Embraced in coffee table books and on social media, Brutalism has become an exotic fetish subject for urban aesthetes, with a legacy cleansed of its bleakest failures
HAVING a list of your favourite brutalist buildings was once about as culturally acceptable as having a list of your favourite serial killers – weirdo territory, and not the kind of weirdos you wanted to talk to.
But the stark concrete architecture of decrepit sink estates, gruesome office blocks and the Warsaw Pact has become a modern fetish subject. The Royal Academy dedicated an exhibition to it last year. There’ve been the high-profile restorations of landmarks like Salter’s Hall in the City and the Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery, once dismissed as a slovenly carbuncle but triumphantly reopened in January as a photogenic modernist miracle.
Almost as monumental are the innumerable, satisfyingly austere books offering moody photography and essays – and even cut-out, pop-up Barbicans (see Zupagrafika’s “Brutal London” volume) – to the coffee tables of urban aesthetes everywhere. And then there’s the Instagram ubiquity – along with flower-decked café facades and cappuccino pours, Brutalism’s eerie abstract geometries have made it an unlikely Insta-phenomenon.
It has become exotic, especially when set against the glassy plutocratic sheen of the buildings changing London’s skyline today. Perhaps this is what makes its reconditioning so catching: I’m sure I used to hate Centrepoint, the rippling tower that stands like a raised middle finger above Tottenham Court Road. But now, its surroundings swept away for Crossrail, it seems suddenly heroic and tantalising. Out comes the phone… *snap*.
John Grindrod is an author who’s been covering the subject for years, and was pointing his camera at modernist tower blocks long before social media changed the game. “People used to get cross, you’d get shouted at by taxi drivers,” he says. “Now it’s as though you’re not allowed not to snap it.”
Grindrod’s new book, How To Love Brutalism, is a lively and illuminating journey not just around the concrete utopias of the post-war build-out, but into the knotty complexities of a style that was conceived in hope, was often absurd and egregiously incompetent, but could also be gutsy and extraordinary. And the dream of social cohesion amid the streets in the sky, Grindrod says, is finding new relevance today.
“Not only are these buildings striking, but what they stood for is so admirable, and people are recognizing that,” Grindrod says. “In that post-war period, if you were a serious name in architecture, social housing was the ultimate job to be given. Today the equivalent architects do shiny apartment blocks for billionaires, and social housing is being swept away.”
Ironically, the same market forces that have swung against the brutalist project are also feeding its cultural rehabilitation. Its bleakest, most problematic examples are being erased, like Elephant & Castle’s recently-demolished landmarks, the Aylesbury and Heygate estates. Wellbeck Street car park, the wondrous multi-story lump off Oxford Street with a pre-fab exoskeleton of cement arrowheads, is next on the list, despite the best efforts of an Insta-powered campaign to save it.
We’ll be left with the palatable icons – listed, refurbished, revived and camera-ready, to be enjoyed from a safe distance; and a few crumbling, fading eyesores that seem almost whimsical in their rain-stained promise of a brighter tomorrow. Brutalism is history, and everyone will have a list.