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Concrete poetry by Jonathan Meades

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Hostile superfan Pola Fringuello talks bunkers, Brutalism and bloodymindedness with ugly building obsessive Jonathan Meades

Pola Fringuello: One of your previous films on regeneration is called On The Bandwagon: The Regeneration Bracket. Would you agree that these new films are jumping on what you might call the re-evaluation of Brutalism bandwagon?
Jonathan Meades: It was actually called On The Brandwagon – brand, as in rebranding …

Whatever. You know what I mean …
I wouldn’t call the interest in this particular form of architecture a bandwagon. Nothing so grand, so far … More a wheelbarrow than a wagon. But, sure, it is being re-evaluated. And one of the topics of these new shows is that process, that inclination … The vagaries of reputation.

You describe it as a fashion.
It is a fashion. One shouldn’t equate fashion with frivolity. There is a sort of fashion which happens without commercial or ideological pressure. That’s why I mentioned Thomas Hardy’s observation – the thing about how young men would recognise each other as, er, kindred because they were carrying copies of Swinburne’s poetry.

All rather cultish …
If you like. Shared taste. It’s a question of something coming to be appreciated when it had been reviled … A gradual change of perception. The obvious parallel is the reputation of High Victorian Gothic.

Don’t you think you might overestimate the extent to how much Victorian architecture has been rehabilitated? People still think it’s frankly hideous. Just like Brutalism.
People! I’m entirely indifferent to what people …

For three-quarters of a century everything High Victorian was derided

That’s grotesquely arrogant.
No it’s not. Who are these ‘people’? How do you know their opinion? You can’t. The point is, you know, for three-quarters of a century everything High Victorian was derided. It was not valued. Which made it easy to demolish. Then the climate began to change – Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel and so on.

A tiny group. Privileged, elitist aesthetes showing off. How clever we are! We like the monstrosities everyone else hates! They didn’t stop the demolitions.
It takes time for taste to change. Ideas begin as a trickles.  

Many of them stay that way. There’s every chance that this trendy craze for concrete will just fizzle out.
You’ve been reading entrails. I wouldn’t bet either way. What is indisputable here is the generational thing. Brutalism, sculptural concrete, whatever you want to call it, has been rediscovered – enthusiastically. Writers, artists, photographers, collagists, film-makers – the majority of them born long after … I mean, to them it’s a … it belongs to what is for them a historical period. Whereas for me, it’s something I witnessed. I was in my teens and early twenties.

The architectural component of Big Tech was Brutalism

So you’re jumping on a youth bandwagon?
(Sighs) Hardly. In 1995 I did a film entitled When the World was Modern: Big Tech of the ’60s– about what – er, for want of anything else – I called ‘Big Tech’. The white heat of the technological revolution and so on. The architectural component of Big Tech was Brutalism. And megastructures. They’re obviously not entirely synonymous, but there’s a …

Yeah. A close proximity.

In which case, why go back to it?
After almost two decades? Look, there’s that proximity – with the subjects.

But the films are very different, stylistically, intellectually and … There’s virtually no crossover. I’d say above all, I made them because I wanted to see them.

When you write, you are your own first reader. So you write what you want to read. Or something, uh, as close to what you want to read that you’re capable of. But you have to reconcile that with its opposite, with the contrary fact that you write – at least I write – to find out what I’m thinking, what my brain has stored away, what surprises I’m going to give myself. These are apparently mutually exclusive methods. And accommodating them is what gives the work tension.

And inconsistency?
Yeah sure. But inconsistency … Consistency doesn’t strike me … I mean if it’s a virtue it’s a very minor one.

Your inconsistency makes it impossible to often understand what your take is. For instance, you seem to have an ambivalence about Brutalism possibly coming from Nazism – its somewhat shameful roots.

It’s not possibly … There’s no possibly about it. It’s definite. The thing is: are Volkswagens evil? Are the pyramids evil? Is Calcutta evil? Is Clifton evil? My take – in so far as I have a take … One of the conditions of being European is that we beat ourselves up condemning ourselves. We are in a state of constant penitence. We chastise ourselves for the crimes of our ancestors – crimes which they didn’t regard as crimes. Do we demolish sublime structures because they were built with forced labour? Do we erase the physical legacy of colonialism? What about houses built on slavers’ profits? Given that Bristol was also built on the devil’s weed, tobacco – well, the place is going to look like Hiroshima once we’ve done with getting rid of all the evil buildings. And the buildings that are subsequently built with the pilfered stones – will they be evil too?

Where are you going with this?
I’m posing a problem for my friend George Ferguson …

No, look: can an inanimate object be, say, a vessel that’s filled with the same genocidal venom that … Does the poison of the regime that built it cling to it? Now, those who subscribe to the idea of blood and soil – which is basically animistic nonsense – would say yes. But anyone of sound mind would see that there is a gulf between the crimes, tyrannies’ crimes, and the objects, the designs produced under those same regimes.

Le Corbusier was a plagiarist on a grand scale

So it’s OK to wear SS uniform? Or is black too last year?
You can’t compare the vestments of a death cult with a form of architecture. Actually perhaps you can … The difference is one of association. Equivocation too. A building by Paul Rudolph or Denys Lasdun is hardly likely to suggest genocide, fanaticism … half-baked mysticism, abominable ‘medical’ experiments. Even with Philip Johnson – Hitlerian fellow traveller – it’s not the first thing you think of … Also – and I think this is important – there’s the question of recognition. You know, the degree to which Brutalism is, or is not, recognised as coming from the Atlantic Wall bunkers, the flak towers and so on. It’s not really recognised in that way. The link is not that widely acknowledged. Partly because Le Corbusier chose not to acknowledge it himself. Indeed he hid it. Maybe even hid it from himself. Delusion goes hand in hand with plagiarism, and he was a plagiarist on a grand scale. He didn’t borrow, he stole.

