CQ Blog: Lessons from a brutal age

21 Nov 2016

Any book that opens with this sentence clearly deserves space on the This is Concrete blog. Which is partly why I recently why I met up with its author at that bastion of in-situ concrete, Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre.

Barnabas Calder describes his book, Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism, as a “personal greatest hits of British Brutalism”, but that rather undersells it. There has been a surge of interest in brutalist architecture over the past couple of years, prompted by several learned books and several thousand artfully framed Hipstamatic photographs shared through Instagram, Facebook and Flickr. Calder is certainly learned– a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool with a PhD on Lasdun, he also acted as a consultant on the recent refurb of the National Theatre by Haworth Tompkins. And there’s something of the internet groupie about him too – each chapter of the book is accompanied by a QR code that takes readers to Calder’s Flickr page and his own (very good) photos of the buildings he writes about.

But what sets Raw Concrete apart is the highly engaging way that Calder writes about concrete, and his genuine love for it as an expressive, natural building material. When I suggested that not everyone sees concrete that way, he pointed out: “How much more natural is stone that has been chopped out of a mountain by machine and planed and smoothed by other machines and bolted in thin sections onto a building made of something else? Is that really so much more natural than grinding the stone up and remixing it into a new form?” It’s a fair point.

Examples of the striking sculptural effects of concrete architecture abound throughout the book, from the “bombastic, powerful and magnificently bleak” Barbican towers to an “elegant, charming and curiously delicate” escape stair at Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower. He lovingly details the craftsmanship behind the “heroic” concrete pour at the National Theatre and the unprecedented, migraine-inducing coordination of complex services and in-situ concrete at the Barbican, while also noting the pain the concrete contractors felt when their beautiful fair-faced finishes were bush-hammered away (and the poor working conditions of the labourers doing the bush-hammering). He recounts the joys, and occasional inconveniences, of living and working in brutalist buildings, and almost makes holidaying in them sound like a sensible idea. (For the full story of why Calder spent his 32nd birthday in an Inverness youth hostel, you’ll have to read the book.)

There are lessons here not just about the conservation of brutalist architecture, but also about the way we use concrete today. Calder’s admiration for concrete extends beyond the material’s aesthetics to its innate robustness. Writing about the University of Strathclyde School of Architecture by Frank Fielden, where he worked for five years, he notes: 

“By the time I left it had taken forty-five years of rough wear: architecture students use spray glue and spray paint everywhere, they drop scalpels and Stanley knives, spill ink, hammer and saw things inexpertly, scrape tables and chairs across floors, carry large pieces of wood carelessly around corners, improvise ways of hanging things from ceilings, and Blu-Tack, glue, tape, pin and nail all manner of things to all parts of every surface. The exposed brick and concrete, built-in pinboard, wood-block floors and rubber tiling of the entrance hall had taken all this with grace. There were plenty of marks of use, but on rough, tough materials these seemed like a well-earned patina rather than tawdry decay.”

Calder sees a sustainability angle in this robustness. For him, the fact that most of these buildings are not only structurally massive but also structurally sound after half a century means that demolition – as favoured by so many of their detractors – is “absolutely the worst option ecologically”. Indeed, the varied and successful approaches to refurbishment adopted at such brutalist icons as the Park Hill estate in Sheffield, the National Theatre and, most recently, Basil Spence’s Salters’ Hall in the City of London are enough to support the notion that complete redevelopment should be a last resort.

Calder’s contention is that the truly heroic architects of our age will be those who realise that more architecture isn’t always the solution, those who “work out how much they can not do”. This might not be the answer that readers of this blog would want to hear, but the longevity of brutalism can equally lead us to another conclusion: that in a property world of perpetual, energy-intensive demolition and redevelopment, architecture that is built to last, that’s aesthetically appealing and that’s flexible enough to meet changing needs, offers a way forward. Architecture with many of the values of the 1960s, in other words, but perhaps just a little less brutal