Cast in concrete26 July 2019
The brutalist aesthetic is enjoying something of a renaissance, evident through the renovation of landmark projects such as Preston bus station and Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the commissioning of contemporary additions to this most divisive of architectural styles, from London to Delhi to Beijing. Will Moffitt asks the architects behind some of these projects what accounts for this shift.
Enveloped by beams of early May sunshine, Richard Battye, lead architect on the recently completed restoration of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, offers his theory on why the heir to the British throne never quite warmed to brutalism. “One imagines that one of Prince Charles’s issues is that these buildings don’t look like the National Gallery. They don’t have a nice portico; they don’t look like his mum’s house.”
But brutalism was never going to be loved by traditionalists. While it wasn’t meant to be brutal – the term is derived from the French ‘beton brut’, meaning ‘raw concrete’ – it was a bolder, purer expression of modernism and a rejection of the ornate finery and frippery that had come to define much of the architecture that preceded it, particularly in the public sphere.
While it started with a post-war boom, it faded at the tail end of the ’70s. The UK public, at least, seemed to have fallen out of love with raw concrete, their faith eroded by a slow drip of bad press and a decline in council spending budgets.
Increasingly, however, things are looking less brutal for the polarising aesthetic. The renovation of notable landmark buildings, such as Preston bus station, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery, and the commissioning of new buildings internationally, not to mention the recent success of various coffee book tomes, calendars, walking tours and Instagram accounts, indicate the style is enjoying something of a renaissance.
For Battye, while the reasons for this resurgence of interest in brutalism are likely varied, its founding principles are an important place to start.
“A lot of these buildings are a fabulous expression of the post-war reinvention,” Battye explains. “They were designed by architects who thought architecture could change the world. They thought cultural buildings should be different, they didn’t have to look like the palaces of old.”
More like a castle than a palace, the Queen Elizabeth Hall was famously ranked by a Daily Mail poll as the ugliest building in the UK. It first opened in 1957, designed by a young group of artists working for the London County Council, most notably Ron Heron, Warren Chalk and Dennis Crompton, who would go on to found Archigram. These multilayered spaces were conceived as a series of platforms, inside and out, solidified by flowing concrete. Vast quantities of rip sawn Baltic pine were formed into shutters to contain each pour, with rainwater downpipes running through the centre.
In a similar fashion to the Hayward Gallery next door, the end result is a criss-crossing assemblage of layered concrete blocks, with lumps, bulges and ducts jutting out, with no attempt to refine the protruding parts of the exterior.
This honest use of materials is a trait that continues to draw Battye to these buildings and one that he wanted to preserve and encourage throughout the restoration process.
“There’s not much covering stuff up. There’s not much lying,” he explains. “There’s very little painting of surfaces. That’s the attractive thing about brutalism for me – it’s a really honest expression of brief and a really honest use of materials.”
Perhaps it is this sense of honesty and transparency that is attracting people to these structures, allied with nostalgia for a time where buildings were part of a broader scheme of social utopianism.
“An awful lot of brutalist architecture is an expression of a society that was focused on trying to do the right thing for its people, rather than being completely led by the market,” Battye says. “There’s an attraction to it because it does represent an era when society was less about neo-liberal economics and more about social values.”
These founding principles are largely inseparable from the buildings themselves, which serve as bold expressive structures and carefully designed feats of architecture.
“When you first look at the Hayward Gallery, you see this kind of very sculptural expressive series of things,” Battye says, “It’s hard to make sense of from a distance. But Dennis Crompton describes it as a very rational building… it just has some services in a row; it has a lift, an art lift, two staircases and a bunch of ducts in a straight line. So you end up with these incredibly sculptural buildings, but they’ve been designed from a sensible, rational perspective.”
– Richard Battye
This original notion of constructing something from the inside out, of creating a building that was primarily engineered to improve the experience for performers and audiences, was something Battye sought to encourage throughout the refurbishment process.
“It was about keeping that ethos,” he says, “Sticking to the notion that [these buildings] should be here to enable all this creative stuff to happen. Part of its legacy and part of our job was to make it possible for them to do all the things they do here more easily. Because, in the space of a week, you could have a children’s concert, a concert orchestra, a ballet and maybe some opera, and the Southbank centre wanted to do this every day, everywhere, all the time.”
The end result is a cleaner, more efficient set of buildings that have been lovingly tweaked. The foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, now a venue in its own right, has been reconfigured with tall windows cut into one concrete wall. Meanwhile, the back-of-house artists’ areas have been expanded and fitted with a glass roof. The stage has been enlarged, with the side and back walls lined with profiled timber to improve the acoustics. The Hayward Gallery’s roof lights have been replaced with naturallight- grabbing pyramids, granting Henry Moore’s wish that the works of art be seen in “God’s Daylight”.
Battye is happy with the outcome, and pleased that the renovation has improved certain features without altering the original design. “A lot of the renewed interest in brutalism is because these buildings have got to an age where they are going to be torn down or refurbished. That elicits a certain kind of nostalgia, but brutalism is also an ethic as well as an aesthetic. It’s about using materials honestly and thoughtfully, making buildings to enable people to live more fulfilling lives.”
Around the world
For Shantanu Poredi and Manisha Agarwal, co-founders of Mobile Offices, this desire to create an enriching space out of concrete forms led to the brutalist-style School of Planning and Architecture in Vijayawada, India: an expansive, three-storey building, made out of a combination of exposed concrete, fly-ash bricks, stone and weathered steel.
Completed in 2019, the structure features a giant ‘parasol’ that provides shade to the spaces below, protecting students from the 45°C summer heat. Meanwhile, a ‘stilted platform’ shapes the middle section with open-air spaces for communal activities and circulation. Floating staircases and walkways are placed between pillars and voids, enjoining the various layers with pools of light.
Studying in Ahmedabad, home to Le Corbusier’s Mill Owners’ Association and Sanskar Kendra buildings, founding partners Manisha Agarwal and Shantanu Poredi were influenced by the architect’s use of concrete rendered in strong, ordered forms. This legacy shaped a number of post-war Indian architects, including Shivnath Prasad, Raj Rewal and Kuldip Singh.
“We’ve all grown up under that sort of legacy and that sort of learning,” Poredi says. “When I was training as an apprentice, the use of concrete was ingrained in us. So those ideals become your grassroots. And in a sense, that becomes your go-to material, go-to aesthetic, and you start believing in that ideology.”
In this case, however, the use of concrete came out of necessity. “We were working with government contractors, who weren’t highly skilled, he says. “So because of that we thought we’d create something more robust, something that exposes the materials, so that you don’t have to fight for those clean lines. It came out of a need to accommodate the kind of people we were working with.”
The end result is an architect’s vision of what an architecture school should be – a series of layered blocks, classrooms and interactive spaces where learning can be both structured and spontaneous.
“I think over-protectionism is a problem that we’ve always seen in our educational institutions. So we’ve designed this project with the idea of minimum social control. I think in a subtle way, we always want to get away from that,” Agarwal explains.As Prince Charles and the traditionalists continue trying to condemn brutalism and its legacy to the bulldozer, under-protectionism is a major threat. A loyal, protective guard of followers and contemporary interpretations of the aesthetic might not be enough to save these structures, but it’s a good place to start.