You claim that Friedrich Tamms (the chief architect of Organisation Todt, which built Nazi defences) was the first Brutalist. Isn’t that somewhat far-fetched?
It’s not that far-fetched. What’s interesting is that there’s a pleasing irony here. Much of Tamms’s work is not functional … I mean, not just functional. The Atlantic Wall and the stuff on Guernsey, go beyond purely military utility. They’re there to terrify. The occupier, the occupying power, is telling the occupied not to get out of line. They are shows of strength. They are symbolic. They are obviously related to Expressionism. The thing is that the Nazis had declared Expressionist to be decadent. Albert Speer’s ‘A Theory of Ruin Value’ was posited on the … ah, expectation that the ruins the Reich would be remembered by would be the ruins of Germania, of Nuremberg and so on. Monumental, massive, Classical. That would be its legacy. In fact, the Reich’s sole architectural legacy – sole artistic legacy come to think of it – is a kind of Modernism it proscribed. The Reich ended up building more Expressionist buildings than the Expressionists themselves had built. And it gave the impetus to Neo-Expressionism – which is what Brutalism is.

The second of the films is hostile to environmentalism in a way that may be considered  tasteless. Leaving aside your delight in saying what most people have the tact not to say –
Most ‘people’ again!

That apart, you link green politics and green initiatives to Nazism.
It was the greenest of regimes. That is indisputable. Absolutely undeniable. It invented the whole thing, the dogma. Which just compounds the irony. This architectural legacy was not just a sort of architecture that it was ideologically opposed to. It was an architecture which ignored the pieties and religiosity we have come to associate with greeness. Being friendly to the Earth is smug, it’s self-congratulatory, it’s delusional. The Earth is inanimate, insentient. It doesn’t know that a load of guilt-ridden beardies want to be its friends. It is incapable of thought. There is no compact. You can’t have a dialogue with a rock. Brutalism was the architecture of mankind’s imperium. It is the expression of mankind’s supremacy. It lords it over the Earth. It is the architecture most appropriate to the Anthropocene era. The architecture we have had since is the architecture of penitence.

The greatest Brutalist structures were not in the business of being beautiful

That’s ridiculous! The Shard, penitent? The Gherkin?
They are exceptions. Nonetheless, they are buildings that … well, look at the chummy nicknames … they’re designed to please. Despite their size they are desperate not to offend. The disparity with the era that these films are about. The greatest Brutalist structures were not in the business of being beautiful.

You can say that again. What you argue in the second film about the beautiful and the sublime – the beautiful versus the sublime – is interesting. But it’s not canon law. It’s just a point of view, your idea that the beautiful and the sublime exclude each other.
It’s not my idea. It’s Edmund Burke’s. His contention is that the sublime is an effect of terror and that what is beautiful is not terrifying. Sublimity is bigger than beauty, it’s above beauty. It’s grander and more intense.

And uglier.
If one’s measure, one’s aesthetic programme, sub-aesthetic programme, is based on something so trite as prettiness then there is a level of art that simply can’t be appreciated.

How unbelievably patronising!
No. Just an expression of pity that certain criteria preclude … they don’t accommodate grandeur. It’s beyond the scope of that register. It’s a different way of thinking, and perceiving. A lesser way. The fact that it’s commonplace doesn’t validate it. What the new interest in sculptural concrete indicates is the gap between art being made and art being appreciated. I mean the temporal gap, in this case, as in the case of the Modern Gothic of the 1860s, we’re talking about decades.

So we should support failing buildings, redundant buildings, buildings no longer fit for purpose, we should let them malinger until some clever, clever elitist group of exquisites comes along to pronounce on the hidden qualities of such-and-such an eyesore.
As matter of fact – yes. Emphatically yes.

We need architects to regain chutzpah, bloodymindedness, the spirit of sod-youism

Really? Is it helpful to treat architects as artists? Isn’t it likely to widen the gap between architects and the public?
Anything that drives out insipidity and caution is to be welcomed. That begins with self-image. We need more poets and fewer technocrats. We need focus groups to be culled. We need architects to regain chutzpah, bloodymindedness, the spirit of sod-youism.

We shall see. One final observation. You are dismissive of the Smithsons to the point where they are invisible. What’s your excuse?
Excuse! How long have you got? Their best building – the school at Hunstanton – comes straight out of Mies van der Rohe. It has little or nothing to do with what came to be known as Brustalism – you have to remember there was the coinage new Brutalism before there was an architecture to do with it.

But whatever your personal opinion isn’t it the Gospels without Jesus?
Heavens … But yes, you’re right, they were regarded as sort of holy. Saviours – in their own eyes at any rate. And their existence is not a matter of conjecture.

  • Pola Fringuello was selected by Jonathan Meades to conduct this interview on behalf of the Architects’ Journal


Bunkers, Brutalism Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry, BBC4, 9pm Sunday 16 February and Sunday 23 February


An Encyclopaedia of Myself, Jonathan Meades, to be published by 4th Estate on 8 May 2014

An Encyclopaedia of Myself, Jonathan Meades, to be published by 4th Estate on 8 May 2014


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