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Brute Force: the rise and fall of Brutalism

Brutalist architecture is as divisive as it is striking. Peter Chadwick’s ode to Brutalism, This Brutal World, catalogues one man’s passion for a much-maligned style 

“Heroic, bold, imposing...” Peter Chadwick, author of This Brutal World, is describing how he sees Brutalist architecture, the subject of his new book. “But,” he adds, “there are some Brutalist structures that are downright ugly and not appropriate for their surroundings.”

Indeed, for a great many of the general public, Brutalism is never appropriate. In the ’80s, opposition to modern architectural styles coalesced around Prince Charles after his “monstrous carbuncle” speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects. And, for about 30 years afterwards, the civic megaliths of Brutalism were lightning rods for the ire of those opposed to the aesthetic challenge of modernity. 

But there are also many – and an apparently growing number – with a penchant for a looming grey edifice. Critic Jonathan Meades (who really puts his money where his mouth is, by residing in Le Corbusier’s Brutalist Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles) once said, “Brutalism: challenging, idealistic and serious – Brutalism is architecture for grown-ups.” Or architect David Adjaye: “I find lumps of concrete like this, sexy.” Is this passionate disagreement another example of ivory tower versus concrete reality, or is it the result of a misreading of what Brutalism stands for?

This Brutal House

The story of how This Brutal World came into being demonstrates that a fondness for the style is more widespread than the unflinching pace of demolition might suggest. When Chadwick, a London-based creative director/graphic designer who’s worked with artists such as Groove Armada and Primal Scream, was approaching his forties, he renewed his neglected passion for photography. Soon after, he discovered that he’d quickly amassed some 30,000 images of Brutalist architecture on his hard drive and wondered what to do with his haul. Making a reluctant first foray on to social media, he set up a Twitter feed entitled This Brutal House (named after his first ever house 12-inch single from Nitro Deluxe) and began launching the images into the ether. Soon he was acquiring a thousand followers every month. Nine such months on, the publisher Phaidon sent him an email, and a book deal ensued. 

Chadwick had, unwittingly, tapped into a resurgence of interest in Brutalist architecture that has flowered over the past few years. His own passion for the subject is tied to his upbringing: raised in the north-east of England in the ’70s and early ’80s, the backdrop to his childhood was heavy industry. The stark, functional landscape left its mark, as it did for many; in his book’s introduction, Chadwick points to Ridley Scott, another native of the north-east, and the film director’s appropriation of the ICI chemical plant’s flaring chimneys for his dystopian vision in Blade Runner

While teenage Chadwick was kicking a football against concrete walls, Brutalism had established itself worldwide as a low-cost solution for housing, university and government buildings and shopping centres (Chadwick’s earliest and most enduring Brutalist love was the – sadly now demolished – Trinity Square Car Park in Gateshead, as seen in Get Carter). But it wasn’t just about cost-saving – Brutalism was tied to a socially progressive vision that sought, as Chadwick has it, “to transform and modernise living and working conditions”. Architects such as Marcel Breuer, Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph have their Brutalist masterpieces, but the shining example of this synthesis of progressive ideals with raw concrete is Meades’ address in Marseilles.

Raw Emotion

It’s with the French that we can also find the root of the term Brutalism – ‘Béton brut’ translates as ‘raw concrete’. The ‘brut’ was appropriated by architectural critic Reyner Banham for his 1966 essay, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?, and Brutalism began to gain currency. 

“Brutalism, in its purest form, is board-marked concrete,” Chadwick explains. “That’s when concrete, set within a framework of wooden boards, retains the impression of those boards in its surface. The National Theatre is a good example: look closely at the walls and you can see the grain of the wood. There’s this wonderful, embedded natural texture. Repetitive, angular geometric lines and shapes are also a predominant Brutalist feature. And, Brutalist structures have uncompromising silhouettes that are very bold. Their interiors and exteriors are very honest and expressive.” 

It’s that capacity for such a powerful first impression that has helped to fiercely split opinion. Those perhaps hearing the term Brutalism after eyeing the hulking structure that had suddenly colonised the end of their Victorian terraces during the post-war period could be forgiven for thinking that the term referred to what life was like living and working within that era. Some commentators even accused the new style, with its superhuman proportions, as being of fascist dimensions. Of course, those Brutalist buildings that remain today are insignificant in size in comparison with what’s being erected on the London skyline. And it’s a significance that continues to dwindle.

“Increasingly we are losing a lot of those post-war buildings – whether housing estates or office blocks – and they are being replaced by structures that are, quite honestly, substandard,” says Chadwick. “And that’s happening all over London.”

If this lack of consideration continues, Chadwick posits, the future architectural heritage of London will have a whole swathe – from the late ’40s to the early ’90s – eradicated, with only landmark structures such as the Barbican and the National Theatre as signposts to a lost style. It’s unsurprising to hear such a passionate appeal from an author of a book that is as much a handsome coffee-table addition as it is a stamp collector’s private collection – a pictorial homage interspersed with poignant lyrics from favourite bands such as Underworld, or quotes from architects such as Thom Mayne: “I think all good architecture should challenge you, make you start asking questions. You don’t have to understand it. You may not like it. That’s OK.”

This Brutal World by Peter Chadwick, published by Phaidon 23 May 2016