Lead book review

A crushing case for brutalism — with the people left out

Elain Harwood’s Space, Hope and Brutalism reflect the heavy impact of its subject, and some of its callousness

10 October 2015

9:00 AM

10 October 2015

9:00 AM

Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945-1975 Elain Harwood

Yale University Press, pp.703, £50, ISBN: 9780300204469

First things first: this is one of the heaviest books I have ever read. Eventually I finished with it resting uncomfortably on my knees, as I perched on the edge of my bed. It reminded me of when I met Jennifer Worth (of Call the Midwife fame) and she showed me her hardback copy of my own substantial tome Austerity Britain — neatly spliced in half to make two separate manageable entities. Reluctantly I can now see her point; but in the case of Elain Harwood’s Space, Hope and Brutalism, the doorstopper’s doorstopper, I doubt if I would have the strength to do the same.

The physical inconvenience of Harwood’s book is doubly unfortunate because there is some evidence that Britain’s often reviled modernist architecture of the quarter-century or so after the war is having a moment, to judge by two straws in the wind this autumn. London’s annual Open House weekend included booking-only tours of Ernö Goldfinger’s increasingly iconic Trellick Tower (on the right soon after leaving Paddington station), all tickets for which were snapped up within minutes; and much the same happened with the National Trust’s Brutal Utopias season, featuring tours of the Southbank Centre, Denys Lasdun’s University of East Anglia (students living in ‘ziggurats’) and the streets-in-the-sky of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate. According to the trust, it is the young, not ageing nostalgics, who go on these tours — another sign, like Labour’s new leader, of the appeal to that generation of the authentically honest and unvarnished.

Certainly it is the young who mainly occupy the pages of a complementary new book, Stefi Orazi’s unashamedly celebratory Modernist Estates: The buildings and the people who live in them today (Frances Lincoln, £25). ‘I’ve always wanted to live high up, and I am a fan of Brutalism and the generosity and intelligence of residential layouts designed at the time,’ declares Maria Lisogorskaya, living on the 24th floor of Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, east London’s sister to Trellick. ‘Concrete!’ replies Katy Carroll when asked to name the best things about living in Park Hill. ‘The interior/exterior space, the views afforded by the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, and the light they bring right into our living space.’

Irrespective of likes and dislikes, what happened to Britain’s postwar built environment, especially between the late 1950s and early 1970s, is undeniably a resonant subject, one that has directly affected the daily lives of almost everyone ever since. The underlying driving forces of that profound physical transformation included the well-meaning, top-down values and assumptions of the newly created welfare state, a belief in the superior virtues of planning and communal living, the bewitching sway of Le Corbusier on cohorts of architectural students, an abhorrence of Victorianism (associated with plutocracy, urban squalor and ill-disciplined visual profusion), an accompanying year-zero faith in progress and modernity, and an eye for the main chance on the part of aesthetically insensate property developers. By the late 1960s, especially following the Ronan Point high-rise disaster of 1968, a reaction was palpably setting in; by the mid-1970s, amid economic crisis, an era was over.

At the core of Harwood’s treatment are a dozen lengthy thematic chapters. The staples are there, of course — town centres, new towns, housing, schools, universities, commercial buildings, public buildings; but her detailed, near-comprehensive survey also takes in hospitals, transport, agriculture, religion, leisure and much else. Her technical expertise is formidable, the research is thorough, and she mostly avoids jargon. Altogether it is an astonishing achievement, matched only (in terms of the architectural history of postwar Britain) by Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius in their 1994 study of high-rise public housing, Tower Block. Like them, Harwood is a committed modernist, wholly buying into the seductive fallacy that form must follow function; but she is seldom overtly didactic, and in a micro sense anyway her approach is essentially dispassionate.

Take, almost at random, the chapter on transport. Stockwell Bus Garage, Preston Bus Station, railway stations at Manchester (Oxford Road), Coventry and Birmingham (the now revamped New Street), Paddington Maintenance Depot, the City of London’s ‘Zidpark’, the first generation of motorways and their service areas (the M1’s Newport Pagnell the pioneer, still a time warp in 2015), the Severn Bridge, the Blackwall Tunnel, the Hammersmith Flyover, the Elephant and Castle subway-infested gyratory, the all-devouring Birmingham Inner Ring Road, the Scandinavian-style Gatwick Airport (on the late-1950s cusp of ‘soft’ modernism giving way to the brutalism of ‘hard’ modernism) — they are all here, invariably with illuminating information, and virtually the only omission I noticed was Reading Car Park, to which the Financial Times in 1968 devoted an entire survey.

