Barnabas Calder, Raw Concrete
Brutalism is in vogue and, at the risk of offending a few readers, I’ll admit to being annoyed by some of its fans – those who merely see it as ‘brutal’ and celebrate the fact or the architectural groupies who lack any sense of its context. I could be annoyed by Barnabas Calder too if he weren’t so charmingly self-deprecating about his own love affair with Brutalism – he describes his falling for the Barbican as a twenty-one year old as his ‘intellectual eyebrow piercing’, the nearest this (self-avowedly) middle-class youth came to youthful rebellion. And if he hadn’t written such a very good book.
Raw Concrete is, in Calder’s words, ‘a rather personal greatest hits of British Brutalism’ but it’s far from the ‘catching the Zeitgeist’ potboiler that might imply. It’s an eclectic but representative mix and his ability to weave in thoughtful context, telling detail and balanced appraisal provides, to my mind, an excellent – and highly readable – guide to the topic as a whole.
At the risk of emulating the famous (but, sadly, spoof) review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover which examined it for its insights into gamekeeping, I’m going to mainly focus on what we learn from the book of the role of municipalism and the wider public sector.
As Calder argues:
British Brutalism has been widely seen as the architectural style of the Welfare State – a cheap way of building quickly, on a large scale, for housing, hospitals, comprehensive schools, and massive university expansion.
There’s plenty in the book to support that contention (though when done well it wasn’t cheap) but he makes the less common argument that Brutalism could also mask social conservativism – ‘scene dressing to disguise lack of change with apparent modernisation’ in his words – and that sometimes its style meshed all too well with the ‘edifice complex of the powerful’. He also locates Brutalism in a unique and likely unrepeatable moment of time – an era of cheap and plentiful energy before we had to think about sustainability.
Chapter Two, ‘Monuments to the People’, is for me – you won’t be surprised to hear – the heart of the book: a paean to Ernő Goldfinger and his two council housing masterpieces, Balfron Tower and Trellick Tower. (I’ll earn my pernickety reviewer points here by pointing out that Goldfinger’s Hungarian forename – it means, appropriately perhaps, ‘earnest’ or ‘sincere’ – is properly spelt with a double acute accent over the ‘o’, not an umlaut.)
I’ve visited Balfron Tower, with considerable misgiving, during some of the recent artwashing events. (Artwashing: the process by which corporations seek to disguise their more nefarious actions by providing a cultural sheen to their activities.) It’s a tribute to Calder’s descriptive verve that he makes me want to visit it again to admire the perfectionism and detailing of Goldfinger’s work.
The draft specification for the Tower’s bush-hammered concrete ran to forty-one pages. Or take the cutaway parapet to an escape stair shown above – ‘elegant, charming and curiously delicate’, in Calder’s words. ‘Finesse’ isn’t a word usually associated with Brutalism but Calder makes it sometimes seem entirely appropriate.
Critically, however, all this energy wasn’t dedicated to some abstract architectural ideal but to the service of the people. Ernő’s zealotry (he was a notoriously difficult boss) and he and his wife’s occasionally mocked temporary sojourn in Balfron were proof of this: ‘real effort and thought went into producing good living environments and a sense of community for people who were not well off’. The comments of the actual tenants on their new homes were overwhelmingly positive.
It’s necessary to say this, not just to those who glibly claim to see in Balfron and Trellick (and other blocks of similar quality) only evidence of architectural inhumanity and state megalomania but to some of Brutalism’s fans too who care so little for its sometime social purpose.
Goldfinger’s archive (held by RIBA) also contains a hand-written breakdown of the employment status of every head of household among Balfron’s early residents. With one exception, all – apart from ten pensioners and one woman described as a ‘housewife’ – were in paid employment; fifteen in white-collar occupations. The block was completed as the era of full employment was drawing to a close and much that ‘went wrong’ in Balfron and Trellick subsequently reflects the deteriorating circumstances of their tenants rather than any flaw in design or construction.
Ironically, of course, as Calder argues with respect to the current era, ‘as soon as it became widely recognised that Balfron Tower was excellent housing it seemed immediately as though it was too good for social tenants’. Poplar HARCA, the building’s owners, are selling it off to those who can afford it. Calder is judicious on the dynamics here but his sense of loss and betrayal seems clear and appropriate.
The Barbican (described in Chapter Three, ‘The Bankers’ Commune’) has, on the other hand, served its founding purpose very well. The City of London, manifestly anachronistic in democratic terms but a powerful guardian of London’s financial sector, and fearful of a forced merger with more representative authorities, needed to increase its residential electorate. The Barbican was ‘built in order to preserve the privileged autonomy of the City’.
That wealth and the continuity of politics also built a very fine estate. The Golden Lane Estate, developed by the City to provide genuine social housing just over the border in Finsbury, proved the credentials of the radical young architectural team selected by the City for its grander project. Chamberlin Powell & Bon worked with immense skill and vision not only to design the Barbican and oversee its twenty-year construction but to ‘sell it’ to the Corporation, comparing ‘each aspect…to historical examples whose safe poshness and unrevolutionary grandeur made them easy to swallow for the City men’.
Some of those City men would be residents. One show home advertised in the 1960s was described as ‘furnished for a merchant banker and his wife who frequently play host to their international friends and business colleagues’; another, capturing a different element of the Barbican’s residential clientele, for ‘an intellectual couple interested in the arts’. (1) At rents reaching £12 a week for a two-bed flat at the time (equivalent rents in Balfron stood at £4 15s 6d), this exclusivity should not be surprising. The workers built but could not aspire to live in such housing.
