Brutalism's aficionados are few and far between, so this is a lomowalk I prefer to do alone, taking my time appreciating the various sites. Here is my route through some of the best Brutalist architecture London has to offer!
Architecture often looks to the past for inspiration — the Neo Gothic, Neo Classical, Romanesque Revival, etc. Brutalism, whose name derives from the French for ‘raw concrete’ (béton brut), cannot be accused of this; Its buildings, often mere council flats or bus stations, are weird and wonderful monuments to the future.
An offshoot of the Modernist Movement popular between the ‘50s and ’70s, Brutalism was once associated with utopian socialist ideals and the belief that better houses would lead to better people. Now, it is symbolic of urban decay — the concrete doesn’t weather to well in Britain’s soggy climate. Moreover, its buildings are criticised for being unsympathetic to their surroundings, but this is what makes them special for me. They constitute an imaginative and creative break with the past, both in terms of style and in terms of who was seen as deserving of ‘good’ architecture.
What better place to start the tour than the Barbican Estate in the City. Due to its uniform Brutalist style, it appears like a large alien growth in the centre of London. Rising from the wreckage of the Blitz during the ‘60s, it is probably the the UK’s most prominent example of Brutalism — thoroughly deserving of its Grade II listed status. The self-contained area houses residential towers above and an arts’ centre, a museum, a concert hall and a school below, all connected by a maze of walkways in the sky.
There is also a sunken garden with waterfalls, fountains and trailing plants — a ‘concrete jungle’ if there ever was one.
Next stop is Trellick Tower in North Kensington, a 31-story, Grade II* listed block of flats, most of which are still social housing. Following the ‘form follows function’ shibboleth of Modernism, the lift shaft is easily identifiable from the rest of the building.
The Tower is now somewhat of a cult London landmark, featuring in various music videos, such as The Verve’s This is Music:
Carrying the typically English terrace house into the future is the Alexandra Road Estate in Camden, a series of 520 apartments, including a school, community centre, youth club, heating complex, and parkland. Backing onto a railway line, its ingenious zigzag structure acts as a sound barrier. Admittedly, it is in need of some TLC, but its Grade II* listed status should hopeful ensure its presence for future generations to wonder at.
The Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury is a similar design, and shows how Alexandra Road could look with a lick of paint. It is a mixture of social housing, cafes, shops and a cinema.
Last, but not least, on this architectural tour is the South Bank Centre on the River Thames. Like many of the other Brutalist buildings on this tour, it has a social use as a cultural centre. It was designed as the stage for the ‘Festival of Britain’ (1951), which aimed to give Britain a sense of recovery after WWII. However, perhaps due to its prime location, it has not received listed status.
That concludes our brief roundup of some of London’s best examples of Brutalist architecture. Though you still might not find it attractive, I hope to have at least highlighted how interesting and innovative these buildings are. Their continued use for social housing and cultural projects and their often listed status is cause for optimism. However, in today’s economic climate, many Brutalist buildings outside of the capital are facing an uncertain future; Preston Bus Station and Birmingham Central Library (both unlisted) are due for demolition soon.
It is the 30th anniversary of English Heritage, so there is much talk of conservation in the media. Just as the Victorians were unappreciative of our ancient monuments and the post-war generation critical of Victorian architecture, today it is our recent Modernist architecture that is increasingly regarded as disposable. There is talk of retrieving the Victorian stones of the Euston Arch to reconstruct it, will we see a future campaign for the rebuilding of Preston Bus Station, designed by the same engineers as the Sydney Opera House? Sign the petition here to save it.