A Tour of London’s Brutalist Architecture

A Tour of London’s Brutalist Architecture

Brutalism, love it or loath it, London is the spiritual heart of the architectural movement, so to celebrate the launch of its Atlas of Brutalist Architecture, a tome of a book mapping 878 Brutalist buildings by 798 architects in 102 countries, Phaidon organised a tour of the Brutalist masterpieces of London.

So what is Brutalism? The easiest answer is to say that it’s a style of architecture that flourished from the 1950s to 70s, with its roots in the modernism of the interwar period and the work of Le Corbusier.

It’s architecture aggressively of the machine age, employing concrete of various types and shapes as its principal building material. Often you’ll find concrete has been poured into moulds in situ with the planks leaving their imprint, thus exposing the way the building was made and giving texture. This contrasts with prefab panels that were often textured by hitting panels manually with bush hammers. You’ll find shapes that reflect the different spaces within the building, and architectural features such as cantilever floors, that can’t be built with traditional techniques.

It’s fair to say that Brutalism is the architect’s architecture not the publics, even though the style was very much about public rather than private spaces.

The South Bank

The Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre and National Theatre are all Brutalist buildings, each representing different stages of it. The Royal Festival Hall’s smoothness and Scandinavian notes of the 50s become the 60s hard, darker Brutalism of the Hayward, and then in the 70s, with the National Theatre, a toned down version of the 60s. All were hated in their day and for years were under threat of demolition, but over the decades they have become more liked.

Waterloo Bridge is also Brutalist and, as few realise, was built by women during the war, hence it’s nickname of the ‘women’s bridge’. That said, the role female labour played in building it has only been fully understood and realised in the last 5 years.

Space House

Space house – the name reflects the tech ideas of the time – just off Kingsway, was designed by Harry Hyams, the same team behind Centre Point. Despite being half as tall as intended and remaining empty for years, the round tower is now the home of the Civil Aviation Authority and a listed building. Its design enabled it to be built quickly and easily; with much of it being made of prefab slabs this, along with the large Y shaped legs, meant that scaffolding wasn’t needed during construction.

Institute of Education

Bloomsbury, with its Georgian squares and townhouses, became one of the areas housing many Brutalist buildings. This was driven in part by the bomb damage the area suffered and the expansion of the University of London. This saw buildings replaced by large mega structures in the Brutalist style.

These mega structures housed multiple functions and were like mini cities. The outside would be heavy and permanent and the inside light and removable to allow changes to the building as its use changed. The building was intended to develop over time, not stand still, and was based on a repetitive sectional design that could be made to carry on indefinitely.

UCL’s Institute of Education is a very good example of this sort of Brutalist mega structure. It’s been refurbished many times but the structure has remained the same with its staircases and lift spaces along the side of the building allowing for this. Designed by one of the great Brutalist architects, Denys Lasdun, it was built from institute concrete, copper and tinted glass, with the service elements, like water and heating towers, visible at set intervals. It has never been a hugely popular building, in part because non bomb damaged Georgian buildings were torn down to make way for it,, replacing these soft intimate buildings with a concrete monolith that is today grade 2 listed (even though tinted windows tend to be avoided these days for the health of the inhabitants).

Royal College of Physicians

The Royal College of Physicians, also by Denys Lasdun, is perhaps the most stunning and beautiful Brutalist building in London, and is enough to sway you in favor of the style. The building overlooks Regent’s Park among the Georgian terraces of Sir John Nash. It had to fit into the historic area, take account of the age of the institution (450 years old when the new building was constructed), as well as being modern to meet its users’ needs.

The inside works around the main staircase used to process the new members. It employs the architectural trick of compression, with your entering a small chamber before it opens into a big ceremonial space. Here, for continuity, there is 300-year-old Spanish oak paneling used in the last three homes of the college, while marble and smooth mosaic tiles give it a soft ambience and even a modern medical feel of cleanliness.

The building required an act of Parliament to be constructed outside the City of London and City of Westminster. To fit with its surroundings, black brick was used to match the roof tiles and the grey mosaic tiles matched the then colour of the Georgian buildings. Brutalism didn’t reject classical architecture; it saw much in its ideas of proportion and form, and felt it was key to include this in the Brutalist design. The glass panels were the largest that could be produced then, and took 6 months to cool after making. They give the building a warmth and softness, even a sculptural feel, and invite one to enjoy it and approve the styling. It has a rare Post War grade 1 listing – it’s now 50yo and the 500th anniversary of the institution.

Brunswick Centre

The Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury, housing flats and shops, is another example of a Brutalist mega structure playing with the idea of high-density living without high-rise. It comprises two grandstand sections with the service chimneys either side of the staircases, allowing the houses to get the max amount of sunlight. Again it embodies the idea of being able to stretch for evermore.

The Centre was a private speculation but, after this failed, Camden took it over and it’s a mix of private and council accommodation. 20 years ago, the building underwent a controversial refurbishment. The conservationists were against it but the original architect was in favour, as adaption and refitting were part of the philosophy of Brutalism.

The Barbican

The Barbican has been seen both as the best and worst of Brutalism. It was certainly the most ambitions Brutalism in London. When built, the towers were the tallest residential buildings in Europe, with the balconies designed to remove the idea of the structure being a block and to allow a softer flow of lines.

Built on an area entirely bombed out, the development was aimed at having people living back in The City of London at a time when the number living there was only 500 and The Barbican had room for 2-3000. It uses the idea of separating out roads and vehicles from pedestrians, who are raised up to the walkways and public spaces of the first floor, while the ground floor is given over to the machinery that keeps it all going. The elevated walkways were designed to connect into walkways to be built throughout The City, but this never came to pass. As a result, many just end abruptly, sticking out above street level, though now some of the new developments around London Wall and The Barbican are connecting up. Of course the great downside of separating out the roads and walkways was to make The Barbican hard to navigate, something for which it is legendary.

Atlas of Brutalist Architecture

By Pahidon

Published By Phaidon

ISBN: 9780714875668

Available here

Images courtesy of Phaidon