Et tu, Brutalism

Jacob Charles Wilson reflects on the most enduring architectural movement of the 20th century

Dutch Embassy, Chancellery Building, SeARCH, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2005. Julian Elliott

We live in a brutal world. Open your phone and there will be three photo galleries of Yugoslavian spomeniks, two interviews with young authors in their Barbican flats, nine homemade concrete plant pots, and at least two fashion shoots on the Alexandra Road Estate. We’re all guilty – this article is guilty – but for a moment let’s bring it back to architecture.

Brutalist architecture has probably never been this popular. Even when the style first emerged in the 1950s, and throughout its heyday in the 1960-70s, it remained the architect’s architecture, and the bane of many. But it’s now undergoing something of a revival, the map of brutalist architecture is being rewritten – quite literally. The Atlas of Brutalist Architecture serves as a guide to this brave new world, featuring nearly 900 buildings representing the work of over 700 architects across 100 countries. Brutalism has outgrown its foundations, it’s enjoying a more forgiving definition, and there’s a greater appreciation for these foreboding monuments as they’re recognised for what they are: architectural marvels, not simply concrete monstrosities.

St Joseph‘s Hospital, Bertrand Goldberg Associates, Tacoma, Washington, USA, 1974. Goldberg Family Archives

But for those who have been living under a slab of concrete for the past few years: what is brutalism? There’s no simple answer; brutalism as a style and as a name has many competing histories. Jonathan Meades, in his incomparable documentary Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry, sees influences in the 18th century appreciation of sublime wildernesses, the hulking Baroque palaces of architect John Vanbrugh, and the bunkers and fortifications of the Second World War. When this architecture of accretions was eventually given a name nobody could agree on where exactly it came from: perhaps from the French béton brut, the term for raw concrete that hasn’t been polished down, or perhaps the Swedish name Nybrutalism. Either way, the part that became cemented in people’s minds was ‘brutal’, so conventional wisdom follows that brutalist buildings are hulks, raw, threatening, and always made of concrete.

Reading Pavilion, Jinhua Architecture Park, Herzog & de Meuron, Jinhua, China, 2006. Addison Godel

The Atlas of Brutalist Architecture counters this conventional definition, showing, in the sheer expanse of its survey, that brutalism has always been a flexible definition: Brutalist architecture aspires, experiments, it is space age architecture rooted firmly on the earth. This unparalleled publication covers almost all the structures that connoisseurs will be familiar with: Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre on London’s Southbank, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille, France, and Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnnell’s City Hall for Boston, in the United States, as well as many more underappreciated buildings: the PEGLI 3 housing estate in Genoa, Italy, Agustin Hernandez Navarro’s Praxis Home in Mexico City, and the Hemeroscopium House, Madrid, amongst other lesser known houses and hospitals, libraries and lecture halls that are simply difficult to access, closed down, or destined to be demolished.

Stamp House, Charles Wright Architects, Cape Tribulation, Queensland, Australia, 2013. Patrick Bingham-Hall

Each brief entry comprises a single black and white photograph. It’s a shame there couldn’t be more, but it’s a clear case of quality over quantity. In any case, I found the small glimpse of a building enough to make me want to scope it out in person. The lack of images is only really lamentable in the 30 or so entries which have already been demolished. The descriptions accompanying each photograph are concise, but give enough sense of the building by providing context of its construction and use. Importantly, each entry features a key denoting the condition, current usage, and protection status of the building – essential for those planning to actually visit the sites.

Synagogue, Officers’ Training School, Zvi Hecker; Alfred Neumann, Mitzpe Ramon, Israel, 1968. Henry Hutter/Zvi Hecker Architect

Context is vital in understanding buildings, yet the easily manufactured clickbait of concrete surfaces and obtuse angles has decontextualised many of these structures – a problem that the architecture critic Owen Hatherley has formerly written on. It’s often said that Brutalism is an ethic as much as an aesthetic: about what a building ought to do, as well as how it looks. Perhaps this is why hatred of brutalism is passé, because Brutalism represents for us a time when buildings were built for a purpose, an approach to architecture very different from our own cheap and quick multi-functional rental units.

Synagogue, Officers’ Training School, Zvi Hecker; Alfred Neumann, Mitzpe Ramon, Israel, 1968. Henry Hutter/Zvi Hecker Architect

The most fascinating part of the Atlas is where the images of buildings outside of North America and Western Europe are given context. Here mid-century brutalist architecture never just meant raw concrete, but represented the idea of creating a new identity for these recently-independent and non-aligned nations, a stylistic break from the eerily repeated colonial and Stalinist classicisms. For example: the post office in Agadir, Morocco, designed by Jean-François Zevaco, represents a blending of monumental European modernism and local Arab traditions resulting in a building that resembles an upturned version of the city’s Casbah. The Mexican National Museum of Anthropology sits on the site of the first Aztec settlement and houses one of the best collections of Pre-Columbian artefacts. The Indian parliament building at Chandigarh, regarded as one of the best buildings designed by Le Corbusier, stands as an enormous monument to the country’s hard-won independence.

