Jonathan Meades’ latest TV essay, Bunkers, Brutalism, Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry (2014), is a textually dense, loquacious blizzard of vertiginous verbiage that acts as a provoking manifesto for that especially unloved – if not loathed – architectural form that dominated townscapes between those two appalling catastrophes for humanity – the Second World War and the reign of Margaret Thatcher – BRUTALISM. Or at least seemed to dominate. The presence of Brutalist buildings is perhaps overstated by their bullish personality. They are the loudest of the drinkers congregated in the pub. They are the raconteur who will stridently spiel stories regardless of whether you want to hear them – or you don’t. You remember them where quieter wallflowers pass unnoticed – either laughing or cringing at their jokes. Or being repulsed and insulted. Or confused. Or annoyed. Or cheered. Or amused. Or… something. They are, above all things, determined – they’ll get a reaction out of you one way or another. It is the woman with the biggest cleavage in the tightest top – who will either attract or disgust, depending on your proclivities. It is not just their perceived (by some) ugliness or carbuncle-ness. It is their deliberateness that grabs our attention. They’re poseurs. They want to be noticed. For better or worse. Like the ASBO youths (more of which later) they often provide a habitat for – they crave attention, and even negative attention is better than no attention at all – to paraphrase Oscar Wilde (not for the last time).
But first to establish what Brutalism is. It is this:
According to Meades is comes from this.
And it is, unfortunately, this.
It may even be this.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that people who preface their own thoughts by clambering over Jane Austen in such a way are about to say something stunningly commonplace. But it is a truth that has become passively accepted as gospel that most Brutalist buildings failed. Failed, at least, in their ostensible purpose – the one stated on the planning application. As shopping centres, or libraries, or hospitals, or apartment blocks, or schools, or whatever. After the initial promise of… what? Modernism? Progress? The Future? They slowly became the townscape’s grumbling appendix; their lack of fitness for purpose making them gradually redundant (shops moving out, the heating/lighting being inadequate, pedestrians avoiding their dim, dank and dripping tunnels and gantries, areas being cordoned off for safety reasons as the concrete failed), until slowly they became a niggling inconvenience, that steadily deteriorated, untreated, until the social peritonitis of ASBO youths (as promised), drug and alcohol addicts and opportunistic muggers poisoned the entire urban corpus.
But that particular failure – one of utility – is the result of bad maintenance; of these buildings being un-loved. Like a marriage that has shattered on the rocks for lack of an anniversary card and the absence of mutually gratifying sex. Or any sex. Or so the apologists and/or champions of the oeuvre will disclaim. Well, perhaps. To an extent. But some places (like some people) almost invite you to piss on them. Brutalist buildings don’t weather down well. Particularly in Britain’s climate. Concrete - in the form favoured by most Brutalist architects and their penny-counting backers - doesn't smile back at you. Concrete of this type invites the spray can. And urine. And flemmy saliva. It sucks all the light in like a psychic sponge of despair. It doesn’t help that the movement was hijacked by the spivs who moved in to make quick profits – the John Poulsons and T. Dan Smiths (fictionally depicted in Our Friends in the North) were the smallest tip of this huge shitty iceberg; town planning authorities the length and breadth of the island have their own examples – most of whom got away with both corruption and poor imitations of the genre. Such is the way with movements and bandwagons. For every T. Rex or David Bowie there will always be a glut of Chicory Tips and Alvin Stardusts. But still, neglect is the word – or similes of that word – that is used to excuse or explain the failure – the ultimate failure – of places like Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre (built in 1966 and pulled down in 2004) and Gateshead’s Trinity (opened 1967, demolished in 2012).
But if they failed, then the perhaps the buildings failed in the same way that George Best would not have been best used by Sir Matt Busby by playing him the goals. Because in other ways – in other positions – the buildings succeeded tremendously.
Buildings can serve many purposes - not least in the emotions they elicit from us. South Yorkshire’s greatest Brutalist structures were the Gog and Magog twin cooling towers that loomed over the M1 at the Tinsley Viaduct. In West Yorkshire they have – still – the Emley Moor television transmitter. Tinsley’s power station cooling towers and Emley Moor were (are) massively (literally) successful in punctuating the landscape. But neither offered any interaction with humankind beyond the ocular spectacle of awe. The Scammonden Bridge strides the M62 where it crosses the bleak Yorkshire/Lancashire boarder is - if not a thing of beauty - then something that inspires astonishment. It is magnificent. It – like the cooling towers and Emley Moor – show the best of what mankind can achieve with the cutting edge materials and latest thinking to hand – where the Medieval stonemason moved building forwards with flying buttresses and hammer beam ceilings, the engineers of the 1950s and 60s applied reinforced concrete to their ideas. And concrete is a marvellous material – it can be worked, polished and bear loads that engineers like Brunel would have killed a hundred navvies to achieve. But it is often misused – for instance, the exterior of the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield looks disconcertingly unfinished. But like most building materials – it is of its time. The 19th Century mill owners didn't make their huge factories out of stone because it was pretty - they used it because it was locally quarried and cheap. Similarly in the South Yorkshire towns and villages – where there were less stone quarries or they made cheaper bricks - the colliery owners didn't build row upon row of red brick terraces because they wished to make working class architectural icons - it was a question of economy.
