In Raw Concrete historian Barnabas Calder rescues brutalism from its reputation as harsh and overbearing by focussing instead on its skill and architectural daring. In this extract he talks us through five key brutalist masterpieces
Just after I turned twenty, I begrudgingly allowed a friend to take me on a tour of Trellick Tower, thirty-one storeys of concrete council housing in West London. When we arrived, I am ashamed to say that I found myself a little scared. It was not from the pleasurable aesthetic frisson of a huge weight of concrete towering over me, but from the altogether more cowardly and absurd fear that someone might mug me.
The Barbican Estate
For me, though, the Barbican was a revelation, and bore comparison with all my existing architectural favourites: it was far bigger than Blenheim Palace, its towers as tall as the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, and its chunky concrete as bombastic, powerful and magnificently bleak as Hawksmoor’s stone-clad churches of the early eighteenth century.
New Court, Cambridge
The rooms at New Court, characteristically of 1960s student accommodation, let one really live, study and socialise there, with space for a decent desk, bookshelves, storage shelves, a chair or two (besides the bed) to sit on, and a basin for tooth-cleaning and a surreptitious midnight pee.
Leicester Engineering Building
In its original pristine form, Leicester Engineering Building was a spectacular international triumph of architectural success. It was visited by architects from all over the world until the head of department, though pleased with his building, joked that he ought to charge Stirling and Gowan for the electricity cost of turning on the lights for endless visiting groups to photograph it after dark.
The National Theatre
When I embarked on my research on the National Theatre it seemed to me a magnificent, mysterious building, releasing only slowly the secrets of its complicated layout. Even after three years of full-time research, and more work on it since, it retains this sense of mystery for me.
SHORTLISTED FOR THE ALICE DAVIS HITCHCOCK AWARD
'Brilliant' Elain Harwood
'Part history, part aesthetic autobiography, wholly engaging and liable to convince those procrastinators sitting (uncomfortably) on the concrete fence' Jonathan Meades
'A learned and passionate book' Simon Bradley, author of The Railways
‘A compelling and evocative read, meticulously researched, and filled with insight and passion’ Kate Goodwin, Head of Architecture, Royal Academy of Arts
The raw concrete buildings of the 1960s constitute the greatest flowering of architecture the world has ever seen. The biggest construction boom in history promoted unprecedented technological innovation and an explosion of competitive creativity amongst architects, engineers and concrete-workers. The Brutalist style was the result.
Today, after several decades in the shadows, attitudes towards Brutalism are slowly changing, but it is a movement that is still overlooked, and grossly underrated.
Raw Concrete overturns the perception of Brutalist buildings as the penny-pinching, utilitarian products of dutiful social concern. Instead it looks a little closer, uncovering the luxuriously skilled craft and daring engineering with which the best buildings of the 1960s came into being: magnificent architectural visions serving clients rich and poor, radical and conservative.
Beginning in a tiny hermitage on the remote north Scottish coast, and ending up backstage at the National Theatre, Raw Concrete embarks on a wide-ranging journey through Britain over the past sixty years, stopping to examine how eight extraordinary buildings were made – from commission to construction – why they have been so vilified, and why they are beginning to be loved. In it, Barnabas Calder puts forward a powerful case: Brutalism is the best architecture there has ever been, and perhaps the best there ever will be.
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