeing a good few of the buildings that he had designed raised to the ground. Interviewed shortly before he passed away, the great man reflected upon the radical vision that had guided much of his work. The intensity of his creative intellect was undiminished by the passing of the years.

Brutalism has been attacked, derided and binned, and yet is now undergoing something of a rehabilitation or renaissance. Our own dreams sometimes fail to take shape and our vision of how things should be tends to be compromised by reality. That does not mean that we should abandon our dreams or discard the spirit that motivates us to create, adapt and progress. As we approach Christmas, we should have the courage to embrace the spirit of those Brutalist architectural pioneers who dedicated themselves to creating a better world. A new world will emerge from the shadows of the pandemic and it is our responsibility to ensure that our children are inspired to become part of the conversations that are going to define the next generation.

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School