But if Tinsley’s cooling towers, Emley Moor and Scammonden Bridge – not forgetting its reservoir – represent Brutalist triumphs, and a zenith of a society’s engineering achievement (of its day), anyone who shuffled nervously through the piss-reeking hallways of Barnsley's Metropolitan Centre (built at the height of the movement in the 60s in a typical provincial planner’s destruction of the town centre) back in the 1980s got a peek – a nervous peek – into the dark recesses of what urban geography could descend to. Here Brutalism brutalizes. Even now with better lighting and the white tiles that clad the concrete, the echoing acoustics and the lack of natural light, make it a negative experience of space. You're not drawn to the place. You don't want to spend time there – with its brown bricks, clumsy concrete and a feeling of claustrophobia. To mangle dear Oscar (again), there is no such thing as a moral or immoral building. Buildings are well designed (and built) or badly designed (and built). That is all. And yet… these buildings do not invite you in. And the same instinctively negative response that I feel when visiting Barnsley’s Metropolitan is prompted when I see the Trellick Tower – a building broadly lauded as a Brutalist gem. In images the Trellick certainly has an aesthetic that is particular to the mid-20th Century, but as a building for people to use…?
Meades has commented previously that 'interiors hold no interest' for him (Father to the Man (2007) – possibly my favourite of his programmes), which perhaps goes some way to help understand his love of Brutalist architecture. In Brutalism the outside of the building is everything. This is architecture as sculpture. The interiors of these buildings are largely a mystery - do an internet search for Brutal interiors and your results will bring a welter of results, very few of them to do with architecture. Maybe Ernst Stavro Blofeld could find – not comfort – but solace (of a kind) by living surrounded by raw concrete, but, by and large, few Brutalist buildings have the warmth and beauty of San Diego's Geisel Library by William Pereira or the friendliness of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseille (where, incidentally – or not – Meades presently lives). Brutalism’s biggest failures are where people are involved. Its biggest successes when it is… well… biggest. Because Brutalist architecture is all about exteriors. Big exteriors. MASSIVE exteriors. But similar to those wonders of the world – the pyramids of Ancient Egypt and the pyramids of the Mayans in Mexico – the best Brutalist structures are astonishing spectacles – but not necessarily the first choice for habitation.
It is telling that most were built to accommodate not people but cars. Or in the case of those proto-Brutalist edifices that made up the Atlantic Wall of Hitler’s Festung Europa, heavy calibre machine guns. And Nazis.
But after the decades neglect and lovelessness, suddenly Brutalism is being re-discovered. Meades programme is only one of several re-appraisals. And many of those that have survived the dynamite (they do blow up dramatically) and the wrecker’s ball, are now cult buildings – Preston bus station, for instance, was recently awarded listed status by English Heritage after public campaign. Others, like Owen Luder's Trinity car park at Gateshead which acquired kudos by appearing in the film Get Carter (1971), reverberate with the generations who adore all things ‘retro’. Because there's a feeling that it is the very anachronism of these buildings which is now drawing fans. They want to live in that long sixties of Get Carter and A Clockwork Orange. Because the past is always twee. Always controlled. Because we only ever choose the best bits to remember. We forget that Jack Carter was a pornographer and professional bully who chucked Alf Roberts – a slot machine owning paedophile – from a building that was chosen as a location for its very sense of hardness and corruption. It's like the pop music of yesteryear. The charts were full of the Beatles and The Small Faces and Motown... Weren’t they? No one remembers Jimmy Young’s chart-topping abominations or Ken Dodd’s. It’s similar to how you can recall that trip to the dentist when you had your molars dragged out and the anaesthetic didn't kick in - but you can't really recall the pain. Images of Pompey’s Tricorn gives to some the same sense of comfort that a thatched cottage brings to others. Get yourself in the right frame of mind and these buildings are as cosy as a Sunday morning lie in. As cosy as yesterday.
This renaissance – of thought, if not always physical presence – of Brutalism highlights – yet again – that progress, not just in architecture, but in all culture, feels to have halted. As the architect Rem Koolhaas stated: ‘When did time stop moving forward, begin to spool in every direction, like a tape spinning out of control? Change has been divorced from the idea of improvement. There is no progress; like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways. Regurgitation is the new creativity.’ Like it or loathe it, Brutalism was at least an idea. But then again so was National Socialism. And Thatcherism. And nouvelle cuisine. But what have we now? The future looks like yesterday – only rendered in breeze blocks clad in Scandinavian pine. Today we give the world One Direction and a new Tesco Extra for every town. The future won't thank us for them. If it recalls them at all.
One of my own favourite quasi-Brutalist buildings is the water treatment centre on the Manchester Road at Tintwistle. It’s a relatively small concrete building (which obviously goes against most of what I’ve just said) that's accented by glass, wood and stone cladding - it would sit well as the abode of some film star in Laurel Canyon in California. Once you got rid of the sludge and filtration tanks, obviously. And excavated the sedimentation basin. Or perhaps adapted them into a swimming pool and/or water feature.