Brutalism’s revival is happening when its social ideas are more needed than ever, says Owen Hatherley
Brutalism has returned from the dead to take over the world, or at least to take over the internet. Not only have there been documentaries and televisual appreciations, broadsheet articles and controversies, but seemingly dozens of Tumblr and Twitter feeds put out a near-constant flow of monochrome images of things made out of béton brut. It is refreshing to see so much love for an architectural style that was, for decades, a byword for various bad things, its dissonant forms branded either as exemplars of the arrogance of architects, as ‘monstrous carbuncles’, as unwanted remnants of the post-war ‘nanny state’, or, if you want to go the whole ideological hog, as examples of ‘totalitarianism’. Where has this Brutalist revival come from, what does it want, and where is it going?
The TV appreciation has been going on for a while. Jonathan Meades’ Remember the Future was the first; Tom Dyckhoff’s I Love Carbuncles came a few years later; and Dreamspaces, a short-lived series on architects and their favourite buildings featured David Adjaye and Justine Frischmann enthusing over the Tricorn Centre. Several books have been published on the subject (mea culpa) and more recently the sharing of monochrome images has become a minor online craze.
The problem with much of this is simple. According to its original theorists - Reyner Banham, Alison and Peter Smithson, those word-manglers occasionally flamboyantly dissed by advocates of neo-Brutalism - Brutalism was an ethic, as much, and probably more, than it was an aesthetic. That ethic was in large part a socialist one: both in the sense that the majority of Brutalist buildings outside North America were for council housing, socialised healthcare, municipal facilities, free education, free libraries; and in the sense that it displayed a confidence that its users could enjoy what now seems like extremely avant-garde, uncompromising architecture.
To compare: the Gothic revival took place at a time when nobody, bar fanatics like Pugin, seriously thought the Middle Ages were a useful social model; the Brutalism revival is happening when its social ideas are surely more needed than ever, during a time when the ‘privatise everything’ approach dominant in cities for the past few decades is showing its limits, with a major housing crisis and a growing unease about the role of private interests in urban space.
The first tentatively rejuvenated Brutalist buildings, such as Trellick Tower, stayed largely public, saved by their residents. Since then, their rehabiliation as aesthetic has happened in direct tandem with their evisceration as ethic: Keeling House, the Brunswick Centre, Park Hill, Balfron Tower. To investigate how this happened needs time and analysis, and can be profoundly dispiriting.
It’s a classic example of what the late geographer Neil Smith called the ‘rent gap’, the root of gentrification - the municipal or private owners of a building finding that they can extract a lot more capital out of it than they hitherto expected. It is a measure of the problems of architectural culture that this problem is neglected in favour of gazing at another scanned black and white image of Eros House or the pilotis from the Unité d’Habitation. It is especially telling that this trend always prefers early, untouched images of the buildings, before history, weathering, unsympathetic alterations or, let’s face it, their current residents got their hands on them. Best not think about the mess of Thamesmead today: here’s a totally awesome photo of it in 1972. In all of this, the idea that Brutalism was an ethic as much as cool concrete stuff is slipping ever further away, at the exact time we need it most.