Friday, 22 July 2016

"All the concrete dreams in my mind's eye / All the joy I see through these architects' eyes" - part 2 of 2

“All the majesty of a city landscape / all the soaring days of our lives / all the concrete dreams in my mind’s eye / all the joy I see through these architects’ eyes” David Bowie

Brutalism – an introduction

Brutalism was born of Le Corbusier’s practice from the late 1940s onwards of using concrete in an unfinished or roughly-finished state and leaving the board-marked surfaces exposed. The term ‘brutalism’ comes from the French ‘brut’ meaning ‘raw’ or ‘rough’,[i] and it was adopted by British architects Alison and Peter Smithson[ii] to refer to a particular style of architecture characterized by: 
- Rough, unfinished surfaces;
- Heavy-looking materials;
- Massive forms;
- Windows of relatively small size. [iii]

Brutalism in public architecture

Le Corbusier’s Brutalist style is exemplified in his designs for the utopian city of Chandigarh in post-independence India, for which the brief from India's prime minister Nehru was: "a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation's faith in the future". Le Corbusier considered his Palace of Assembly (1953) to be his greatest work. The city is now India's wealthiest per capita.[iv]  

The Brutalist style was widely adopted for government buildings and education institutions worldwide due to the message of strength conveyed by its bold structures and due to the relative cheapness of concrete and the new possibilities it offered in terms of functionality and scale. Examples include the Ministry of Justice in London, built by Basil Spence in 1976; the Boston City Hall, built by Gerhard Kallmann in 1963-68; the FBI’s headquarters in the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington D.C., built by Charles F. Murphy and Associates and completed in 1967; the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning (FAU) Centre at the University of São Paulo, built by Vilanova Artigas in 1969; the Museum of Art in Sao Paulo, built by Lina Bo Bardi in 1968; and the halls of residence at the University of East Anglia, built by Denys Lasdun and completed in 1966.

Denys Lasdun is also famous for his Brutalist National Theatre in London (1967-76), where he applied Frank Lloyd Wright’s stratification at Fallingwater (see previous article) in an urban context along the river. The structure challenges the conventions concerning public buildings: its strata ‘make it hard to define where the National Theatre begins and ends’; its interconnected walkways, split levels and circular stairwells make it ‘as confusing to navigate as an Escher painting’; it has no obvious front door.[v] Lasdun ‘likened the project to planning a small city’ on account of its scale: the complex includes three theatres, workshops, foyers, restaurants and bars.[vi] Lasdun spoke of the audience in the foyers as the ‘fourth theatre’, and wanted ‘an interaction of human and architectural drama’.[vii]

In Birmingham, which had been badly hit during the Second World War, modernism was embraced in its aftermath, with new housing and public buildings built that contributed to making the city the most successful in the UK after the capital: a ‘modernist utopia’ with almost no unemployment and many impressive Brutalist buildings.[viii] Hull, Coventry and Portsmouth likewise embraced Brutalist architecture.  

Brutalism and Domestic spaces

In the aftermath of the Second World War, many thousands of homes destroyed by bombs needed to be rebuilt across Europe. The Brutalist style offered the opportunity to create functional homes in which community life would be facilitated. The style was particularly prevalent in Britain where the developing welfare state commissioned council homes from modernist architects: the buildings had a civic agenda and represented the ‘vision of a society confident in its own expression, a genuinely public city and an architecture of a generous, open and radical welfare state.’[ix]

Le Corbusier’s Unités d’Habitation, built in Marseilles in 1952, is widely regarded as one of the first Brutalist buildings. It is built on stilts to create a pedestrian open ground floor,[x] a manifestation of Le Corbusier’s famous goal: “we must kill the street”.

Le Corbusier had first proposed a solution for the destruction of houses in times of war with a cheap design for mass-produced houses in 1914, when he was just 27, in response to the destruction of homes at the beginning of the First World War. Called ‘Dom-Ino’ houses, these structures comprised ‘a factory-produced system of precast concrete columns, floor slabs and staircases on which families could improvise shelter by recycling materials and components from destroyed houses.’[xi] The model is recognisable as a basis for many modern homes around the world today. 