In my mind, Brutalist buildings are stunning. Associated with honesty to materials, unforgiving inventiveness, and dedicated to social good, it’s easy to see why the style has come to be revived and emulated across media. But is it just another passing trend? Will we find it next week supplanted by romanesque lampshades or wattle and daub coffee pots? If it is a passing trend then it’s simply the same as any other. But I do hope there’s more to it, that it might be the start of a real reassessment of a maligned cultural moment. This Atlas is a good place to start learning the stories of global importance behind the images, but it also simply provides an indispensable guide for planning your next holiday photoshoot.

The Atlas of Brutalist Architecture, published by Phaidon, is out now

Turning Over A New Leaf: Palm Book

Zak R. Dimitrov reflects on the first physical issue of photography blog, Palm*Studios

When Lola Paprocka launched the independent publisher Palm*Studios together with her friend and colleague Brian Kanagaki in 2015, she already had a few art publications and events under her belt. Palm*Studios was born out of the need and desire to promote fresh photographic talent that comes straight out of university as well as some more established photographers. Paprocka takes her inspiration from Brutalist architecture, nature and portraiture which inevitably transpires through her personal artwork, and the exhibitions and publications she is involved with.

The Palm Book is a brilliant archive of work that’s been featured on the online platform. It pulls together photographers from across the globe – Poland, Italy, USA and Australia, among others – showcasing their personal takes on nature and their surroundings. The eclectic mix of portraits and landscapes is brought to life by the refreshingly varied design and layout decisions made by the team. According to Paprocka, the book is only the first in a series that will continue to publish projects that have appeared on Palm*Studios’s website.

It is a great idea to present the same work in a completely different format, which is also aimed at different audiences – some prefer the accessibility and instantaneity of a website, others the physicality of the book and its ability to take the viewer away from the screen. At 24x32cm and 130 pages, it is light and easy to flick through, which provides for a great viewing experience of the first edition’s content – people’s hands behind their backs holding objects; a young semi-nude man with disheveled hair, obscure black and white image of the moon presented in full bleed, silhouettes, rocks and houses.

The Palm Book is available for pre-order now at a discounted price of £40; the launch will take place on 21st March at Leica Mayfair, after which it will cost £45. Palm are also planning to organise a photography award, which will be happening in early May.

Neave Brown

In an extract from the latest issue of Port, Will Wiles reflects on the career of one of the last surviving proponents of architectural modernism

Defending the modernist council housing built in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s sometimes feels like sticking up for a shadow. Plans were mangled by bureaucrats, corners macheted by contractors, maintenance neglected by local authorities, and the whole sector was assaulted and stigmatised by national policy – it can be a litany of excuses and qualifications, all seeking to explain how the work of talented architects was betrayed. As I write, demolition has begun at the Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar, east London. The work of Alison and Peter Smithson, two of the greatest architects of the post-war generation, Robin Hood Gardens has been the subject of spirited defence by a wide section of the architectural profession. But almost all of it has been a hobbled, “Yes, but” type of argument, forced to deviate around the all-too-evident problems that have plagued the estate, and instead make a case for the Smithsons’ original intentions.

But there are some modernist council estates that do not need this kind of qualification, as their quality is self-evident. Two are in Camden and are the work of one man, the architect Neave Brown. Visiting the Alexandra Road Estate – Brown’s masterpiece, completed in 1978 – with the architecture writer Owen Hatherley on a sunny bank holiday weekend, its success is unmistakeable. People are out on their terraces and in their gardens, and children are playing in the central street. It is both quiet and lively, secluded and active, private and public. The building, a long, stepped block on an almost megastructural scale, is grand without being imposing. “It’s absolutely monumental; it’s a huge project, but with great intimacy,” says Hatherley, an ardent advocate for both modernist architecture and council housing, expressed in a series of witty, polemical books, such as A Guide to the New Ruins Of Great Britain. “It’s the holy grail of housing; it’s what everybody wants to do, and it manages it with great aplomb. You’re part of something huge and you’ve got your particular space within it.”

Brown, who is 88 this year, is the only living UK architect whose entire back catalogue is listed. While his buildings are preserved, what of his ideas? At the time of writing, a campaign is under way to have Brown awarded the RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal, the highest honour in British architecture. This would be a long overdue recognition for an architect whose contribution to housing design went almost unrecognised in its time. [Brown was confirmed as the 2018 recipient of the Royal Gold Medal on 28th September 2o17]. But a look at these buildings reveals a paradox: They show the best that can be achieved, but also why the best is so hard to achieve, and might never be achieved again.

