Our two contributors go head-to-head on the brutality—or not—of brutalismby JS Curl and B Calder / January 31, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
Visitors to these islands who have eyes to see will observe that there is hardly a town or city that has not had its streets—and skyline—wrecked by insensitive, crude, post-1945 additions which ignore established geometries, urban grain, scale, materials, and emphases.
Such structures were designed by persons indoctrinated in schools of architecture in ways that made them incapable of creating designs that did not cause immense damage and offend the eye, the sensibilities, and the spirit. Harmony with what already exists has never been a consideration for them, as it was not for their teacher: following the lead of “Le Corbusier” (as Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret called himself), they have, on the contrary, done everything possible to create buildings incompatible with anything that came before. It seems that the ability to destroy a townscape or a skyline was the only way they have been able to make their marks. Can anyone point to a town in Britain that has been improved aesthetically by modern buildings?
Look at the more recent damage done to the City of London, with such crass interventions as the so-called “Walkie-Talkie” (which, through its reflectivity, has caused damage on the street below), or the repellent stuff inflicted on several cities by the infamous John Poulson and some of his bent cronies (from the 1950s until they were jailed in 1974). Quod erat demonstrandum.
How has this catastrophe been allowed to happen? A series of totalitarian doctrinaires reduced the infinitely adaptable languages of real architecture to an impoverished vocabulary of monosyllabic grunts. Those individuals rejected the past so that everyone had to start from scratch, reinventing the wheel and confining their design clichés to a few banalities. Today, form follows finance, when modern architecture is dominated by so-called “stars,” and becomes more bizarre, egotistical, unsettling, and expensive, ignoring contexts and proving stratospherically remote from the aspirations and needs of ordinary humanity. Their alienating works, inducing unease, are, without exception, inherently dehumanising and visually repulsive.
You make sweeping criticisms against the architecture of recent decades—a lot of styles and ideas have come and gone since 1945. The term “modern” covers a lot of ground. But the truth is that all of your allegations were levelled with equal justice at Victorian buildings. The hotel fronting St Pancras Station was condemned as debasing Christian architecture for “the low enjoyments of the travelling crowd,” in the words of one 19th-century critic. St Pancras butchered the townscape: red brick in a yellow brick city, gothic amidst classical terraces, and above all absurdly huge—George Gilbert Scott doubled the size to make it overwhelming. Its jagged spires slash the skyline incongruously. I love it.
Today’s skyscrapers also change the skyline, as you say. But so did medieval castles and churches, or Victorian town halls and stations. Like the high buildings of earlier centuries, tall office blocks map where the money and power lie. The City of London is aggressively commercial—as it always has been. The developers of the 20th and 21st centuries are no more ruthless than those of the 17th to 19th centuries. I don’t love the Walkie Talkie, but it has only melted a wing-mirror, whereas the tabula rasa planning of St Pancras made 32,000 people homeless, without compensation. The great post-1945 regenerations, by contrast, aimed to improve the housing of ordinary people.
All that remains to discuss is aesthetics. Scott had reservations about relying on gothic motifs: “I do not advocate the styles of the middle ages as such. If we had a distinctive architecture of our own day worthy of the greatness of our age, I should be content to follow it; but we have not.” He might have enjoyed modernism, when architects forged just such a distinctive style.
Appreciating any style requires an open mind; any language sounds like “grunts” until you listen. Architects trained since 1945 have received better history teaching than any earlier generation; the Barbican is the proud descendant of the great Victorian projects. It recasts London’s Georgian crescents and squares into exhilarating and liveable new forms using the unparalleled structural capabilities of concrete. Had Vanbrugh, Soane or Scott worked in the 1960s, they would have been proud to produce anything as heart-liftingly sublime.
You fail to respond to the proposition. Modern architecture has wrecked many towns in Britain. Moreover, that ruination was imposed because of irrational modernist beliefs.
You use the old chestnut that because some new buildings were initially perceived as “shocking,” but accepted later, this applies equally to modernist ones. Studies refute this. Modernist buildings seriously degrade the environment by generating hostile responses in humans and damaging their health. I suggest you peep at Robert Gifford’s “The Consequences of Living in High-Rise Buildings” in Architectural Science Review, or Nicholas Boys Smith’s paper on the subject in Estates Gazette.
The spray-can attacks on dystopian modernist housing-estates by their inhabitants might indicate to open-minded observers that something was wrong, but modernists are in denial. Moreover, buildings that arrogantly ignore context are like loutish, bullying intruders. The modernist love of typologies and surfaces that generate anxiety is a shameless assault on the senses.
As author of the Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, I am fully conversant with modernism in its various guises, and more than aware of modernist claims; I do not believe any of them. You make the sweeping statement that post-war architects “received better history teaching than any early generation.” On the contrary, history was regarded as irrelevant by modernists, who demanded a complete break with the past.
