Mention Brutalism to your average Brit and most will think of ugly, concrete buildings that seem to sap England of joy! Concrete, which partners drizzle in such a bleak union in the way that cheery red brick has never achieved. It doesn’t help that this branch of the modernist movement is called “Brutalism.” Brutalism gave us The Barbican, The Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Trellick Tower alongside other iconic buildings of the 1950’s to 1970’s. We didn’t like it; we considered it brutal and aggressive as well as new and totalitarian. Hang on a minute, Brutalism doesn’t actually mean brutal. The word comes from the French ‘brut’ which means ‘raw’ or ‘unprocessed’ or in my case ‘dry’ as in Champagne! “What!” I hear you cry. “So these towering monoliths weren’t the product of dystopian monsters bent on revenge for human destruction of the earth?” *
Umm, no, it was meant to be exactly the opposite. Architects, led by the great Corbusier, saw this style as being inclusive and meant for everyone. The use of the building was to be the hero and not the fancy-schmancy,lah-di-dah grandeur of it. This was honest, approachable architecture, open to all and to be used by anyone. These were the People’s Palaces. The Barbican is a great example of moving the arts away from just the elite of London who visited the Covent Garden shrines to Opera. Its theatres, concert halls and cinemas are practical, down to earth and aimed at everyone with an interest in theatre, even if tickets to the latest Shakespearean production sell out in less time than it takes to find the way out of this convoluted and exasperating place! The Barbican is not a concrete jungle, it is a carefully thought out village with columns and balustrades that have been painstaking jack hammered to give it the famous rough exterior.
When was the last time you were up close and personal with some concrete? If you have never stared at a concrete structure, you haven’t lived because, to be honest, there is concrete and then there is concrete. Back to the Barbican; the jack hammering was all done by hand to create an overall artisanal finish on what would have been a plain wall. Not many people know that it weeks to finish. There are even nuances between the rougher exterior walls and the slightly softer hammer-brushed interior walls.
For those who are glazing over, lets talk about the South Bank and its Brutalist heroes, the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall. Again, you will note large-scale concrete towering above the Thames housing one of London’s best art galleries and concert halls. If you do not like these buildings, before you write them off, please take a look at the expensive concrete effect called boardmarking. This is created by pouring concrete between two panels of raw Nordic pine planks, creating a wood-effect finish that looks as if it might even leave you with a splinter if you touched it.
Next time you are near any of these buildings, take a closer look and you might like them just a little more than before!
* please allow a little poetic licence here
As a tour guide and a lover of London, I will be writing a series of interesting stories about London; tales I have heard, places I have visited, tasty food I have eaten and delicious drinks I have enjoyed. Watch out for this every week or so.