Concrete buildings: Brutalist beauty

The stark civic megaliths of the 1960s have been reviled for decades. Now, we are being seduced again by their concrete charms

Eros House in Catford, south-east London, is named after the Greek god of love. This middle-aged rogue is easy to fall for, despite the misguided love apparently lavished all over the front of it in the form of some new off-white cladding. Importantly, Eros House hasn't been flattened, like most other works by its creator Rodney Gordon , one of the most gifted British brutalists.

In 2003, at age 70, five years before his death, Gordon stood on top of his condemned Tricorn shopping centre in Portsmouth, telling David Adjaye that: "Any piece of architecture worth being called architecture is usually both hated and loved." Adjaye – an architect himself – was filming for the BBC series Dreamspaces (which chatted about buildings but looked like anarchic Channel 4 series The Word). "Rodney's personal charm made a profound impression on me," Adjaye remembers. "He was a sensitive, articulate, incredibly positive man – and it seems incongruous that his buildings might have generated a negative response."

But they did. Those staircases like fists, those abstract angles so bloody sure of themselves – that bravado rubbed people up the wrong way. For 30 years, these civic megaliths were the most hated buildings in history. But today, the ones that remain are making our hearts skip a beat. Brutalist buildings inhabit a polarised world of love and hate, life and death.

In the autumn, English Heritage hosted the Brutal & Beautiful exhibition, finally celebrating the beleaguered style. At its launch, Richard Rogers called for Robin Hood Gardens to be spared from the sword. This battered estate in Poplar, east London, was designed by Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972, and today, Tower Hamlets Council argues that demolishing it is the only solution. But it isn't. Across the road, £40m is being spent turning Erno Goldfinger's Balfron Tower into luxury flats, while Preston Bus Station was recently saved for the nation at the 11th hour. Meanwhile, in South Yorkshire, the bittersweet "I Love You Will U Marry Me" graffiti crowning the Park Hill estate – a snake-like block of flats from 1961 – is now a permanent, neon-lit addition to the Sheffield skyline.

"Attitudes to brutalism are certainly becoming a lot less hostile, the change is moving fast," believes Dr Barnabas Calder of the University of Liverpool. His book, Raw Concrete, which celebrates brutalism, will be published this summer. "Two years ago, my pitch was to defend brutalism to a universally hostile public. Now it looks to be more of a celebratory history."

Next month, the critic Jonathan Meades will present Bunkers, Brutalism, Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry – a pair of one-hour documentaries on BBC4. "Brutalism is getting noticed again and not being denigrated," he assures me, down the phone from his flat at Le Corbusier's concrete classic, the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille. Brutalism is architecture at the extremes. Meades, who looks like a cross between an undertaker and a stand-up comic, and employs words as though they're cruise missiles, believes that "something that is universally tolerated is likely to be pretty boring. Anything that's any good, and original, is going to incite hatred as much as it does adoration – because of the very fact that it's so unfamiliar."

In the course of making the films, Meades packed his tinted Wayfarers and went to Vienna, Cologne and Skopje in Macedonia. He traces the lineage of 1960s brutalism back through 1860s Gothic to John Vanbrugh's Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland, completed in 1728, which is "extremely butch, aggressive, sullen. Think Oliver Reed after about eight bottles of whisky."

Brutalism never meant "brutal" when the writer Reyner Banham, friend of Alison and Peter Smithson, popularised the expression. It was about the "rawness" of the concrete; the futuristic funhouse fantasy of precipitous balconies sailing through the sky. The Smithsons were a bohemian pair with their heads in the clouds – architects, artists, ponderers. As well as designing Robin Hood Gardens, they created a sublime HQ for The Economist in Piccadilly. Alison was a rare female force in a Mad Men world, who talked about "the poetry of the ordinary", while clad in space-age dresses and silver eye-liner. You can see Alison's friendly ghost in Britain's most famous contemporary female architect, Zaha Hadid – who sometimes pays tribute to brutalism, especially at the Wolfsburg Science Centre in Germany.

Brutalism is the most urban architecture there is. But if you slice open the arteries of most Britons, we bleed the bucolic. In the Industrial Revolution, people were shoved into factory work in foul, seething spots. Cities became infernal in their heads. Even today's city-dwellers offset far less gritty surrounds with twee vintage, farmers' markets, crafting, dreams of suburbs. Brutalism is not the architecture of afternoon teas and cricket; cuddles and picnics. It's uncompromising, bold, modern, metropolitan – and it's enticing a new generation of younger fans. "There is a sort of new interest in it," reflects Meades. "I'm old – brutalism was at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s when I was in my teens. It's history... as the Edwardian was to me."

You can't see your reflection in a brutalist building, because its design was not about the individual, it was about the multitude. These schools, libraries, council flats, newspaper offices, shopping centres, hospitals were gifts from benign bureaucracies for society to share. Today's glass buildings, full of mirrors (and smoke), are there to sate the narcissistic desires of the billions of individuals that the heaving mass has shattered into.

John Grindrod's excellent book ,Concretopia, published at the end of last year, lionises the optimism of those post-War welfare state years. He picks up the theme when I meet him at the Brunswick Centre, a sort of toast rack of tiered flats and shops in London's Bloomsbury, designed by Patrick Hodgkinson in the 1960s. "I think old and young people like these buildings. Old people remember how bad it was before we started to rebuild British cities; young people hadn't seen [the buildings'] decline in the 1980s."