In Britain, Alison and Peter Smithson are among the most famous architects of Brutalist social housing, which they described as follows: “Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work. Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.” The estate at London’s Robin Hood Gardens which they completed in 1972 has 213 flats arranged with innovative internal layout, ‘streets in the sky’ to encourage community living, and deflecting acoustic walls to create a peaceful atmosphere in spite of the busy roads nearby.[xii]

Another example in London is Trellick Tower, built by Erno Goldfinger (after whom Ian Fleming named one of his Bond villains) in 1972 and the tallest residential building in Europe.[xiii]

Backlash against Brutalism

The economic downturn in the 1970s engendered, among other problems, lack of maintenance to Brutalist buildings, as well as unemployment which caused social unrest.[xiv] Elevated walkways connecting apartment blocks and also known as ‘streets in the sky’ are one of the key features of Brutalist housing estates. Designed to enable neighbours to gather together and to offer a space for children to play without danger from cars, these walkways are regrettably often dimly-lit and deserted, creating a hostile atmosphere.[xv] In the 1970s, public opinion turned against these buildings because of their poor state of maintenance and the antisocial behaviour taking place there. Several were destroyed, including Hereford Square apartments in London’s Kensington and the Southgate Estate, the Trinity Square car park in Gateshead and the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth (both built by Owen Luder), and recently the Milton Court complex at the Barbican and Birmingham’s Central Library (built by John Madin’s 1973).

The eradication of Brutalist buildings has been compared to the demolition of Victorian buildings deemed ‘monstrosities’ in the 20th century in favour of more modern structures: the losses are now mourned, and surviving Victorian buildings are greatly valued. Perhaps it will take as long for Brutalist architecture to be viewed with so much appreciation. There are steps in that direction: several Brutalist buildings, including Trellick Towers, are Grade-II listed. In the meantime, Robin Hood Gardens estate and other Brutalist buildings face demolition.

And yet the Brunswick Centre (built by Patrick Hodgkinson in 1972 in London) is an example of a previously-neglected Brutalist complex that has benefitted hugely from investment into its maintenance. The main task was to paint the facades pale cream as the architect had originally intended- a dilution from strictly Brutalist criteria, perhaps, but one which makes the building more appealing to a wider range of people and brightens up facades that get little help from sunshine in our northern climes. Not long ago the Brunswick Centre was described as “a rain-streaked, litter-strewn concrete bunker of empty shop units, whose ambitious, space-age design only accentuated its sense of failure.” Today it is a hugely pleasant complex, with desirable flats and inviting public areas.[xvi]

The Barbican Estate is also an example of successful Brutalist architecture: designed in 1959 and opened in 1982, it has remained the epitome of the utopian ideal for inner-city living. It has integrated high-density residential neighbourhoods (more than 2,100 homes) with schools, shops and restaurants, as well as a world-class cultural destination, a church, lakes, a sports centre and ancient monuments. Maintained by a large team and by the proud residents, its flats sell for vast sums.[xvii]

Modernism around the world

Around the world, Brutalism and modernism more generally have seen varying levels of success.

Habitat 67 in Montreal, built by Moshe Safdie in 1967, is a community and housing complex in Canada comprising 354 identical concrete units arranged in various combinations to create 146 residences of varying sizes, each with at least one private terrace, reaching up to 12 stories in height. It has been praised for positively redefining urban living though has not offered affordable housing as initially intended.

Near Paris, the Arcades du Lac and the Viaduc at Montigny-le-Bretonneux (completed in 1975 and 1980 respectively by Ricardo Bofill) were intended to be a ‘Versailles for the people’. Their style has strong links with French architectural history, being inspired by the Pont d’Avignon, the Chateau de Chenonceau and the Aqueduct of Segovia, yet also present a futuristic vision of megapolis life. The Arcades has 220 apartments, the Viaduc 74. The former features traditional French gardens; the latter is built on an artificial lake; both exemplify social and community living for the modern age, with their stunning structures and peaceful pedestrianised surroundings.[xviii]

The purpose-built capital of Brasilia (Brazil), whose major public buildings were designed by Oscar Neimeyer in the 1950s, offers an interesting contrast to the Arcades and the Viaduct in two main respects: firstly in its deliberate rejection of architectural traditions and secondly in its focus on cars not pedestrians. Niemeyer designed the Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida cathedral (completed in 1970), whose 16 curved concrete columns weigh 90 tons each; the iconic dome and bowl flanking two towers at the Palace of the National Congress; the Ministry of Foreign Relations with its weightless curving steps in the atrium; and many other structures. The project aimed to create a capital ‘without the colonial legacy, without baroque and classical architecture, without slums’. In the enthusiasm of the age of motoring, the city was built to be traversed by car, not on foot. As a result, the city itself has been criticized for being on a scale that has forgotten its human inhabitants,[xix] offering little shade from the scorching sun and few outdoor spaces for street life, and is seen as ‘a wrong turn in urban planning’.[xx] Its association with a totalitarian regime has not helped its popularity.

