Raw Concrete — a reappraisal of architecture’s brutalist vision

Concrete is chic again. More than 30 years after Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre was voted Britain’s most-hated building, a clutch of sleek and lavish books now guides readers around Britain’s best brutalism. Photography exhibitions showcase sombre flyovers and sunless stairwells; lifestyle bloggers drool over (selected) local authority housing estates.

Yet sometimes in this revivalism, those who first designed, built and occupied all that raw size and heroic roughness are absent.

Barnabas Calder goes some way to rectifying that with a guide to eight of Britain’s landmark concrete buildings of the mid-20th century. Calder is an architectural historian at the University of Liverpool, and he is serious and astute — but Raw Concrete is also a personal book. He is not didactic; his writing is expansive and hospitable. Like his favourite buildings, he makes concrete fun.

Much writing about 1960s architecture in the decades that followed portrayed its architects as “either mad or evil”, says Calder. Its reappraisal has often come from leftwing commentators nostalgic for a postwar, social-democratic past and “drawn to the social project so much of it served”. Another imperative, which he barely explores, is climate change. Demolition is a colossal waste of embodied carbon, particularly in concrete.

Part of the joy is in how Calder encourages us to learn a little about the buildings to “bring daily pleasure”. He has even set up a Flickr group for his readers to upload their own photographs, and dozens have done so.

In the book, he leads us inside and allows us to walk around his favourite buildings, from Hermit’s Castle — a remote 1950s folly in north-west Scotland, more generous sarcophagus than Disney fairytale and built by David Scott — to familiar hulks such as London’s Barbican (“elating surges of sublime vertigo”), Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in west London and Owen Luder’s Trinity Square complex in Gateshead, now demolished and mourned.

There are also detailed histories of less appreciated and less accessible buildings. For example, as a student, Calder lived in Lasdun’s 1966 New Court extension to Christ College, Cambridge — a “great hillside of glistening white” — like a big concrete cuckoo among the endless tracery, and about which no punting tour-guide can resist a dig about eyesores. He draws on his experience to make the case that Lasdun’s building was less an expression of radical change and more one of institutional continuity. Rooms are arranged around staircases; there is grass outside; college fellows get bigger rooms than everyone else. The difference is concrete.

The technical story is just as satisfying. Energy wealth in the 20th century made concrete — a mix of cement, water, sand and gravel — plentiful and cheap. At a time of post-1945 rebuilding, an expanding welfare state and big commissions, architects had the ability to “slide the constituent parts of their buildings around at will”. Rooms could be whatever size and shape they needed to be; buildings could fit around function. In all this liberation, “architects felt no sentimental or apologetic need to disguise this thrilling process behind ill-fitting simulacra of the architecture of older, poorer, more cruelly hierarchical periods in human history”.

Not everyone likes brutalist buildings, and Calder acknowledges concrete’s failures — its tendency to age badly when poorly maintained and what its haters describe as its oppressiveness. But for those who do, he articulates an appeal somewhat akin to religious experience: “What some feel contemplating the immensity of the universe, others of us get from the more aesthetically perceptible immensity of the Barbican . . . a direct aesthetic experience of one’s own smallness and the corresponding triviality of one’s worries and ambitions”.

Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism by Barnabas Calder William Heinemann £30 (paperback £10.99) 416 pages

Helen Barrett is a former editor of FT House & Home

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

Source link

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *