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

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth


Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links
    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing