Having fallen out of favor by the end of the last century, brutalist architecture is back with a vengeance: On social media, in documentaries and in books, enthusiasts are celebrating the concrete behemoths of the 1950s and ’60s. In his recent book, Raw Concrete, Barnabas Calder explains how he became a convert; we asked him why so many others are also following that path.
Why has there been a renewed interest in brutalism?
One reason is that 40 to 60 years after something has gone out of fashion, it tends to come back again. But I think the appeal for architects is that brutalism is full of thrilling taboos—things you’re not allowed to do now for environmental reasons. Brutalism is the architecture of the beautiful cold bridge—the same material inside and out—which was fine when nobody knew that using so much heating was doing any harm. Now that we know what a disaster that is, architects can no longer have that pure structural expression. It’s a bit of a fantasy, when you spend your time detailing insulation and cladding.
So, it’s more a revival of brutalism’s aesthetics than its social values?
Brutalism didn’t have any intrinsic social values. In the UK, it emerged at a time when there was a preponderance of social housing and public commissions, so it’s easy to associate it with the agendas of the welfare state. But a development like the Barbican in London had the opposite values of what you’d assume of local authority-built housing. The City of London Corporation wanted to defend itself from takeover by the left-wing London County Council, so it built the ultimate social housing-looking scheme. But it never subsidized the flats, so as to keep the electorate middle class and avoid voting patterns that could lead to left-wing councillors.
The National Theatre on London’s South Bank was partly motivated by left-wing ideas about giving art to the people, but hereditary aristocrat Oliver Lyttelton was its biggest supporter, partly because his mother had been a campaigner for an earlier version of the scheme. Lyttelton was thrilled that, in an age when aristocrats couldn’t pay for arts themselves anymore, they could influence government to pay for it.
What types of buildings are attracting most interest?
One tendency that’s valued is extremeness—the more concrete, the better, and the stronger the shapes, the more fans it finds. There are buildings with thinner cladding and more conventional shapes than something like the Barbican, but they have fewer admirers because they lack its gloriously expressive chunkiness.
What lessons can contemporary architecture draw from that era?
The conditions of the time were so different that we shouldn’t be literally learning from it any more than we should be learning from Gothic masons. What I hope architects will draw from the period is how brutalism changed the conditions of the day, developing a full-blooded art form that responded to the conditions of the time—for example, cheap energy and the associated abundance of concrete and steel.
Now, the need is to reduce energy consumption, yet it often feels like architects are designing buildings of the sort modernists built, then retro-fitting environmental elements onto it. If they emulated the brutalists, they would design something that looked different from the start, in the way brutalism looked different than, say, Victorian offices.
Why is the style still so divisive?
For some it seems to be political hostility. The attacks have a ring of hatred of the modernizing and egalitarian tone of much in the 1960s. Otherwise, there’s a strength to brutalism that means it’s hard to not feel anything about it. If you are someone who responds favorably to its sublimity and strength of expression, then there’s nothing else as good. If it’s not the flavor you like, then it’s very widespread and aggressively prominent.
Dr. Barnabas Calder is a historian of architecture specializing in British architecture since 1945.
The images featured in this story are from Nick Rochowski’s series, Brutalist VII – 2015, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, Denys Lasdun. Rochowski is a London-based photographer whose work is engaged with architecture and still life.