The Old-New Brutalism: Sydney and London / from the archives / issue 4

Why is Brutalism in England so reviled? Perhaps growing up in Australia helped me to appreciate it. Under the close Australian sunlight the roughly textured béton brut concrete tends to gleam translucent, flattening into stark geometric planes which reveal themselves in harsh light and shadow, even as they seem to grow out of the landscape. One of the most accomplished examples of Australian Brutalism is the University of Technology’s Ku-ring-gai campus on the outskirts of Sydney, designed by David Don Turner and Bruce Mackenzie, a building complex whose primal, futuristic concrete geometries rise up out of the bluegums like spaceships; ancient temples rediscovered in the bush. In Britain however, Brutalist architecture takes on a more sinister tone, as this same concrete looms dark and heavy under grey skies. I am here reminded of the importance of light to architecture and how it can transform a building completely, both inside and out; for under the layered, leaden light of the northern hemisphere, the effects of Brutalism seem so different to those formed under the direct, immediate Australian sun.

In Australia, Brutalism was the style of choice for many of the important institutional buildings of the 1960s and 70s, including the university campus where, for five years, I was instructed in architecture. But in Britain, the Brutalist style of building was deployed to satisfy the urgent demand for cost-effective post-war housing on a mass scale. It was also, as Banham[1] noted, frequently associated with socialist utopian ideals, and dreams of collective living (most notably by the British architects Alison and Peter Smithson), and because of its attachment to utopian thinking, seemed doomed to disappoint from the start. Australian Brutalism never suffered this fate, and seems, like most Australian architectural movements, to have escaped the justification of its own existence by the imposition of a strained and often arbitrary theoretical discourse.

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Nevertheless, in Australia as well as in England, Brutalism’s aesthetic bad name is largely undeserved. There is no doubt that it is a style out of current favorites, and this isn’t helped by the signature use of unrendered concrete, which has an inevitable tendency to weather quickly – giving a characteristic appearance of accelerated dilapidation and an abject visual poverty. In a city and a society where the signs of aging are equated with declining moral standards, there is no doubt that Brutalist housing estates have been slugged with the blame for London’s social problems, as politicians scramble to point the finger at scapegoats.

The Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens, a housing estate in east London’s Poplar, is one such grand Brutalist experiment to suffer the full force of said political wrath. Conceived of by the Smithsons as a grand socialist experiment in forging a new community, it is now widely regarded to be a colossal failure in this regard (let us not forget Alison Smithson’s unfortunate comment that Robin Hood Gardens had not been a success only because they hadn’t “got the right people” to live in it). Plagued by social ills since it was first constructed, Robin Hood Gardens is finally to be torn down and replaced with a new mixed-use development spearheaded by the local council: the 214 current council flats will be replaced with a staggering 1700 new flats over the same area of land

And so, in a move repeated throughout the history of city planning, politicians will again assume that it is not the policies they enact or the laws they pass that are to blame for society’s dysfunctions, but simply architecture. Furthermore, in a self-contradictory leap of reasoning, they will also assume that as much as architecture seems to be the cause of the breakdown of communities, it must also be pegged as their salvation. Then, by way of an attempted solution, an old development will be torn down; a shiny new one erected, and the far-reaching roots of the city’s social problems swept perfidiously under the carpet.

There are of course many problems with Robin Hood Gardens, though it must be said – and the majority of residents that have spoken to the media seem to agree – that these problems stem more from a lack of maintenance than any intrinsic fault of the design itself. Buildings must be maintained - services must be replaced, concrete must be cleaned, facades must be repaired, windows must be refitted, interiors must be updated. This all costs money, and the longer any building goes without ongoing maintenance, the more expensive that maintenance becomes.

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 The quality of a building can often be determined by how it weathers, and it seems to me that Robin Hood Gardens has, for all its neglect, stood up remarkably well in this regard. The Smithsons may not have been verbally tactful architects, but they certainly knew how to build a building to last and to endow it with a quiet dignity and a subtle beauty that is far from brutal – despite its sheer bulk and heavy mass. In fact, it is the combination of a heroic overall scale with the deployment of delicate proportions in the detail that strikes me as one of Robin Hood Gardens’ great successes. The facades of the two rectangular ship-like forms that hug the curves of the grassy, treeless hill at the center of the site are remarkably complex in their formal articulation and speak of an organization of well laid-out apartments behind their concrete skins.

The sky is mostly grey the day I visit Robin Hood Gardens, but later in the afternoon, the sun does come out briefly. When it hits the concrete, the rays play off the nuances of depth built into the facades, laying down a patterned rhythm of shadow and light on the weathered panels. Strangely I can at this moment almost fancy that I am back in Sydney, a city that is, now that I no longer live there, composed architecturally in my mind almost exclusively of flashes of sun and the tactility of rough-hewn, hot concrete.

Emma Jones is an architectural graduate from Australia with a passion for inter-war modernism and post-war Brutalism. She has recently completed an MA in History and Theory of Architecture at the Architectural Association in London, where she currently teaches First Year architectural theory.

[1] The New Brutalism – Ethic or Aesthetic, Roger Banham, Documents of modern architecture series, 1966

© Emma Jones

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 4 'BRUTAL'