Brutalist buildings are the elephants in the city. You can’t pass a brutalist building without noticing it because a brutalist building reaches down, grabs you by the throat and shouts in your face. And it’s because of this uncouth behaviour that admitting to liking these thugs often feels like confessing to some kind of perversion. You can almost imagine that to buy specialist literature on the subject—books with racy titles such as Raw Concrete, This Brutal World and Concretopia—you’ll have to whisper in the bookseller’s ear before a copy will be discreetly pulled from a secret place and presented to you in a plain paper bag.
‘How can you possibly like something that looks like a multistorey car park?’ My brother-in-law gives a laugh, just to emphasise the obvious madness of the notion. It’s a rhetorical question but still I can’t stop myself from trying to formulate a response. It’s not as though it’s the first time anyone has asked that, although they sometimes use military bunkers, air raid shelters or power stations for comparison instead of car parks. They mean buildings made from concrete and more specifically they mean buildings that are ugly, in their eyes at least.
I’m not alone in liking them. A quick scan of social media throws up hundreds of sites that revel in concrete architecture from around the world, some displaying buildings in an obvious state of dilapidation, especially in the former Soviet countries (the Soviets adored concrete). In 2017 the Sydney Architecture Festival had at its core—its hard core, if you like—an exploration of brutalism, which is the label given to buildings of this type.
Brutalism takes its name from the French term for raw concrete, béton brut, and it’s a catchily appropriate term because the buildings can be so brutally, monumentally unforgiving. They were built mainly in the 1960s and 1970s and were often inspired by the work of Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier. They have at their heart the virtue of being purely practical but this practicality is then given a heroic shove.
Some dominate the landscape, others look as though they have been fashioned from it. Walls are left rough from when the concrete was first poured into wooden moulds, leaving the splintery imprint of the wood. Le Corbusier liked to press seashells and pebbles of coloured glass into some of his concrete, too. The structure is exposed, like the flying buttresses of a Gothic cathedral, only without the nicety of fine-carved stone curlicues. Fans of such buildings are easy to spot, too, from their black-rimmed Le Corbusier specs to the tendency to wear raw materials, although hemp and linen are more forgiving than concrete. They demonstrate that brutalism can cross over into the world of fashion.
It was the drama of brutalist buildings that drew me to them in the first place. I can almost pinpoint the moment. I was a teenager, browsing the fusty shelves of the local library one damp Saturday morning in the mid 1970s. The art section held many old tomes, their pages softened and smudged by decades of fingerprints. There were fat volumes showing photographs of famous paintings in black and white, as if painting was simply about image and not colour or texture, and inscrutable little histories of everything from cave painting to teapot design. But there, squeezed between lavish books with picturesque views of Victorian town halls and Georgian country houses, I discovered an interloper, a book devoted to the design of contemporary hotels around the world. Black and white photographs showed a Hilton hovering over an Amsterdam waterway and another fronting a bluff in Hawaii.
While part of me was seduced by the idea of rooftop restaurants and spacious hotel suites with pale buttoned sofas, it was the buildings that grabbed my attention. Most were made from concrete, and what fascinated me was their shape and their undisguised strength. Some were monoliths towering over city streets, with dark entrances that led into reception areas of wonderful light and height; others were held up by straining struts and engineered into Alpine rock faces so that the balconies above seemed to look out into infinite space. Many had a classic grandeur as powerful as Palladio but upscaled to reach out into the landscape. I was transfixed and my mind was transformed.
That book became one of my favourites, almost on permanent loan, along with another in the same series, which showed a world of contemporary church design. These weren’t like English churches with squat medieval towers and quiet naves made for flower displays, these were raw and brooding. To an adolescent they suggested an alien world, or at least one far from the genteel Victorian town in which I lived. These modern churches seemed to speak of the drama and emotion related to believing in something. The exterior of one was draped in shining metal as spectral as silk but inside was all rough concrete walls, cave-like and miraculous. Another was dug deep into the earth with a concrete altar as rough as a boulder.
