If you’ve ever wandered along the South Bank, strolled down Bedford Way or walked around Barbican, chances are you’ve come across Brutalist architecture before. Those gigantic asymmetrical, concrete slabs, mounted together to create some of the capital’s most iconic modern buildings such as the National Theatre, surround the Londoner on a day to day basis. These buildings with their intimidating aesthetic, industrial appearance and overwhelming ratio of concrete are, right now, experiencing a Renaissance. Their cool and plain exteriors are becoming the basis for modern-day design and architecture, with some original Brutalist flats being privatised and selling for thousands of pounds.
However, this admiration for these monumental concrete buildings has only been recent. In fact, their introduction into London’s landscape wasn’t received with such high regard. It wasn’t long after they were built that the meaning of the word ‘brutal’ perhaps became too closely associated with these buildings in modern culture. The term ‘Brutalism’ was first coined in the 1950s and derived from the French word ‘brut’, meaning concrete: Nothing to do with the ‘brutal’ aesthetic that the movement is often associated with. The term refers to a specific architectural period in post-war Britain, still recovering from the destruction of World War II. Due to the cheap cost of concrete, the government were in favour of employing this new ‘brutalist’ style in order to rebuild social housing and public and government buildings. This meant that Brutalist architects, like Ernò Goldfinger, Sir Denys Lasdun and Peter and Alison Smithson designed their buildings with certain ideals in mind. These buildings needed to be above all functional for the people who inhabited them, as well as cheap and easy to build, giving them their plain and non-decorative exterior and frank materiality. Especially regarding social housing projects, Brutalist architects sought to provide a sort of social utopia and equal living standards. In high rise Brutalist buildings, flats were usually of equal size, and areas were built into the building complex which separated living and leisure activities such as shops, almost like a city within a city. Despite this, brutalist architecture became increasingly criticsed during the 1960s and 70s.
It wasn’t just its ‘ugly’ and ‘harsh’ exterior that appalled people (Prince Charles once said that when the Luftwaffe “knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble”), it was also the state of the inhabitants’ wellbeing that was being questioned. Structural issues quickly began to arise, living conditions were cramped, and with no garden fence to chat to a neighbor over, people often became isolated and anti-social. These confined conditions lead to an overhanging cloud of claustrophobia and fear which soon resulted in vandalism and high crime rates. These once hopeful ‘utopian’ communities were increasingly becoming somewhat dystopian. Famous high rise buildings such as Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower (1972) became increasingly associated with anti-social behaviour (including reports on rape and attacks on children) and the Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens (1972) also became synonymous with crime, causing its demolition to begin in 2013.
It’s hardly surprising then, that these once hopeful and functional buildings became the architectural backdrop for dystopian fiction in popular culture. J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel High-Rise (soon to be made into a film by Sightseers director, Ben Wheatley) tells the tale of an über modern, luxurious set of high rise flats, closed off from the rest of the world with only its high-tech commodities to cater for everyones’ needs. This utopian beginning soon ends in its inhabitants, who, shut off from modern society, begin to segregate and turn on each other. To cut a long story short, this results in crime, murder and violence, which is not too dissimilar from the stories of Trellick Tower and Robin Hood Gardens. Then we have the cameo appearances that brutalist architecture appears in in dystopian film. Think back to Stanely Kubrick’s controversial 1972 film, A Clockwork Orange, where the Brunel University Lecture Centre becomes the setting for the authoritarian Ludovico Medical Facility. What was once seen as a Socialist dream in 60s and 70s Britain soon symbolised a totalitarian nightmare.
The irony of Brutalist architecture is huge, leaving it as one of the most misunderstood aesthetics in modern design. Its unfortunate that the monumentally terrifying, yet fantastic look of these London buildings became too closely associated with brutality and crime in general, not just within fiction but in the day-to-day lives of the people who lived there. However, as mentioned earlier, Brutalism is now experiencing a wave of nostalgic appreciation. Trellick Tower, the high rise building known for its violent crime rates, has privatised and gentrified its flats which sell for thousands and thousands of pounds. I suppose it just only goes to prove how one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia. Maddy Martin; BogeArt