Much modernist design denies gravity and sets out to create unease. You love concrete, with its black, weeping stains, its tendency to crack, its ability only to deteriorate and never age gracefully. Your bizarre judgments ignore obvious signs that reinforced concrete is not the answer to everything. And how many low-income families live in the Barbican, the construction of which was bedevilled by strikes as the workmen hated having to bush-hammer miles of concrete?
By what definition has Britain been “ruined” since 1945? The high tide of modernism in post-war Britain coincided with a steep and sustained rise in the population’s health, education and prosperity.
However, much though I admire the best buildings of the period, I would not ascribe this improvement to architectural aesthetics. I do not share your peculiar faith in the power of architectural style to ruin lives.
In the 19th century, violent crime, rioting, vandalism, and infectious disease were unassuaged by soothingly stable-looking façades. Sewers and policing wrought the first improvement, followed up by statutory housing standards for space, light and air.
Can anyone truly believe that crime and suffering in Britain’s poorest areas is caused by an absence of classical columns, rather than working-class unemployment from de-industrialisation? Does anyone really think that if the Barbican had been brick, not concrete, it would not have been caught up in the industrial action of the 1970s? Anyone who finds concrete “black” with dirt should compare it with the coal-black sandstones of Glasgow under Victorian soot.
As to whether modernism has the potential to pass into a period of new public appreciation, as Victorian architecture did in the 1960s-70s, its stock has been rising fast for at least the past decade. The Brutalism Appreciation Society on Facebook has 60,000 members. I can find no Victorian or Georgian equivalent with more than 200.
Many people will never come to love modernism, but the direction of travel is clear: its best architecture is deservedly joining the pantheon of Britain’s great buildings.
If you reject the proposition, either you have not visited the hundreds of wrecked towns in Britain, or you need to consult an optometrist. You cannot see (or admit) that the harmoniousness of our townscapes has suffered dreadfully since the universal embrace of modernism so there is nothing I can do to help you or other Brutalist enthusiasts. Your myopia explains why you fail to notice that members of the “British Brutalist Appreciation Society” are less numerous than are paying members of the Victorian Society.
It is drearily predictable that you purposely misconstrue the point of the question. Modern architecture has degraded and destroyed many aspects of urban life that contributed to personal happiness and coherent communities. Human sensibilities were assaulted by the modernist imposition of crude abstractions, in parallel (but not linked) to material prosperity for some. Alienation was indeed exacerbated by forcing Britain’s underprivileged to inhabit modernist architectural and urban dystopias. Those inhuman environments were hated and attacked, and in many instances had to be demolished only a few years after they were built. Overwhelming evidence corroborates this, but is ignored by modernist apologists like yourself.
You employ a cheap debating-point: you assume that anyone who criticises inhuman non-architecture wants a return to Græco-Roman Classicism, which is untrue. Nor do I advocate any “style”: I argue for environments fit for ordinary human beings, which embrace elements that are an integral part of what remains of our once-rich cultural heritage. You and I will never see eye-to-eye because your preferences are for alien Brutalist buildings. I am also fully aware of the massive propaganda and bullying in architectural “schools” that brainwash our young architects to embrace what is inhuman, repellent, and ugly. That is not a
reason to exult, but rather to mourn what has been an obscene assault on humanity itself.
Your angry dismissal of several decades of world architecture as an evil conspiracy is implausible. Your “overwhelming evidence” of the psychological damage done by the architecture you happen to dislike largely consists of methodologically problematic, politicised writings.
Your lumping together of so much architecture is revealing. The styles that share an allegiance to the idea of “modernism” exhibit the variations and modes of any earlier period (including their share—though not more than their share—of bad design).
Personally, I like architecture best when it’s as sublimely overwhelming as Michelangelo, Hawksmoor or Ernö Goldfinger. However, modernism can also be pretty and harmonious, like Peter Aldington’s houses in Buckinghamshire. It can be courteously contextual street architecture like Haworth Tomkins’s new Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, or can produce new beautiful cityscapes like the Barbican or Thamesmead.
Modern architecture can be symmetrically dignified like Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, or thrillingly asymmetrical like Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians. Recent architecture can be as curvaceous and hallucinatory as the Italian baroque (Paul Rudolph in Boston, MA, or Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim exterior) or as tightly-controlled and rhythmical as the German classicist Schinkel (anything by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe). Interiors can be cosy like Alvar Aalto’s houses, or grandly formal like Kahn’s Dhaka parliament. Perhaps the thing modernist buildings’ detractors find hardest to see is that they can be beautifully crafted, like the meticulous concrete-work of the National Theatre, carefully poured into hand-made wooden moulds.
I urge readers to enjoy what is good about any architecture. Frothing with fury at the sight of newer buildings is an unproductive use of emotional energy and serves only to impoverish the rich experience of our varied cityscapes. Don’t surrender yourself to the unhealthy pleasures of “Make Architecture Great Again” rage.