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Brutalism: Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask

There has been a shift in attitude towards the architectural style of Brutalism – buildings once dismissed as ugly have now found themselves the objects of new found affection.

The much-maligned buildings with their intimidating slabs of concrete and severe block forms have been bullied, called unkind names and threatened with demolition. Brutalist architecture is today enjoying a renaissance of sorts. People are coming out in support for some of the world’s most iconic buildings – voices louder and prouder than ever.

When it comes to Brutalist architecture, London is home to some of the finest examples on the planet. The following is a guide to Brutalist architecture in London as well as an overview of the architectural style and its origins.

 

What is Brutalism?

 

This can get complicated so here are the basics. Brutalism is a post-war architectural style defined by the use of simple block-like forms, usually made from cast concrete or brick. It is characterised by ‘Massive’ heavily-textured raw concrete (beton brut) and angular geometric shapes. Brutalism thrived between the mid-1950s and 1970s.

According to RIBA, here is what to look for in a Brutalist building:

1. Rough unfinished surfaces
2. Unusual shapes
3. Heavy-looking materials
4. Massive forms
5. Small windows in relation to the other parts

Brutalism, or ‘New Brutalism’ as it was sometimes referred to, has its roots in modernism but emerged as a movement against the architectural mainstream. It placed an emphasis on materials, textures and construction as well as functionality and equality. The brutalist architects challenged traditional notions of what a building should look like, focussing on interior spaces as much as exterior. They also showed the building’s construction, unafraid to make a feature of service towers, lifts, plumbing and ventilation ducts in their creations. In some cases, this was a celebration of the abundant energy available for the first time.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Dr Jonathan Foyle, the chief executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain, provided interesting architectural context for Brutalist buildings: “They are very muscular and everything is perhaps bigger than it needs to be, and for that reason I feel that brutalism is a modern take on gothic architecture… Both were designed from the inside out – the purpose of the building and what happens inside is the important part – the outside is merely the envelope that wraps it up.”

The short video below provides a brief introduction to New Brutalism and its origins:

 

 

History of Brutalism

 

Rooted in Modernism and evident in the work of Le Corbusier in the late 1940s, the term brutalism was first used in an architectural context by Swedish architect Hans Asplund in 1950 who discussed nybrutalism. It was in 1954, when architectural critic Reyner Banham used the term more widely in his writings to refer to the work of English architects Alison and Peter Smithson. The couple who went on to create the iconic Hunstanton School in Norfolk and later, the Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, east London. Their style rebelled against the more formal architecture of the 1930s and 40s.

The term brutalism came to refer to the functional raw concrete buildings emerging in the UK, and London in particular, in the post-war period. Due to the relatively low cost of concrete and energy, Brutalism was popular for rebuilding government buildings and providing social housing in the period of social solidarity following the Second World War. Writer Jack Self in Fulcrum argues that Brutalism finds popularity in periods of cultural cohesion, representing “an abstract egalitarian ideal.” With individualism in architecture more likely in boom times, Self suggests that the current popularity in brutalist architecture could be related to the recession.

 

Brutalist Architects – the Big Players

 

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier was a Swiss modernist architect whose Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles used raw concrete and is seen as an early example of Brutalism. He was a major influence on many of the architects that helped define the brutalist movement.

Le Corbusier Brutalist architect

Erik Lallerstedt, Le Corbusier and Ivar Tengbom (from left) in Sweden, 1933 – public domain

Sir Basil Spence

Sir Basil Spence was a Scottish architect whose later work was categorised as Brutalist when he shifted to making social housing in the late 1950s. He is perhaps best known for Coventry Cathedral.

Sir Basil Spence Brutalism in London

Credit: The Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Image via The Guardian

 

Ernö Goldfinger

Ernö Goldfinger was born in Budapest, studied in Paris and created some of London’s most famous and controversial Brutalist buildings. Famously Goldfinger lived at his Brutalist Balfron Tower in east London for a couple of months in 1968 and invited residents for champagne so that they could feedback on what it was like to live there.

Erno Goldfinger Brutalist architecture London

Erno Goldfinger at 2 Willow Road via www.ft.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sir Denys Lasdun

Sir Denys Lasdun was an English architect behind many of London’s most iconic brutalist buildings including the Royal National Theatre on Southbank and 20 Bedford Way in Bloomsbury. He used rough textures in his concrete forms, in particular wood ‘shuttering’ from when the concrete was cast in situ.