I pored over each image with a kind of breathless awe. Like any 15 year old, I was drawn to things that were bigger than me, that might help me understand my small place in the world, and this world of brutalist buildings did that magnificently. It showed me how the built world could be exhilarating rather than simply safe and familiar. The surprisingly bold and raw shape of these hotels and church buildings was as alluring and mysterious to me as adulthood.
A few years later I was living on the campus of one of Britain’s newish universities. I had been drawn as much to its campus as to its history of art course. The campus buildings were fabulously shaped and made almost entirely from concrete, and the whole thing looked as though it had landed there rather than been built. My room sat in what were called ziggurats, a key part of the campus design, and emblematic of its architect, Denys Lasdun. We called them the pyramids, these blocks of student rooms, rising up, each floor smaller than the one below until there was nothing but a single room at the top, backed by a service tower. A walkway that was lifted high above the ground formed the spine of the place, and linked the rooms of the long concrete ‘Teaching Wall’ to the ziggurats docked like satellites in the grassy landscape.
My room was bright with large windows but it also had a snugness that made me feel safe. Its concrete walls were painted cream and its floor was covered in a dark brown carpet. Sound was muffled by the solid walls and warmth was easily contained, especially when snow transformed the undulating green landscape outside into something more ethereal. It felt like an astonishing place and we first year freshers, with our Instamatic cameras, were always taking pictures of it.
The brand-new building in which my faculty was set, on the other hand, was a total deviation from the concrete, being all steel and glass and faced in aluminium panels. Its vast interior was portioned off into gallery spaces and a restaurant as well as the School of Fine Arts and Music, and the louvred metal ceiling stretched unbroken from one end to the other. It was the work of Norman Foster, a generation younger than Denys Lasdun and destined for much greater fame. I therefore spent my days among two distinct movements of twentieth-century postwar architecture.
I found myself tugged by their opposing forces, one with its emphasis on muscular shape and modular solidity, the other with its honed, machine-like spirit. Which did I prefer—the solid concrete or the new, lightweight kind of building? The question should really have been which building worked best, because I was taught that modern architecture was about serving its purpose rather than its appearance. Or that was what its architects would have you believe. But architecture is something each of us experiences with all our senses, from the moment we first lay eyes on it to the minute we walk inside and breathe in its air and listen to its sounds. It’s impossible not to form an opinion of a building, however superficial, because, unlike a painting, we cannot turn away from it and gaze elsewhere. It surrounds us and always affects us. Churchill famously said that we shape buildings, thereafter they shape us. It’s trite but he caught something.
While the concrete blockiness of the Lasdun buildings had none of the greyhound elegance of the Foster work, their rooms had the comfort of a cocoon. The heavy concrete library, with its unpainted walls broken by screens of light wood, broad carpeted steps and colourful shelves of books, gave physical solidity to the importance of learning in just the same way as the stone of college buildings in Oxford and Cambridge (and Sydney and Melbourne) gives gravitas to education in those places. The 1960s campus felt like a new way forward while respecting the tradition of educational sturdiness, and studying there was like being held or even hugged.
The Foster building, despite the obvious lightness of its white pedestal chairs and silvery blinds and the gentle hum of its air conditioning, had a surprisingly more dominant character. Most people likened it to an aircraft hanger. The small, dark tutorial spaces, where our faces were illuminated by the projected images of Symbolist paintings and Bauhaus housing developments, were cramped but had the secret air of knowledge being passed around, almost medieval. We were sometimes relieved to congregate in the cafeteria, with its giant end wall of glass, where the lofty space seemed to elevate our earnest discussions on dada or the pictorial style of English Romanticism as much as our interest in discovering who had copped off with whom at a party the previous evening.
At the end of my second year I hitchhiked to Florence to look at the work of Italian architect Giovanni Michelucci. A few years before, in that book on contemporary churches, I had been drawn to the images of a church Michelucci had built in 1964 by the side of a motorway, to commemorate the lives lost during the great road’s construction. I had since discovered that Florence was full of his work and thought it would be an interesting project to study how a modern architect had worked in the confined space of a Renaissance city. On baking-hot days, while others paced the cool marble interiors of the Duomo and the Pitti Palace, I inspected the intersection of stone and concrete in the busy hall of a post office or gazed up at the undulating concrete ceiling of a bank built in the 1950s. The motorway church was as astounding as I’d hoped, especially the way the emotion of its straining structure was somehow dignified by its setting in a dusty, dry landscape filled with diesel fumes and rushing traffic.
