Should brutalism be seen as a freak?

Architecture tsar Terry Farrell’s comments on ‘rubbish’ post-war architecture have provoked strong responses.

Yes

Terry Farrell, architect

Well, somehow casual “musing aloud” at the end of an evening’s social event became a public “tirade” – but that’s how journalists can ramp up interest and debate, and good luck to them.

Behind it all is the important issue of the heritage value of the post-war era, one that created an alienation of architects and the public that in its strength and longevity is unique in British history, and indeed by and large unique to the UK – nowhere else have architects been so mistrusted as they have been in the UK in the last half of the 20th century.

The most truly “brutalist” feature of the era was the mindless zeal with which architects led urban re-planning of our great cities, with the actual destruction of so much heritage – just when most of Europe were putting their great cities back together again we set about tearing ours apart. And if architects had really had their way huge swathes of central London including Whitehall, Covent Garden, Bloomsbury and St Pancras – as well as Grainger Town in my home city of Newcastle – would have gone, to be replaced, it was proposed, by below-average ‘rubbish’.

The actual face, the architectural expression, is a different issue; as a pluralist I support the characterful, the eccentric, the odd and the freakish, it all adds to the richness of artistic freedom. That some of it was called “brutalism” didn’t help the broken relationship with the public. 

But individual buildings are much more the responsibility of their owners and their architects. Personally I prefer my brutalism colourfully cheered up, as in today’s reinterpretations like Park Hill in Sheffield or the new people-friendly outcrops onto the South Bank concrete rockery.

I look forward to a similar cheery reinvention of Preston Bus Station.

No

Owen Luder, architect

Brutalism was far more than just a five-year freak and then dead. I should know, I am the architect of the Tricorn Portsmouth, the “Get Carter Car Park” [Trinity Square, Gateshead] and many less publicised so-called brutalist buildings of the 1960s.

Every period has architecturally great buildings, “so what?” buildings and bad buildings. But to dismiss “brutalist” buildings as short-term freaks shows a lack of knowledge and understanding of architectural development since the roots of the Modern Movement in the 1920s. It ignores Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, his Ronchamp Chapel and worldwide examples by others who followed.

Public-sector post-war brutalist buildings here have largely been well maintained and enjoyed. One of the best, Denys Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians building in Regent’s Park, is listed, loved and cherished by its owners. His National Theatre may have an austere concrete exterior, but it is a master of three-dimensional visual space internally. Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in North Kensington is also listed, and a much sought-after place to live.

The early 1960s was a period of opportunity for imaginative, adventurous architects to meet the changed demands of an exploding economy.

My so called “brutalist” buildings of that period were a reflection of what was needed at the time. Enthusiastic young architects were pushing out the frontiers of design to meet the demand for new building types: brutally honest in design and in the use of in-situ concrete, the only material readily available at that time. We used it to its full structural strength and design fluidity. Form followed function.

Far from being freaks, those buildings had a design integrity missing in subsequent “post-modern” architecture.

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