You can hear the man discuss his buildings and some of the music he loved via the BBC’s Desert Island Discs or for more information on his career view our interactive timeline of Lasdun’s life.

Sir Denys Lasdun Brutalist London

Image credit: BBC

 

Peter and Alison Smithson

Alison and Peter Smithson were a highly influential husband and wife architectural partnership that pioneered New Brutalism. They were behind the controversial Hunstanton Secondary Modern School in Norfolk which was completed in 1954 when the couple were still in their twenties.

Peter and Alison Smithson with plans architecture

Image via blog.mid2mod.com

 

Brutalist Architecture London

 

15 Examples of Brutalism in London:

 

Trellick Tower, Kensal Town

Ernö Goldfinger

1972

Trellick Tower brutalism in England

 

 

Balfron Tower, Bromley-by-Bow 

Ernö Goldfinger

1966

Balfron Tower London brutalist housing

By Sebastian F (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

 

One Kemble Street, Holborn

Richard Seifert/George Marsh

1966

one kemble street brutalism

Credit: David Baugh

 

 

20 Bedford Way, Bloomsbury

Sir Denys Lasdun

1977

Brutalist Architecture bloomsbury London Denys Lasdun

 

 

National Theatre, South Bank

Sir Denys Lasdun

1976

National Theatre Brutal Lasdun Southbank London

Image via www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

 

Hayward Gallery, South Bank

Hubert Bennett/Jack Whittle

1968

hayward gallery brutalist southbank

Image credit: John Donat/RIBA

 

Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank

Higgs and Hill

1967

Queen Elizabeth Hall Purcell Room

Image via Wikimedia commons

 

Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar

Peter and Alison Smithson

1972

 

Robin Hood Gardens brutalism urban planning

Image via www.grids-blog.com

 

Weston Rise Estate

Howell, Killick, Partridge & Amis

1963-69

Weston Rise Estate architectural style

Image via New Brutalism. Credit: Simon Phipps

 

The Barbican Estate

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon

1969

what is brutalism barbican estate london

 

Crescent House, Golden Lane Estate

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon

1959

Crescent House Golden Lane Estate

Image via thelondonphile.com

 

Ministry of Justice/102 Petty France

Sir Basil Spence

1976

Ministry of Justice Sir Basil Spence

Photograph: Andrew Dunn,  2004 – CC by SA 2.0

 

Pimlico School, Pimlico

John Bancroft

1966-1970

Pimlico school John Bancroft

Image: W. Wortis

 

Hyde Park Barracks

Sir Basil Spence

1970 

Hyde Park Barracks Sir Basil Spence

By Karl1587 (Own work) Public domain

Where to Find Brutalism on the Web

 

Tumblr 

Fxck Yeah Brutalism – Michael Abrahamson

New Brutalism – Simon Phipps

Architecture of Doom

Procrete

 

Twitter

Toby Bricheno – musician and author of the Londonist article on Brutalist London

Brutal House

Simon Phipps – photographer and Brutalist enthusiast

 

Instagram

This Brutal Life

New Brutalism – Simon Phipps’ fantastic account.

Brutal Architecture

The Brutal Artist – architectural artwork

 

Facebook

The Brutalism Appreciation Society on Facebook

 

Blogs/ Brutalist Websites

British Brutalism

Brutalism and Booze

This Brutal House

 

Further Reading and Resources on Brutalism

 

David Adjaye introducing two Brutalist buildings in a BBC video https://youtu.be/h_xF7xqgWqw

Toby Bricheno – fantastic article on London’s Top Brutalist Buildings http://londonist.com/2012/05/londons-top-brutalist-buildings.php

Barnabas Calder – Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism – published by William Heinemann

William Cook –  A Bit of Rough http://www.newstatesman.com/node/143263

John Grindrod – Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain

Dave Hillhttps://www.theguardian.com/uk/davehillblog/2011/jun/22/london-new-brutalism-film-appreciation

John Meades – A-Z of Brutalism in the Guardian. Also, his BBC series Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry is well worth a watch.

Anthony Paletta – Brutalism in The Awl – http://www.theawl.com/2014/06/brutalisms-bullies

Blue Crow MediaBrutalist London Map – you can now purchase a well-designed map exploring some of London’s brutalist buildings.

 

If you would like to host an event at Sir Denys Lasdun’s iconic 20 Bedford Way or are interested in filming or photographing in the incredible spaces we have on offer then contact us today. 

 

 

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