I remember bumping into some friends in Florence who were baffled that I was there to study modern buildings in a city so laden with more obvious treasures. They could see no possible reason for my apparent enthusiasm for the railway station that Michelucci had designed in the 1930s when it faced the church of Santa Maria Novella in which sat one of the Renaissance’s finest treasures, Masaccio’s Trinità of 1427. It felt as though, in liking one thing I was rejecting another. And that, I think, lies at the heart of people’s stupefaction that anyone can like brutalist buildings.
Why bother with them when there are finer things around? For decades I have stopped to marvel at a housing estate or a concrete bridge or a factory when others are rushing to gawp at a nearby castle or grand temple. Is it perverse to enthuse over a concrete pier or a twisting flight of steps when others are carefully framing views of something much older and more famous? The point, though, is that these buildings fit into the history not only of art and architecture but also of human civilisation, although maybe they are the same thing. Brutalist buildings, regardless of their function, are part of a bigger story, and recently that’s been on clear display in Australia with a concrete building called Sirius.
Sirius is a housing development that occupies a prime spot looking towards the Sydney Opera House and beyond. Its apartments are stacked like little boxes, with one side stepping down to deflect the sound of trains and traffic from the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Its completion in the late 1970s followed years of tussles and political U-turns that eventually allowed public housing to be built in an area that was destined for luxury hotel and office development. Its architect, Tao Gofers, had planned that the concrete would be whitened so that it harmonised with the creamy sails of the opera house opposite, but the money wasn’t found for that. Over the years the building has suffered like much of public housing throughout the world, through lack of money, becoming shabbier and greyer and more ingrained with dirt, something of an eyesore as well as a symbol of government neglect.
When it was refused heritage listing in 2016, the state government rubbed its hands together at the thought of how much cash its sale would raise while they brightly proclaimed that they would use the money to build new public housing on the outer edge of Sydney. The logic of that jarred, with its careless dispersal of what had once been a tightly bound community, and those who marched to fight the decision also began to see historic value in the building itself. Some heard the term ‘brutalism’ for the first time. A strong and popular protest led to the government being forced to reverse its decision not to consider the building for heritage listing, although it remains likely that the public housing component is doomed. The battle isn’t over but if the building stays, however it is used, it will have become a new icon of Sydney’s harbour, one, like so many in Australia, imbued with a rich, raw history of conflict and discord.
Here, then, is an example of why some buildings of our recent past need to be kept, as markers of time. What someone sees as ugly one day is often appreciated the next, for a variety of reasons, just as it now seems unthinkable that people once howled for the removal of the Eiffel Tower. Brutalism is finding a new and enthusiastic audience and that has much to do with the dramatic shape of the buildings themselves. They evoke something almost handmade, at a time when contemporary architecture uses computers to create buildings with fanciful lines that sometimes feel as though that’s the only trick up their sleeve. Doubtless, though, there is an adolescent somewhere who will see a Frank Gehry building for the first time and be awed at the possibility of a differently shaped world. We need buildings from every era to understand the history of our world, and to be able to walk among great examples of each is certainly one of the privileges of life. It has nothing to do with what is judged to be the most attractive.
As children we are smitten by the fantasy castles in fairytales and old legends. In adulthood we seek out the magical places of the world, whether it’s the Renaissance glories of Florence, the shining spikes of commercial Shanghai or the gentle temple complexes of Asia that hum with humanity. There is a worldwide desire to see something inspiring and extraordinary. That’s why, with the distance of time, we’re beginning to see these twentieth-century concrete buildings in a new light, too. If that’s difficult to understand then perhaps if you squint and if the light is right, you’ll discover that in some cases even car parks can look like castles.
Colin Bisset is a writer and broadcaster with a special interest in architecture and design. He is the author of the novel Loving Le Corbusier (2016).