Concrete Concept

Brutalist buildings around the world
Christopher Beanland

Packing case lettering, thick stiff card cover, no frills like a dust jacket and an A to Z of Brutalist Architecture from Jonathan Meades. What more could you want?

Christopher Beanland introduces his subject with the usual questions.

“Why brutalism?….why do you like these ugly buildings? Where the bloody hell did they come from? The answer to the first is easy as pie; the second -well how long have you got….”

Unfortunately the answer to the first is so personal that it only confirms my suspician that “brutalist buildings” are more about style than substance.

Brutalism was all the rage when I started studying Architecture. A first year project included an assessment of the South Bank complex, which rightly appears in this book (Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room). We didn’t think of it as “architecture”. We ignored or at least we’re not conscious of the discipline of creating the concrete materiality, the interiors and their functional requirements. We concentrated on the external spaces, terraces, the movement and the drama of the forms. We enjoyed photographing it and printing our own photos in black and white. Our project turned into a graphic production.

Only later did I realise that in Concrete buildings there is often no façade. Concrete is a rigorous task master. If I had done my year out working for Lasdun I would have learnt more about the discipline of the material, maybe my appreciation of its qualities would be deeper. Concrete became a means to an end not an end in itself. A malleable, invariably structural material with lots of great qualities but usually hidden because to expose it was too tricky, expensive and prone to all sorts of failures.

Meades and Beanland are not architects. This is no disqualification but as enthusiasts who love the material for its imagery, drama and robustness, they risk becoming advocates for something far more complex and challenging than they perhaps appreciate.

The 50 selected buildings are an example of the dangers of these thematic and luxuriously illustrated books. They seduce and avoid the pitfalls, the failed details, the cold bridges. There are many more that could equally deserve to be included. One of the great pities is that some are no longer with us or are actually being demolished, as I write.

If this can add to the record before it is too late, it is all to the good. Whether Brutalism and concrete can catch hold of the imagination of more than just the cognoscenti is another matter.