The Anderston Centre in Glasgow (discussed in Chapter Eight) lies 400 miles to the north but much further away in terms of resources, vision and execution. It’s a sorry tale but a revealing one in which two powerful, though ultimately unequal, forces conjoined. One was the boost given to local government ambitions of comprehensive redevelopment contained in Labour’s 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. The other was a ‘speculative frenzy’ among commercial developers unleashed by the Conservatives as post-war restrictions were abolished in the 1950s.
The 1945 Bruce Report envisaged the wholesale reconstruction of central Glasgow. Shortly after, the City Council declared the Anderston Cross district a Comprehensive Development Area. As Calder writes:
The council’s plan was to use its considerable powers of compulsory purchase, demolition, and road replanning to delineate and clear a viable site. Private developers would then use their expertise in the property market and their sharpness about the construction industry to design and build the new development, paying a good rent to the council, and sharing the profits with them.
Well, as Robert Burns had noted, ‘the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft agley’ and these plans were perhaps not particularly well-laid in the first place.
I’ll spare you the twists and turns detailed in the book. Suffice to say, as commercial circumstances changed but the pursuit of private profit stood constant, the Council felt its own interests and investments systematically, comprehensively, sidelined. The scheme itself was only partially and bleakly fulfilled. The shopping mall and business premises failed. Three 19-storey tower blocks (five lower floors originally dedicated to shops and offices, 14 residential floors) existed – for once the rhetoric might be fitting – in ‘dystopian isolation’. (Their refurbishment and, naturally, their recladding was completed in 2011.)
Richard Seifert was, architecturally, the presiding genius here – the developers’ go-to guy who knew how to exploit every planning loophole going in order to design and build to maximum commercial advantage. In London, the LCC repeatedly amended its bylaws with what some planners dubbed ‘Seifert clauses’ in a largely vain attempt to limit this process.
Not much in the overall picture seems to have changed here as the story of the Heygate regeneration in Southwark (to take only one of the most glaring examples) illustrates. (2) The reality is that the private sector has the resources, expertise and will to evade most attempts by local authorities to impose a wider public interest, especially with regards to genuinely affordable housing. The other reality is that, under the current regime, local councils are too often forced into unholy alliance with commercial interests.
That was me, not Calder. He’s good on the mismatch and contradictions just discussed but, typically, he’s also able to acknowledge the better of Seifert’s schemes (Anderston’s Cross not among them) and the snobbery (even the subtle anti-Semitism) of many of his critics.
This was a time, let us remember, when prestige attached to public sector work and when most of the better architects either worked in local government or took most of their major commissions from the state. Architects then could advance their careers and please their consciences in service to a wider public interest. Contemporarily, that is less often the case.
The role of Leslie Martin (Chapter Five ‘The Establishment’s Radical’) , Chief Architect of the LCC between 1953 and 1956 but then, as a Cambridge Professor of Architecture, an Establishment éminence grise in distributing plum state sector commissions to aspiring architects, is significant here. The fact that Martin chose so often to commission Brutalist work (the Leicester Engineering School being the prime example) is a mark of his time.
I’ve written more than intended. There’s much more in the book, some of it unaccountably less relevant to municipalism but illuminating on the broader aesthetics and ideals of the Brutalist movement and moment.
I haven’t even discussed National Theatre by Denys Lasdun (Calder’s particular hero), the subject of the book’s final chapter. If you don’t like it, Calder’s exquisite account of its design and construction might cause you to change your mind or, at least, examine it more sympathetically. I’ll only conclude, typically, by noting his description of ‘the massive success of the South Bank’ as ‘a lasting memorial to the vision and courage of the London County Council’.
If you’re interested in Brutalism as architecture and construction practice, if you’re interested in its meaning and its context, buy the book.
Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism is published by William Heinemann on 21st April, Hardback, £25.00.
Christopher Beanland, Concrete Concept
I’d also like to recommend the new book by Christopher Beanland, Concrete Concept. For Beanland too:
it was the architecture of the mid-20th century that was really creative, that really bared its teeth…Brutalism settled into the city and became the stage set for millions of ordinary lives. Those Brutalist buildings were meant to impress…
This is a very different beast but it’s irreverently and engagingly written (including a typically quirky A to Z of Brutalism by Jonathan Meades) and lavishly and beautifully illustrated.
Indeed, it’s the images of the 50 case-studies which Beanland selects from across the globe which are the book’s major strength and make it a necessary addition to a fan’s bookshelves.
They will introduce you to some of the world’s finest – sometimes beautiful, usually striking, always ‘statement’ – buildings. Some you will know – British examples include Balfron and Trellick again, Robin Hood Gardens and the Preston Bus Station. Many – such as Skopje Post Office in Macedonia or the Palace of Assembly in Chandigargh in India – you will not unless a true devotee.
Taken together, the words and pictures might indeed convince you that Brutalism was, to quote Calder again, ‘one of the greatest ever flowerings of human creativity and ingenuity’. I’m glad we’ve found authors to celebrate and perhaps convince of us that fact.
(1) My thanks to Tim Dunn for posting these descriptions on Twitter.
(2) This is well described by Olly Wainwright in ‘Revealed: how developers exploit flawed planning system to minimise affordable housing’, The Guardian, 25 June 2015. You can follow the Southwark specifics in more detail on the excellent website of the 35% Campaign.
My thanks to Barnabas Calder and William Heinemann for permission to use the copyrighted images in the first section of this post.
You can find my posts featuring Brutalist buildings collected here.