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Review: The National Trust take on Brutalism

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The National Trust are doing their job, says Flora Neville, but it’s not a natural fit with Brutalism

It was the perfect day for a National Trust tour of two of the UK’s most famous Brutalist buildings - the Hayward Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The drizzle had stopped and the sky was grey and concrete.

The National Trust and Brutalism is as incongruous a concept as your grandmother reading A Clockwork Orange, and the press release admits that the Trust’s project to celebrate and ‘shine a light on a number of buildings across the nation… seems like a significant departure.’ The accompanying photograph is of sweet little flowers winking from their concrete bed. It’s a significant departure and a true departure: no tea, no cake, no jam in sight.

The tour winds through the bowels of the buildings and the dingy tunnels that on separate occasions Pink Floyd and Dr Who tore through. We went up in a cranky lift to the ventilation room where the same machines have been whirring away since the seventies, then over a bridge and down a spiral staircase to the projection room in the Queen Elizabeth Hall where the original 35mm, 16mm and slide projectors are still in situ.

There were safety notices at every corner as lighting was dismantled, ceilings were low, staircases narrow, ventilation rooms windy… With hushed whispers and eyes wide, we appreciated the quality of the board marked concrete in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Simon Jenkins, the ex-chair of the trust recently dammed Brutalism as ‘a tremendously deductive conversation’, that showed ‘contempt for others opinion’ and ultimately, ‘didn’t work.’

So I asked Joseph Watson, The NT’s Creative Director in London why the National Trust are flirting with Brutalism now or at all. It’s the right time to ‘start thinking about the Post-War era in architecture’ and perhaps challenge perceptions of the National Trust in the process, he said. ‘So much Brutalist architecture is being demolished, or being left to crumble, and at the same time there’s a generation of architects and writers now who are now assessing Brutalism with objectivity because they didn’t necessarily live through the difficulties.’

The perceived difficulties surrounding Brutalist buildings – drugs, violence, low density, structural complications, fires - are more germane to housing estates than to public arts centres, but the ideology behind Brutalism covers both. Watson believes ‘there is a place for the iconoclasm of Brutalism,’ which was based on a utopian ideal of giving power to the people. Whether this ideology was liberating or patronising is not something the trust address. The perceived difficulties and the sometimes dystopian reality of Brutalist council estates are similarly glossed over.

However the point of these tours and this project as a whole is ultimately to save buildings that defined an era from being raised to the ground. It is ‘more important’ Watson said, ‘that these buildings continue to exist, than that they fulfil their original functions.’ After all, he said, ‘very few National Trust properties are used for their original purpose, they are not homes for elite families anymore.’

In this way, the Trust’s Brutalist dalliance is not at all a departure from their claim to be ‘a charity that works to preserve and protect historic places and spaces for ever, for everyone.’ The light they are shining on Brutalist buildings is through a particular filter, and the intention is good: to preserve what buildings we have and keep the bulldozers at bay.

The National Trust is running tours of Southbank Centre, Park Hill Sheffield and University of East Anglia in Norwich for ten days from 25 September to 4 October.

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