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The Concrete Jungle: Brutalism in London

Posted 11.08.16  - Style

Our current era's concrete fetishism would have been inconceivable just a decade ago.

Although the raw concrete architecture of post-war Britain remains an acquired taste, it has nevertheless found its way on to tea towels and plates, art prints and greeting cards, as well as countless monographs and websites. Yet not so long ago, concrete was reviled as ugly and alienating. Stained, rain-streaked surfaces were a visual shortcut for social fragmentation, urban decay and, significantly, the apparently arrogant, unthinking paternalism of the modern architect, eager to condemn the masses to concrete cages while they lorded it up in their Georgian pile.

As the 20th century progressed, concrete evolved from the structural frame to manifest itself on the façade, offering up hitherto-unknown structural and sculptural possibilities. The term Brutalism comes from the French béton brut, literally 'raw concrete'. 'New Brutalism' was coined to differentiate this more serious and socially progressive use of materials, a coming of age for modern architecture.

While Brutalism is by no means a British phenomenon, London's concrete cluster is high profile and influential.

The city was awash with architectural opportunity following the Blitz, and while re-housing was the first priority, it is cultural buildings that have come to define the style in the UK. The National Theatre is the acknowledged masterpiece of architect Denys Lasdun, who also built big, bold concrete buildings for the University of London, the Royal College of Physicians and Keeling House, a pioneering East End tower block. The NT's riverside terraces cascade down from the rigorously simple cliff of the theatre's fly tower, oversailing a cave-like foyer that celebrates the richness of the material on every surface.

A few hundred yards away, the Southbank Centre offers a rougher-hewn perspective. The Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall form a triptych with the earlier Royal Festival Hall, but the spiky, late-60s forms of the former are a world apart from the RFH's refined Modernist lines. The Southbank Centre acts as a national barometer for Brutalist acceptance; redevelopment plans over the years have fallen by the wayside as public affection grows. Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower and its East End twin, the Balfron, continue to rise higher and higher in the desirability stakes, but the city's most successful agglomeration of Brutalism forms is Chamberlin, Powell and Bon's Barbican, an entire Blitzed neighbourhood transformed over 30 years into a concrete utopia. The Barbican's ongoing affluence doesn't quite absolve Brutalism of its sins, and for every success story there are numerous blighted thickets of lumpen tower blocks still to be dynamited.

The past five years has seen a minor publishing deluge of concrete-related books, from Barnabas Calder's Raw Concrete through to This Brutal World by Peter Chadwick. All offer personal insights into Brutalism's renaissance, while also serving up lashings of zeitgeist-friendly imagery. This isn't just an aesthetic revival, however. Celebrating Brutalism implies sympathy with both the aims and ambitions of grand public buildings and the socially conscious provision of housing and infrastructure, all wrapped up in a - perhaps rather nostalgic - belief in the power of good design.

Most importantly of all, there's a new wave of concrete architecture, driven not by fashionable forms but by the spirit of the original movement: bold public buildings that stand for solid, uncompromising social engagement. Tate Modern's new Switch House, by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, is Brutalism redux, even though the concrete is mainly on the inside. Its combination of bold, angular forms and rich, uncompromised materiality - as well as a strong social function - make it London's best new building in years. Concrete still has the power to soar.

Jonathan Bell - Editor-at-Large at Wallpaper Magazine

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