Grindrod points me to where a fondly remembered greasy spoon once sat. You know the bustling Brunswick is smarter today, because there's a Waitrose. Grindrod reminds me that these places were "budget utopias – we didn't have the money for anything else".

But critics such as the late Robert Hughes bemoaned the strict order these buildings sought to impose. Were the architects jackbooted? According to Michael Abrahamson: "We're talking about the work of nearly an entire generation of architects with genuinely good intentions, not a hateful group of eccentrics hoping to delude and domineer the public." He is part of a new generation of Americans who are rediscovering the brutalist buildings that, surprisingly perhaps, litter the US. The current issue of the influential New York architecture magazine, Clog, is entirely dedicated to re-appraising brutalism, and Abrahamson – also behind the enjoyable F**kYeahBrutalism blog – was picked to edit it. "Brutalist buildings have never asked for our love," he ponders, "but a bit of respect would be appreciated."

Brutalism was about bringing new life to city centres. The peripheries of city centres, though, because these buildings were too controversial to be bang in the middle. Geographically and stylistically, they exist at the margins. But brutalism also reeks of death. There are the Nazi bunkers on the Channel Islands, which Meades picks out as precursors to 1960s concrete modernism. Preston Bus Station (opened in 1969) has been plagued by suicides from the top of its five storeys of curving car park decks. In the film Get Carter, Michael Caine throws his rival off Rodney Gordon's Trident Car Park in Gateshead. This blackly comic scene concludes with the architect characters realising their client is toast, and one of them deadpanning: "I've an awful feeling we're not going to get our fees on this job."

Concrete buildings die without care, too; they're snuffed out in their prime by councils who can't see they've inherited "icons", which could become wildly popular tourist attractions in the 2060s. Leeds could turn its vacant Yorkshire Post Building into a cultural centre, so could Birmingham with its old Central Library (both hugely underrated works by the late John Madin) to create concrete complexes as popular as London's South Bank Centre.

Brutalist buildings are increasingly seen seething on screen. That brooding library in Birmingham (which celebrated its 40th birthday two days ago) doubles for MI5 HQ in The Game, a 1970s spy drama on BBC1 this spring. Luther was filmed at Robin Hood Gardens. Another recent Cold War spy drama, Legacy, was shot at Keybridge House in Vauxhall. This weird BT block from 1978 is on the opposite side of the railway tracks from the spooks' actual home – a pixelated, post-modernist den that looks like Inky, the blocky cyan-coloured ghost from the Pac-Man computer game.

Interest in the architectural critic Ian Nairn, who relished brutalism, is peaking again too, with two books about him recently published – Words in Place by Gillian Darley and David McKie, and an updated version of Nairn's Towns, with an introduction by Owen Hatherley. Hatherley, incidentally, has just been announced as co-curator of the British pavilion at this June's Venice Architecture Biennale. It would be surprising if this cheerleader for brutalism didn't dwell on utopian concrete visions in his exhibition. Hatherley's books take a sledgehammer to the bargain-bin buildings flogged in the past 20 years as being somehow better for us than the modern buildings of the 1960s. Now we're starting to realise we were sold duds. Nairn – a wonderfully grumpy presence on 1970s TV and in the pages of national newspapers – loved Eros House and the Tricorn.

"He wasn't out to make friends with people, and he appreciated architecture that didn't want to make friends," remembers Meades, who once had lunch in a Pimlico pub with a "dropsical" Ian in 1982, in a failed attempt to get him writing for Tatler, where Meades was features editor. Nairn's lunch was 14 pints of bitter; Meades doesn't say what his was. Nairn died the following year from the booze. Maybe you had to be mad or pissed to love brutalism?

Increasingly, the middle classes are fetishing freshly commodified and neatly repackaged brutalism. The Barbican (that chunky castle of concrete in London's commercial core) remains popular; Denys Lasdun's Keeling House in Bethnal Green has been cleaned up and class-cleansed, the same way Park Hill was. Its rehabilitation involved rebuilding the place, kicking out the council tenants, and moving in upwardly mobile new residents. It was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, Britain's most prestigious architecture award, last year. Maybe when Crossrail opens in 2018, down-at-heel Thamesmead, with its claustrophobic locations where Stanley Kubrick's dystopian A Clockwork Orange was filmed, will become the next hip address.

Perhaps instead of kicking out the working class again (read "gentrifying"), our newfound interest in brutalism needs to take new forms. Peckham's redundant multistorey car park has a great gallery and cafe on top. Not far from Peckham, in view of Eros House, I find someone apparently camping in the brutalist Catford Centre Car Park (done by Rodney Gordon's former employer, Owen Luder). Let's bring love to hated brutalist buildings and life to dead brutalist car parks, with cafes and camping… and Albert Camus? A copy of the Nobel Prize winning philosopher's book Exile And The Kingdom lies discarded here, next to a cage full of rubbish from the Catford Centre Tesco. I'm left scratching my head, and not for the first time – brutalist buildings can be surreal places.

'Bunkers, Brutalism, Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry' will be broadcast on BBC4 next month

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