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The brutalist and the damned

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English Heritage’s Brutal and Beautiful exhibition at Wellington Arch in London highlights the best of the buildings listed since the war, writes Emily Booth

Wellington Arch isn’t necessarily the first place you’d think of as a venue for an exhibition celebrating post-war architecture. Marooned on a traffic island – there’s a Bollywood movie filming on the day I visit – you can walk all around its triumphal hulk before finding the unassuming entrance to the Quadriga Gallery.

Inside is a similarly unassuming exhibition, though an important one. English Heritage’s Brutal and Beautiful: Saving the Twentieth Century displays photographs, film, text and some original models to highlight the best of the buildings listed since the war. It focuses on the years of austerity of the 40s and early 50s, the new Brutalism of the late 50s, the swinging 60s and the High Tech and Postmodernism of the 70s-80s.

Here are well-known gems: Basil Spence and Partners’ Coventry Cathedral; Alison and Peter Smithson’s Sugden House in Watford; Richard and Su Rogers’ Wimbledon house for his parents. Here also are lesser-known delights: the 1949-50 Templewood School in Welwyn Garden City by Hertfordshire County Council, with its arresting murals of Russian folk tales by Pat Tew; and the 1962-63 Ferrum House in Harpenden by Jack Bonnington, one of the first steel-framed homes in England.

And here, gathering in front of an enthusiastic photographer, are some of the architects of the listed buildings: the great and the good who contributed to the vitality of these post-war design years. They are dapper and twinkling, and include the likes of Ted Cullinan, Peter Ahrends, Paul Koralek and Trevor Dannatt. They are, with one exception, all men. After the flash has faded, I speak with the sole woman in the picture, sculptor Wendy Taylor, who is here for her 1973 Timepiece sculpture at St Katherine Docks, a glorious steel sundial. She remarks, with a broad smile, that it feels odd to be the only woman in the photograph.

On the terrace of Wellington Arch, with London stretching beyond, Julian Sofaer, architect on the private house Meridian West in Greenwich – ‘in a very beautiful site, an orchard’ – stresses the importance of working with the right client. He had the freedom to do 15 different designs for the house before it was just right. In 45 years of practice he turned down more clients than he accepted. He says: ‘It is not easy to find the opportunity and a client to do something properly. If you build for monkeys, you end up with a monkey cage.’ And what of the challenges facing architects nowadays? Not much changes: ‘It is an insecure and treacherous profession – everything can be wiped out with one phone call. It happened to me, during the 1973 oil crisis, but I survived.’

Remo Granelli – whose 1960-61 house at The Rise, Alvechurch, in Worcestershire was listed in 2006 – says it is a ‘great surprise’ to be here and that architecture is ‘precarious’, and ‘difficult to keep going. When there are cutbacks, building is the first thing to go.’

Only 699 post-war buildings have been listed in England – a tiny amount of the buildings constructed in that time: 0.01 per cent, says Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage. Suffice to say, the era has a varied reputation. A recent BBC survey found post-war housing was the public’s least favourite, with Georgian, perhaps not surprisingly, the most popular.

Can the success of the listed buildings on these walls throw any light on the shortcomings of the majority? ‘They are important, but I’m afraid they show up the rest, especially in housing,’ says Max Neufeld, whose 1964 own house in Colville Place is now Grade II-listed. ‘They stand out, but they have had surprisingly little influence on the mass market.’ Sofaer explains: ‘I have a lot to find fault with [in the era as a whole]. The profession has got a lot of apologising to do.’

In this ‘Brutal and Beautiful’ exhibition there is nothing to apologise for. The tremendous, rapid changes since the war, which have resulted in buildings as different from each other as the Royal Festival Hall and the Lloyd’s Building, have also seen continuity. These stand-out buildings are all designed as a piece, from the inside out. They have integrity.

Neave Brown (Alexandra Road Estate and Dunboyne Road Estate) sums it up: ‘We worked with a sense of social and political purpose. It was about restoring something, and making it new.’

Exhibition and book

Brutal and Beautiful: Saving the Twentieth Century, Wellington Arch, Hyde Park Corner, London, Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm until 24 November. Tickets: £4 for adults, £2.40 for children, £3.60 for concessions, free for English Heritage members. Space, Hope and Brutalism, English Architecture 1945-75 by Elain Harwood, will be published by Yale University Press/Paul Mellon in 2014

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