Lasting from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, the heyday of Brutalist architecture has left a variety of controversial structures across the UK. Characterised by an imposing concrete format, these buildings often look more like dystopian fortresses than institutional or governmental headquarters.
As such, their continued existence is somewhat under threat. In light of modern architectural preferences, many people find Brutalist buildings ugly and even ominous, a throwback to a bygone era of Cold War and political tumult. Yet, Brutalism has its defenders.
One of the most famous critics of Brutalist architecture is Prince Charles, who has been particularly scathing about this school of building. Recalling its development in the wake of World War II, he noted:
“You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe, when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. For a long time I have felt strongly about the wanton destruction which has taken place in this country in the name of progress; about the sheer unadulterated ugliness and mediocrity of public and commercial buildings…not to mention the dreariness and heartlessness of so much urban planning.”
This opinion was certainly prevalent in the late nineties and early noughties, when efforts were made to ensure city spaces were more pleasant to actually work and live in. Brutalism was an atavistic blight on the nation—a situation exacerbated by the fact that so many public buildings were constructed in the style. The University of East Anglia is a well-known example.
That being said, in recent years Brutalism has undergone something of a rehabilitation. Several examples have been demolished or replaced, and their absence has encouraged people to begin to value these strange, totalitarian remnants. Joseph Watson, of the National Trust, claims that it’s important to retain at least some of these structures:
“There is now such a rapid pace of change, we need to think about what are the buildings we want to save for the future. We are not saying that have to be preserved in aspic, but they should be preserved in some form. It is not very long ago that many people had the same views about Victorian architecture and systematically worked to erase that era in built form. We are now in danger of doing the same with brutalism.”
Watson may have a point, but for some the defence has come too late. Several Brutalist pieces have been “softened”. Some have been sandblasted, so the iconic concrete looks more like natural stone—others have been coated in stucco or disguised with new added cladding. Unfortunately, while the cladding may have a more popular aesthetic it poses its own dangers – as the Grenfell Tower Fire highlighted so tragically.
It may be necessary to ultimately replace or completely refurbish some examples of Brutalism, especially those used as accommodation. They famously struggle with the wet climate found across much of the UK and may become less fit for purpose as time goes on. However, it is increasingly found that many are reluctant to see Brutalist architecture disappear entirely from our towns and cities.
Photo by blank space