The Brutalist Nightmare

South Bank Centre Image Courtesy of The Daily Mail.

South Bank Centre
Image Courtesy of The Daily Mail.

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.

Trellick Tower. Image courtesy of the Telegraph.

Trellick Tower. Image courtesy of the Telegraph.

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 Brunel University Lecture Centre in A Clockwork Orange. Image courtesy of http://www.collective-zine.co.uk/cboard/topic56559-brutalist-architecture.html

The Brunel University Lecture Centre in A Clockwork Orange. Image courtesy of http://www.collective-zine.co.uk/cboard/topic56559-brutalist-architecture.html

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

BogeArt Review- Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting

The National Gallery has started curating exhibitions looking to rejuvenate their permanent collection by encouraging us to engage with these works (many of which hang in forgotten about parts of the gallery or storage normally) from a different angle.

“Buildings in paintings have always been treated as a background, as something subordinate to the figures themselves,” says Amanda Lillie, co-curator of Building the Picture, “We’re arguing that the buildings are active protagonists. They’re not just propping up the characters, but are also capable of carrying key messages and performing a series of crucial roles themselves.”

This DIY-exhibition is rather ingenious; the National Gallery does not have the trouble of borrowing/commissioning work, and the limitations that come with only using NG works invite curious and exciting ways to approach the art. It was really interesting to look a little more closely at works I would perhaps walk past on a regular visit, or works I knew fairly well (e.g Carlo Crivelli’s Annunciation) and really consider the architectural feats achieved in paint that perhaps surpassed those achieved in real life.

The exhibition begins with five short films which give five contemporary perspectives on imagined architecture. The short I found the most interesting in regards to the exhibition was the film on computer game cinematics. Computer game cinematic director Peter Gornstein talks us through the construction of virtual architecture, and like was often the case with Renaissance paintings, the virtual world provides a platform for architect to realise their imagined dreams. What is visible in many of paintings in the exhibition is the idea of the painted architecture surpassing the real life architectural possibilities of the Renaissance; many are of such a fantastical nature that the construction would doubtfully seem possible even today.

What is also drawn to attention through the comparison with video games is the idea of entering a space/world when viewing these paintings. The architectural features in their most blatant form provide context; but these Renaissance images, thanks to the developments in perspective, allow the viewer to visually step into the beautifully crafted religious scene. Similar to how we step into a virtual world when playing video games. When looking at the Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome in his Study, c.1475, I almost feel as though I can walk into the study and turn a corner to explore the church-like setting, like I would be able to if it were a video game.

Crivelli’s Annunciation appears early on in the exhibition, marking the end of the Middle Ages with its love of magnificent patterns and linear effects and the introduction to the mathematical and convincing Renaissance. Crivelli does comply with the idea of architectural fantasy that was explored in the films. His passion for adorning every inch of the picture area creates an impractical and divine scene that surpasses the realms of reality. Segments of the back panel from Duccio’s Measta and The Virgin and Child with Saints by Lorenzo Costa and Gianfrancesco Maineri show us how the architectural features in art can be used as a narrative tool. Duccio’s panels were part of a series, and he was revolutionary in how he used the architectural structures to lead our eyes through the scenes and on to the next. In Costa and Maineri’s work the architecture allows for several stories to be told within the one unified image, e.g Adams Temptation in the bottom center is part of the interior architecture.

I could go on as for such a small exhibition it covers a lot of ground, but perhaps more importantly it inspires curiosity, forces us to look, really look, and investigate what the architecture in the paintings actually does. If you wish to delve deeper and learn more on the subject the catalogue is online (amazing) as are the films. With so much homework material it is clear why art critic Waldemar Januszack wrote that he was ‘enjoying the show for five hours’ – I must confess I only managed a measly three.

-Isabella Bornholt; BogeArt