Brutalist buildings are back in fashion

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Brutalist buildings are back in fashion
© Anna Armstrong
Brutalist buildings are back in fashion
© Anna Armstrong

The brutalist style harks back to an idealistic postwar world where even Conservative governments built council houses; an epoch when carving out a collective future, rather than endlessly showing off on Facebook, was the esprit du temps. Brutalist buildings might look like they want to slap you in the face, but they’re solid and dependable – the opposite of so many of today’s splutters on the skyline, which look like they’ll fall over if you mumble “Fee-fi-fo-fum” near to them.

From the start, brutalism was about going wild with concrete. The term slithered from many streams: nybrutalism in Sweden; British architects Alison and Peter Smithson’s designs; the French béton brut – raw concrete. During the 1960s it sprouted from the Côte d’Ivoire to Canada, and concrete salesmen grew rich on the proceeds.

These buildings tell stories: the Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee asserts the muscle and pride of the Durham colliers. Sampson House in London, with its lack of doors and windows, alludes to the tiny terrors of office life and of computers that might one day be running us.

Although the material is tough, this machine-age aesthetic could be quite feminine. The Southbank’s Hayward Gallery – currently being renovated – is beautiful yet complex. It lures you in, but you’ll never fully understand it.

When they were built, these were symbols of power: monuments to the “we know best” welfare state or corporations or God (Germany’s concrete churches, such as Gottfried Böhm’s at Neviges, are sublime). Nowadays, brutalism is championed by outsiders and knocked down by bureaucrats lacking taste. Portsmouth council destroyed Rodney Gordon’s Tricorn in 2004, and Birmingham has just started vandalising John Madin’s Central Library. […]

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