The Brutal Dreams That Came True

Brutalist London Map

by Henrietta Billings, with photographs by Simon Phipps
London: Blue Crow Media, £8.00 (paper)
Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square, designed by Viljo Revell, 1958–1965; from Christopher Beanland’s Concrete Concept: Brutalist Buildings Around the World
Nikhilesh Haval/Age Fotostock
Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square, designed by Viljo Revell, 1958–1965; from Christopher Beanland’s Concrete Concept: Brutalist Buildings Around the World

1.

Literature that takes a wistful backward glance at the outmoded manners and mores of the previous forty or fifty years—most famously Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu—has a direct parallel in architecture. Time and again we have seen reawakened interest in the disdained buildings of two generations earlier, a span still within living memory but not quite yet history. For example, Oxford aesthetes of the 1920s (a coterie that included John Betjeman, Osbert Lancaster, and Evelyn Waugh) discovered new charm in ornate Victorian monuments that their parents’ contemporaries dismissed as eyesores. The bizarre, protopsychedelic fantasies of the Catalan outlier Antoni Gaudí emerged from a half-century of oblivion in the 1960s and enthralled an international counterculture. And the 1970s saw a new vogue for the jazzy modernistic riffs of Art Deco, which the mandarin tastemakers Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Philip Johnson in 1932 banned from their new Museum of Modern Art architecture and design department as populist kitsch.

Now, with almost clockwork inevitability, several new books indicate that the rehabilitation of yet another once-reviled phase in the building art is underway. The architecture in question is an industrial aesthetic that arose in postwar Britain and was dubbed New Brutalism, a semi-ironic, quasi-pejorative label on the order of Gothic (which implied the barbarism of the Goths) and Baroque (from the Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl). The Swedish architect Hans Asplund coined the term nybrutalism in 1949, and four years later it was used for the first time in the British journal Architectural Design. There the wife-and-husband architects Alison and Peter Smithson wrote that an unexecuted house of theirs would have had “no finishes at all internally, the building being a combination of shelter and environment. Bare brick, concrete, and wood…had this been built, it would have been the first exponent of the New Brutalism in England.”

In addition to its echoes of art brut—Jean Dubuffet’s name for outsider art—New Brutalism was also an oblique riposte to New Humanism, a set of beliefs inspired by Geoffrey Scott’s hugely influential book The Architecture of Humanism (1914).1 But Scott’s call for a return to Arts and Crafts design principles was scorned as escapist nostalgia by many young midcentury modernists. Among them was the period’s foremost British architecture critic, Reyner Banham, who with his scant empathy for the Arts and Crafts Movement’s focus on social reform issues belittlingly described New Humanism as “brickwork, segmental arches, pitched roofs, small windows (or small panes at any rate)—picturesque detailing without picturesque planning. It was, in fact, the so-called ‘William Morris Revival,’ now happily defunct….”

Yet…


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