It’s easier to understand how Brown’s entire UK-built work can be listed when you learn that it amounts to just three buildings – all housing, all in the London borough of Camden and all remarkable. The earliest, from 1964, was the result of a housing cooperative he had founded with friends, who built five houses on a small plot at Winscombe Street in Dartmouth Park. These are a modernist interpretation of the Victorian terrace, united by a plain white upper level that overhangs the front. Each house is entered above street level, from a raised porch reached by a segment of spiral stairway protected by a curl of concrete wall. Brown’s friends had not intended the project to have such architectural unity, the architect told Building Design magazine, when the houses were listed in 2014. He had met with each family privately: “They all told me what they wanted and it was more or less the same thing,” he said to BD. “I went away and designed it and then showed each one the plan of their house. They all said, ‘That’s lovely.’ Later, when they saw each other’s houses, they were startled to find that they were all the same.”

On the strength of these houses, a private project, Brown was given the job of designing the larger Dunboyne Road council estate (also called Fleet Road), completed in 1977. The family resemblance with Winscombe Street is immediately obvious, on a much larger scale, with the same spiral stairs sheltered by curved shuttered concrete. Here, the plain white volumes of the low-rise blocks are broken up and given definition and interest by a black frame; they overlook secluded central circulation spaces, abutted by private gardens that contribute their greenery to an overall pleasant boskiness. For a high-density project in the heart of a great city, it has a peaceful suburban air, and it counts among its residents Brown himself, who moved there after 40 years in Winscombe Street.

Alexandra Road, commissioned shortly after, picks up the pattern again, but varies and expands it into something truly extraordinary. The layout of the estate is simplicity itself. Arranged around a pedestrian walkway, Rowley Way, paved in red brick – striking a contrast with the grey and blue terraces on either side – it provides a direct path from one end of the long site to the other. But the whole structure is curved, taking its line from the railway that forms the northern boundary of the 16-acre site.

If the central axis had been a straight line, it would have been monumental and oppressive. But its curve makes it inviting and attractive, screening the view in a picturesque way and showing stepped gardens to their best advantage. While the way through is always clear, you are also gently enclosed; Alexandra Road is a small world of its own, but without the disadvantages of the cul-de-sac. The outward-facing gardens give it plenty of what the urban theorist Jane Jacobs – no fan of modernist public housing – called ‘eyes on the street’, the passive, neighbourly surveillance that reduces crime and disorder.

Peek over the wall of railway bridge at the western end of Rowley Way to look at the estate from the back, and you might be forgiven for thinking that you’re looking at a stadium. It has the outer curve of an arena, with dramatic concrete spandrels supporting a structure that rakes outwards in tiers, like stadium seating. This thrilling heavy engineering, holding up the higher, outer curve of the street, is echoed within through the sloping buttress-like walls that screen and separate the stepped gardens. But the overriding impression is of delicacy and greenery: It froths with plants, and palms, and mature trees signpost points where the inner curve is interrupted by exits. Of course, this takes years to happen, and might explain why the initial critical reaction to the estate was fairly negative. “When these things were critiqued in the 1960s and ’70s, there was always this assumption that they were reviewing buildings like you review films or records, that it was a finished product,” says Hatherley, “and of course these things change, and the most obvious thing that changes is that the trees grow.” Photographs taken immediately after completion show an icy white ziggurat with a couple of toothpicky saplings clinging to the path. Now every garden is grown and the concrete has weathered.

It’s worth noting that Alexandra Road took 10 years to build and cost far more than was expected, partly thanks to the effects of the oil crisis on the price of labour and materials. As it came to its conclusion, it was regarded by the council as a costly mistake rather than a triumph worthy of emulation. Nevertheless, Camden made a name for itself by building public housing of unusually high quality, here and elsewhere. What made this possible?

“It’s hard to prove, but I think the decisive thing may have been that Camden had a big tax base,” says Hatherley. “So you had quite a lot of poor areas, as you still do, but you also had Hampstead and Highgate, and a big housing budget. And you had the left intelligentsia here which otherwise doesn’t exist in Britain.” A large budget and political cover gave the council the confidence to reject the ‘four tower blocks for thruppence’ deals that developers were flogging to other, less fortunate, local authorities.

As a beneficiary of this (partly unintended) largesse, Alexandra Road is a tempting vision of what much more modernist council housing could have been, had corners not been cut. But, as Hatherley points out, that makes it a paradox: In one sense, it isn’t strictly modernist.

