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London architecture: at the heart of Brutalism

We discuss Brutalism with artist, Charlie Warde: "For me, Trellick Tower is a defiant carbuncle of intent"

It’s hard to imagine the South Bank without the weighty mass that is the National Gallery or the Barbican looming over Silk Street in any other material than concrete. Love or loathe their work, Brutalism architects have been responsible for some of London’s most iconic modern structures, and our architecture Insider, Charlie Warde – a student of Ernő Goldfinger’s work and an artist whose work has been displayed at the V&A –  knows more than most about this fascinating architectural style.

Let’s start with the basics, Charlie. What exactly is Brutalism?

It’s an odd one, really, because it wasn’t really a movement like Vorticism or Futurism. It didn’t really have a manifesto: it was a label that was given to it by critics, and often retro-fitted.

In 1953, Alison Smithson (below), a very avant-garde architect, designed a small house in Soho, which was stripped back to its absolute essence – “exposed entirely, without interior finishes wherever practicable”. Nowadays we might wonder what all the fuss was about, but at the time it was a radical idea; an absolute rejection of everything that had gone before. It was almost shocking in its starkness: all the pipes were visible, all the posts and beams of its construction in plain sight. All of the structural parts of the building were on display. I think they first called it the ‘warehouse aesthetic’, but then they later referred to it as ‘New Brutalism’. 1953 also saw the ICA exhibition, Parallel of Life and Art, which was organised by Alison and Peter Smithson, the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi and the photographer Nigel Henderson. The curation and ideas behind the exhibition were intellectual, rough, raw and honest – the stuff of Brutalism.

Alison and Peter Smithson

The Barbican and the National Theatre are two of London’s most famous Brutalist buildings, but they’re also sometimes described – presumably inaccurately  as ‘modernist’. What is the difference between Modernism and Brutalism?

Modernism was a curious thing in Britain; we came quite late to it. I mean, High Point in Highgate is a glaringly Modernist building, but it was kind of a Chi-Chi architectural one: it was built for architects, for wealthy forward-thinking individuals, not the masses.

The Brutalist thing kicked off in the early 50s, but it didn’t really get going until the late ’50s and ’60s and it was all rather British. There’s a kind of weight to it and it sits with the climate too, in a funny kind of way. Modernism’s quite light: you think of Mies Van Der Rohe’s buildings and they’re very light and elegant structures with curtain walls, whereas Brutalism is defined by this big bunker-ish heavy stuff.

If you listen to Jonathan Meade talk about it, he argues there was this delight in the gothic and this kind of heavy, weighty aesthetic that derived from High Victorian Gothic architecture but also from Second World War bunkers, and he says that it’s almost like a decorative, hammed-up version of modernism, delighting in its rather stark terror. Of course, this is somewhat contradictory to the initial stripped-back designs, thinking specifically of the Smithsons’ ‘New Brutalism’, which was devoid of decoration.

Do you think that post-war period was important in informing the aesthetics and philosophy behind Brutalist design?

Absolutely. It couldn’t really have happened at any other time.

Brutalism – and modernism, really – offered a break from the past: a complete rejection of the empire and all of the things that had kind of cumulated in the wars. It offered a clean slate and a very forward-looking architecture that was predominantly provided by the state. The London County Council, the LCC (which then became the GLC), took all of the brightest and the best architects that were graduating, through the AA and RIBA and Oxbridge. Everyone who aspired to be a great architect went to work for the London County Council who were overseeing the rebuilding of London.

As well as that, there was this celebration of new materials, new techniques, new building practices, new design and it tied in with Brutalism, because it was reliant on technologies – cranes and elevators, for example.

Tell us a bit more about Trellick Tower, in which you offer your SideStory experience and walking tour

Well, for me, it’s the most visible embodiment of what we’ve been talking about here – it’s a defiant carbuncle of intent. It towers above everything else that surrounds it; it sits over Ladbroke Grove, brooding, reminding us that that area was once the home for the new emigres, the West Indian communities that came over on the Windrush in the post-war period. Trellick Tower is a reminder of the fact that that part of London was full of slums; it was very much working class and it was also very much key to the kind of new vision of London.

“For me, Trellick Tower is a defiant carbuncle of intent”

There’s the whole psychogeography thing as well, because in terms of narrative, Trellick has had it all. It was that embodiment of post-war idealism and the provision of the state, and then it descended into absolute chaos through underfunding. The concierge that was intended by Ernő Goldfinger to monitor the comings and goings of the building was never provided and it became a no-go zone. In 1984, the residency association was formed, and in 1986 the council started vetting people as to their suitability to high-rise living. A concierge was introduced and it started becoming the successful building it was always intended to be. Now it’s in Time Out’s list of London’s most Iconic buildings. So all of that history is there and it’s so visible.

You can’t miss it, that’s for sure. 

Yeah, you can see it from miles around. I mean, you walk around a corner in Queen’s Park and there it is, or, you can be driving into London from the West Country and you know you’ve arrived in London when you get hit by Trellick Tower, looming up in front of you.

There are a lot of surprising buildings in London, and there are a lot of Brutalist masterpieces. The Barbican would be one, but it doesn’t have all of that narrative behind it. With Trellick Tower, well, you can just look at it and wonder what has happened there – what it’s like in there. It kind of lends itself to the imagination.

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The Barbican was voted London’s ugliest building back in 2003, but now, judging from a cursory look at RightMove, it seems it couldn’t be more in demand. Have we started to ‘get’ that kind of design?

I think we’re trying to like it a little bit more, and we’re trying to get our heads around the aesthetics because they’re not easy places to love. I mean, even Trellick Tower, which is an amazing example of architectural design, is still pretty ugly in many respects, but we’re kind of convincing ourselves that we really like these places. They stand out because I think they’re a reaction against a lot of what’s going on at the moment in property.

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You mean the housing crisis in London?

Well, yes. There this urgent need for housing and there is a need for us to perhaps reconsider the last twenty years of housing policy. These are pressing issues. It’s all so relevant – this is why this architecture is all so zeitgeist again, why architectural students are revisiting it.

By nature you’re going to have failures and you’re going to learn from them and because these places, thank goodness, are still visible on the skyline they’re there to pop shots at. Some of them are there as visible failures and some of them, like Trellick Tower, are there as a kind of beacon of success.

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Charlie is our Insider for the Being Brutalist Experience, and you can find out more about him here. His exhibition, Concrete Legacies, is at The Muse Gallery, 269 Portobello Road, W11 1LR from 2 – 9 June. The image of Trellick Tower and Latimer Road station was taken by Fimb, and is used under a Creative Commons attribution license. 

Image: Photograph of a drawn perspective section of the Barbican Centre, Silk Street, City of London, England, taken in 1970. Photographer: John Maltby (1910-1980) Architects: Chamberlin Powell and Bon Credit: John Maltby / RIBA Collections; Barbican Estate, City of London, under construction, taken in 1970. Photographer: John Maltby / RIBA Library Photographs Collection.