Trellick Tower from below...

Brutalism – the ever-controversial, predominantly (but certainly not exclusively) British take on modernist architecture – has been kickstarting tenuously-topical debate yet again.  I already made a brief foray into the comments section on the following Guardian article, but in the days since I’ve realised there’s a wider cultural question I could raise that sits neatly enough within the raison d’etre of this here blog…

Now, I’m not even interested in arguing with those for whom the wind-battered, piss-stained, sludge-coloured concrete of most Brutalist architecture is nothing other than a turn-off.  This is architecture you almost certainly need to learn to love and, whether its through pilgrimage to Trellick Tower (above), the spacegarden-aquafuture-powerwalkways of the Barbican, or simply some highly-recommended purchases from the mighty People Will Always Need Plates, well, that’s for you and your inner Le Corbusier to wrangle with.

Instead, I unapologetically start from two premises that may or not be true:

1) Brutalist architecture has an aesthetic merit and architectural significance that deserves to be respected and, dare I say it, preserved for posterity.

2) That, speaking as someone who is yet to have the pleasure, (most) brutalist architecture makes for a terrible environment to live in.

So, if we accept these as true (and there are very strong dissenters for both points), where exactly does that leave us?

Sarah Duncan

Firstly, you can’t – well, you shouldn’t – go knocking down buildings of enormous cultural significance just because the prevailing fashions dictate them ugly.  It wasn’t so long ago (less than 50 years in fact) that St. Pancras Station was destined for the wrecker’s ball, only to be saved for posterity at the eleventh hour and is now pretty much universally heralded for George Gilbert Scott’s disarming Gothic revivalist frontage. 

On the other hand, preserving architecture raises unique problems that, say, hoarding a previously-unsaleable Van Gogh until it transforms into a multi-million pound masterpiece doesn’t entail.  Architecture is, in short, high-maintenance.  Brutalist buildings often suffer from leaky roofs, claustrophobic, graffiti-inviting corridors and wind-battered, piss-stained, sludge-coloured concrete skins (did I mention that already?).  To expect people to live in what is\was predominantly social housing, but without the necessary investment and social infrastructure to support large, tightly-packed mini-communities, is simply inhumane.

So, what’s the solution here?  Well, as always with interesting questions, the solutions are none and many:  for British brutalism, sadly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.  Some of these buildings have already been lost, and more seem likely to follow (even those that played host to some of Michael Caine’s finest moments) in the face of an undeniably and overwhelmingly hostile general public.  At the other extreme, in some areas, free market capitalism has unusually come to the rescue and ensured that private buyers with the wealth and wherewithal to purchase and maintain urban flats will ensure some brutalist architecture endures.  As a backlash will inevitably build against identikit Barratt housing estates sometime in the next million years (fingers crossed), I suspect they will have made a shrewd investment.

And for the remainder?  Well, yes, architecture is art indivisibly linked to its function.  So, in the instances where such buildings prove uninhabitable, let’s not abandon all hope.  Let us be – cue management-speak – proactive in seeking out suitable new purposes for these bold modern behemoths.  It worked for Tate Modern and, with the right motivation, the formula can work again.  A similar notion may have been mentioned with sarcasm elsewhere, but why not house a National Museum of Modernist Architecture in one of these brutes?  Heck, why not an International Museum…?

Indeed, let us shelter the oft-neglected and much-maligned, let us whisper life-affirming self-help-book quotes into the ears of our modernist heritage and, after carefully scrubbing the piss stains from the uncared-for concrete, let us find those ways to relaunch Britain’s brutalist past with new bravado and new-found purpose.