In Mozambique and Angola, the particular style of Brutalism that was developed by the Portuguese is termed ‘Moderno Tropical’. Mozambique achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, after a ten-year War of Independence, after which it had a twenty-year civil war. The modernist buildings still carry the memory of recent oppressors and have largely been abandoned or become slums, inhabited by the grandchildren of the builders, black Mozambicans who themselves had not been allowed to build permanent houses for their families in the suburbs so that the Portuguese could more easily expand the city if required. The Grande Hotel in Beira (Mozambique), built in 1948 as a luxury hotel for the Portuguese, was abandoned in the turmoil of the 1960s and has now become home to many families in spite of the risks presented by empty lift shafts. Glass and metal elements have been removed for sale and the inhabitants use cracks in the concrete to grow tomato plants.[xxi]

Even more strikingly, the complex of five buildings and one forty-five story tower designed by Enrique Gomez in Caracas (Venezuela) and known as the Torre David, has developed a bustling community – though one different from that intended: it is the world’s largest vertical slum. Commissioned at a time of relative economic stability, the project was abandoned partway through construction following Venezuela’s banking crisis of 1994. Squatters moved in in 2007, and the complex now has about 3,000 residents, who have adapted the unfinished building, adding walls and using abandoned scaffolding as barriers on some of the open storeys, creating an ‘inventive and evolving fusion of formal and informal architecture’ while developing a ‘highly organised system of governance, management and servicing, including the limited provision of electricity and water to most units.’[xxii]

Though completed, the Pruitt-Igoe complex in Saint Louis (built by Minoru Yamasaki in 1954) offered such negative living conditions that it was eventually demolished. Its thirty-three apartments, each standing eleven stories high and totalling 2,870 apartments, were pulled down in 1972 after becoming ‘one of the most notorious slums in the US.’ The failure of the complex was largely due to several decreases in the project budget, which meant that the architect’s plans had to be adapted and cheap materials used. Social changes in the city meant that the complex was never fully occupied, and only by those in the lowest socio-economic bracket, resulting in high crime rates. The initial plans had been praised for their outdoor green spaces, spatial efficiency and other innovations. Its demolition was seen by some as the death of Modernist ideals.[xxiii]

Recently, the architects Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo and Chris Grimley have been defending Brutalism and are calling for the style to be called ‘Heroic’ to reflect its social and civic aspirations and its optimism, in recognition of the fact that the style's popularity is hampered by its aggressive-sounding name.[xxiv] In Britain, there has certainly been a revival in admiration for Brutalist architecture in the past decade or so.  The National Trust recently led tours of Croydon, focusing on structures such as its NLA Tower, and a tour called ‘Brutal Utopia’ taking members around Brutalist buildings in London, focusing on the Southbank Centre. The ‘je-m’en-foutisme’ and ‘bloody-mindedness’ of Brutalism (as described by the critic Reyner Banham as early as 1955) now appeal to young inhabitants of cities. The style is seen as an important manifestation of recent history and the optimism that characterised that period. The buildings have become accepted as part of the urban landscape and they are therefore being looked on more kindly. 

And with the development of self-healing concrete,[xxv] the main disadvantage of the material (its tendency to crack, creating ugly marks in its surfaces) may not be a problem for future buildings inspired by Brutalism.

What are your thoughts on Brutalism- do you find the style beautiful or monstrous? What is your reaction to the different expressions of modernism around the world as illustrated in the examples above? Do you think Brutalist buildings will come to be regarded in the same appreciative way we now view Victorian buildings?

[i] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011, p.160
[vi] and 
[x] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011.
[xi] Weston, Richard. 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Lawrence King Pub., 2011. p140
[xxii] Pardo, Alona, and Elias Redstone, eds. Photography and architecture in the modern age. Barbican Art Gallery, 2014.
Glancey, Jonathan. Lost buildings: demolished, destroyed, imagined, reborn. Goodman, 2008.