And yet, and yet… Ultimately there is something sterile about this book, epitomised by the many illustrations, the great majority of which are recently taken photographs of surviving exteriors and interiors — handsomely reproduced, but with barely a person in sight. Indeed, it is the lack of people, in any interesting, flesh-and-blood sense, which is the biggest problem. Despite having assiduously interviewed many of the modernist architects, Harwood seldom if at all evokes them as individuals, with their often idealistic passions and arrogant mind-frames; while as for the people who actually lived in and used the buildings, they barely manage a walk-on part. Almost the only exception comes at the end of the chapter on hospitals, with one early patient at Northwick Park telling the Wembley News in 1970 that the curtains in the window made it ‘homely’ (that unfavourite modernist word), another that it was ‘just like staying at the Hilton’. Admittedly the whole question of contemporary reactions is an intensely complicated one (more so than either modernists or anti-modernists usually admit); but Harwood should have had a stab.

Other criticisms also go beyond a mildly regretful tut-tut. In reality, the intellectual and aesthetic traffic during those years was far from exclusively in one direction, and it is a pity that Harwood neither draws out the debates nor explores the tortured souls of knowledgeable and perceptive witnesses like Lionel Brett (later Viscount Esher) or the great Ian Nairn, who desperately wanted the modernity project to succeed but became increasingly depressed by its flaws. The other key omission (which I find difficult to forgive) is any real consideration of all the destruction involved — destruction that often went beyond the physical (Euston Arch, Coal Exchange, etc) and involved the wanton scattering to the four winds of communities that could never be reassembled. In this vast book, almost unbelievably, we hear barely a heartfelt whisper from John Betjeman.

Why, beyond Ronan Point and fiscal pressures, did the reaction against modernism eventually arrive? Harwood rightly points to the breakdown of the postwar centre-ground political consensus, but there was much else that played its part in the changing zeitgeist. Take the Beatles: the acme of modernity back in 1962, just five years later they were celebrating in ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!’ the pre-modern. Moreover, a few years further on, by the early 1970s, something potentially major was afoot: localism (go to any big-city local studies library and see the rash of community newspapers from that time), small is beautiful, feminism (the politics of the domestic), the real ale movement. With more imaginative leadership on Labour’s part — less male, fewer union barons, fewer smoke-filled rooms — the 1970s might have played out very differently. After all, most people most of the time want a better yesterday; the shame about modernism, long before the advent of Margaret Thatcher, was that that comforting possibility was debarred from the table.

In the end, inevitably, there is always a subjective quality about architecture. Speaking personally, if given the unattractive choice between old-school brutalism and new-school infantilism (the Cheese-grater, the Walkie-Talkie, et al), I know which, despite everything, I would tend to prefer. Indeed, near Junction 12 of the M25 one passes under a strikingly brutalist bridge — defiantly there, take it or leave it — of which I have grown curiously fond. Even so, there are limits; and as with Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush album, where one ‘Southern Man’ is quite enough, a preference for the intimate and the mellifluous is only human.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

David Kynaston is the author of Austerity Britain, Family Britain and Modernity Britain. Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £45 Tel: 08430 600033

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Show comments
  • freddiethegreat

    “Spliced in half”. What on earth does that mean?

    • Peter Bensley

      It means that a nitpicker will soon arrive in the comments.

    • Peng Hui Lee

      Typo. Sliced.

  • red2black

    Eartha Kitt wanted an old-fashioned house, with an old-fashioned fence, and an old-fashioned millionaire. Surprised she didn’t end up with one of the geezers from that Brinks Mat caper back in the 1980s.

  • Christian

    Ah, the decadent middle class. Living in a concrete tower block and playing at being working class

  • ray globe

    .. the image caption is incorrect .. that isn’t Park Hill flats .. it’s a picture of Norfolk Park flats in Sheffield ..

  • Arbitrary Handle

    I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by brutalist monoliths. Born well after their construction, I found them horribly seductive. Like an unexplainable congenital illness from the past.

    New architecture seems hit and miss. I actually quite like the cheesegrater, even with the unfortunate name. The walkie-talkie is awful. The new curse seems to be those cheap, blocky, multi-coloured plasticy buildings that have somehow spread everywhere in the last 5 years. They will soon seem to be as dated as brutalism is now, I would say.

    • post_x_it

      Yes, but they’re not built to last. Awful quality. Those multi-coloured panels are cheap plastic, and they often start to crack and fall off as soon as the buildings are finished. I often wonder about those new-build flats that are sold off on a 125-year lease when the building clearly won’t last more than ten.