“Half of the argument for modernism was that it was cheaper,” he says. “ ‘Actually, we don’t have to pay for all of this folderol; we’ve got all these technologies that can do it fast and unpretentiously.’ No one has ever in British housing had the confidence to say ‘This is going to take 10 years; it’ll cost a tonne of money, and it’ll be worth it.’ And that’s certainly not what Camden council said.” Will we ever build this way again? If the failures of modernist council housing estates are often self-evident, so too is the 30-year failure of the private sector to provide a reasonable alternative.

Brown is among the last survivors of a heroic generation of architects who were prepared to try radical solutions to the problem of mass housing. It’s a problem that still haunts us today, and once again council housing is on the agenda, with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party promising a council house-building programme on a scale unseen since the 1970s. But Alexandra Road is not necessarily a pattern to be followed – its strength is in its particularities. “So often the best stuff is like this,” says Hatherley: “totally fitted to a particular site, completely fitted to a particular client and their particular needs, and unrepeatable. It has all of these qualities, and there’s nothing else like it.”

Photography Cian Oba-Smith

This is an extract from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe, click here.

Port Issue 21

The latest issue of Port is out now, featuring our interview with the inimitable Steve Buscemi, a focus on the Royal Gold medal winning architect Neave Brown, and much more…

“He kicks ass, man. His range is incredible”, so remarked Jeff Bridges to Port recently. And it’s true: Steve Buscemi does kick ass. But he also knows how to walk the line between multiple different guises. He’s an industry grandee, with cult status; an arthouse movie darling, and a blockbuster powerhouse. When Port met one of the most nuanced actors of his generation in a quiet bar in Brooklyn, we received a masterclass in maintaining a successful yet steady life.

Hollywood action hero, TV mobster and art-house loser Steve Buscemi sits down with award-winning author Charles Bock to discuss playing Nikita Khrushchev in the upcoming The Death of Stalin, his addiction to watching classic movies on TCM, the vanity of the movie business, and his newfound passion for yoga.

Over in the Style section, our Miami Noir editorial – styled by Dan May and shot by Greg Lotus – features a sharp selection of menswear from Emporio Armani, while a series styled by Will Johns features a range of Hermès accessories elegantly interspersed with scenes from a Sussex village. Elsewhere, we offer our take on the hottest men’s outerwear of the season, and mingle casual menswear with dramatic botanical images.

In the features section, sailor Alex Thomson reflects on his experience of the Vendée Globe, a grueling, round-the-world solo yacht race, and the most demanding of its kind on the planet. Will Wiles reflects on the career of one of the last surviving proponents of brutalist architecture, Neave Brown, who was recently awarded the highly coveted Royal Gold Medal; and photographer Elliott Verdier travels to the remote central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan to capture an ex-Soviet state struggling to find a national identity in a globalised world.

Acclaimed novelist and playwright Hanif Kureishi explores the connection between drugs and countercultural movements, while Alain de Botton muses on that million dollar-question: what is the relationship between capital and contentment, and what can banks tell us about the psychology of money? Conflict photographer Giles Duley unravels the ethics of photography in documenting a violent world, while Steven Johnson considers the ramifications of communication with life beyond Earth.

Highlights from the Porter include 108 Garage chef Chris Denney’s celebration of the versatile Japanese seaweed kombu; a focus on the life and work of Soviet Constructivist Vavara Stepanova; and a conversation between Mozambican author Mia Couto and his protégé, Brazilian author and translator Julián Fuks.

To buy a single issue or to subscribe, click here


Exploring Brutalist Sydney

Discover Australia’s lesser-known Brutalist architecture with a guide to the raw concrete wonders of Sydney and its suburbs
“In giving physical form during the last vestiges of architectural modernism, Sydney’s Brutalism, which finished late by international standards, manifested in a variety of building types for a confident Pacific-rim city,” writes Sydney-based architect and urban designer Glenn Harper in his introduction to the Sydney Brutalist Map. Harper has a passion for Australia’s lesser-known Brutalism and since receiving a travelling scholarship for his Sydney Brutalist Project, has recently collaborated with independent map publishers Blue Crow Media to create an architectural map of the city, which also includes his own photographs.
“Having a direct and truthful exposure of material in either béton brut finish, precast concrete or textured brickwork, the uniqueness of Sydney’s Brutalism responded to a city of distinct topographic and urban character,” Harper explains. “With the first Brutalist buildings dating to the early 1960s and being houses within steep ‘bushland’ settings or educational buildings within new university campuses, the later projects of the 1980s were monumental and distinctly civic.”
Sydney is the latest city spotlighted in a series of Brutalist maps, joining London, Paris and Washington. The map features 50 of the most inspiring examples of Brutalist architecture in Sydney and its suburbs, from Pennant Hills to Sutherland and Curl Curl to Penrith. 
The Brutalist Sydney Map is out now
Photography by Glenn Harper