Category Archives: architectural pathology

As a cur to its vomit, an architect returns to his concrete

Thamesmead (1967-72)

Dalrymple writes that compared to the slum dwellers of São Paulo who erect their shacks in a day, the average French or British architect is

an æsthetic illiterate and incompetent, or perhaps moron would be a better word. Æsthetically, if not hygienically, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro are to the modernist quarters of Paris what Fra Angelico is to Damien Hirst.

Perambulating in one of the modernist quarters of Paris, he observes:

The inhumanity of the designs bespeaks a psychological talent, that of the torturer who is able to apply electric cattle prods to people during the day and sleep soundly at night, having persuaded himself that his work is socially useful or even laudable.

Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar (1972)

He surveys

a residential wilderness of concrete in which the small open spaces have the appearance of prison yards. They are surrounded by menacing iron fences. The best you can say of the buildings — dehumanising even when on a small scale, with the appearance of a bunker rather than of a house or even of an office — is that you can usually find something worse in a radius of 200 yards.

The desolation

demonstrates that modern architects have about as as much regard for human individuality as they have for that of cockroaches.

Dalrymple believes the architects

have some subliminal idea of the evil that they have perpetrated. They utter the modernist mantra ‘Form follows function,’ the function in this case being the cooping up of African immigrants, needed as cheap labour, in the human equivalent of battery chicken farms. Yet the architects display some faint awareness that man does not live by function alone, so that, having erected concrete boxes of various dimensions from tiny to vast, they then, as an afterthought, append meaningless decoration to the boxes, say a zigzag pattern painted on a side wall, or a concrete false wall with a hole or a slash in it, the wall sometimes painted mauve or apple green in contrast to the grey behind and surrounding it.

Ronan Point, Canning Town (1968)

The architects

have thus invented something new and unprecedented in architecture, features that are neither functional nor decorative, that is to say decorative in any positive way, any way that might lend grandeur, elegance, charm, or tenderness to a building. It is a sign of a bad conscience and an inchoate awareness that the inhabitants have been treated as no human beings ought to be treated, as inanimate units. No doubt the size of the population, and bureaucratic complexities, ensure that large numbers of people are treated this way some or all of the time; but that is no excuse for incarnating this lamentable fact in architecture.

The political slogans that adorn the outer walls of the ground floor of many of the inhuman buildings are

anarchist rather than communist. Perhaps this is because of some awareness of the affinity of communism and fascism for this kind of architecture, as a factory for the production of the New Man who has only the supposed collective or national interest in his mind and no personality or character of his own. Between these buildings in Paris and those in Russia under Khrushchev or Brezhnev, or in Romania under Ceaușescu, there is nothing to choose.

Hutchesontown, Glasgow (1961-68)

Dalrymple notes that communist iconography glorified construction and was full of factories and smoking chimneys as symbols of progress. By contrast, the anarchist slogans are

much more fixated on the physical destruction of things. Looking round, it is not difficult to see why, and even to sympathise with this emphasis, albeit that Bakuninite anarchism is no more likely to bring about human happiness than is Marxist communism.

He thunders:

The hideousness of what has, on a very large scale, been constructed—at a time of prosperity unprecedented in human history—is shameful.

Alexandra Road Estate, Camden (1972-78)

 

Residential housing in the Bagnolet suburb of Paris

Part of the Tours Aillaud (1977) in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre

Fra Angelico, Annunciation, c. 1445

Damian Hirst, The Tranquility of Solitude (for George Dyer), 2006

São Paulo

Rio de Janeiro

Dalrymple schools a brute and a barbarian

Debate on the propaganda campaign to persuade people that the brutalist strain was a glorious episode in architectural history

Detail of Balfron Tower (Ernő Goldfinger, 1965-67)

DALRYMPLE: It has the ring of guilty people who protest their innocence too much, who know that they have been complicit in many crimes but hope that by noisy protestation they can drown out their conscience and befuddle the judgment of others. The architects who practised brutalism were brutes. No invading barbarians could have done more damage to towns and cities. Of course, there is no accounting for taste. As James Curl pointed out in debate with an apologist for brutalism, if you do not apprehend the horrors of brutalism at once, there is little that anyone can say. It is like trying to persuade someone that genocide is wrong who does not apprehend it at once. The great mass of the population rightly detests brutalism.

BRUTE: The newly-gained attractivity is growing by the day. In troubled times where societal divides are stronger than ever around the globe and in a world where instantaneous rhymes with tenuous, brutalism offers a grounded style. It’s a simple, massive and timeless base upon which one can feel safe, it’s reassuring.

DALRYMPLE: The idea that brute concrete could create any kind of security other than unease or fear is laughable. When defenders of brutalism illustrate their articles with supposed masterpieces, it is hardly a coincidence that they do so with pictures of buildings devoid of human beings. A human being would be as out of place in such a picture, and a fortiori in such a building, as he would be in a textbook of Euclidean geometry, and would be as welcome as a termite in a wooden floor. For such apologists for brutalism, architecture is a matter of the application of an abstract principle alone, and they see the results through the lenses of their abstraction, which they cherish as others cherish their pet.

BARBARIAN: Unrefined concrete was an honest expression of intentions, while plain forms and exposed structures were similarly sincere.

Le Corbusier: evil

DALRYMPLE: This is like saying that the Gulag was an honest expression of Stalin’s intentions. Sincerity of intentions is not a virtue irrespective of what those intentions are, and those of the inspirer and founder of brutalism were evil, as the slightest acquaintance with his writings will convince anyone of minimal decency.

BARBARIAN: Beyond their architectural function, brutalist buildings serve other uses. Skateboarders, graffiti artists and parkour practitioners have all used Brutalism’s concrete surfaces in innovative ways.

DALRYMPLE: To regard the urban fabric as properly an extended playground is to infantilise the population. Extension of graffiti artists’ canvas to large public buildings is a surrender to vandalism. No one would say of a wall, ‘And in addition it would make an excellent place for a firing squad.’

BARBARIAN: Brutalism evokes an era of optimism and belief in the permanence of public institutions—government as well as public housing, educational and health facilities. While demolishing Brutalist buildings often proves politically popular, they are typically replaced by private development.

DALRYMPLE: Many brutalist buildings, especially those devoted to public housing, have been demolished within a few decades at most because they have been so hated, not to mention dysfunctional and impossible to maintain. They evoke not permanence but the wish that they be pulled down as soon as they are erected. If many survive, it is because they are too expensive to pull down and reconstruct. Private development as architecture can be good or bad, but whether it is one or the other does not depend upon its being private. Much private development is as hideous as anything the government has managed, but that is because architects are terrible and patrons have no taste.

An American ninny in Paris

A breathless New York Times booby on a visit to the French capital writes that the barbaric Centre national de la danse building (Jacques Kalisz, 1972), at which she

stared open-mouthed

for a long, long time,

radiates childlike exuberance.

Dalrymple remarks:

Anyone who can see childlike exuberance in such a building is capable of seeing the milk of human kindness in a Nuremberg Rally.

 

A psychopathic structure

The Philharmonie de Paris, Dalrymple points out, was built

at pharaonic cost.

As monstrous as it is incompetent, it exemplifies

modern architectural psychopathy.

He likens it to

a vulgar Brobdingnagian silver lamé dress crumpled on the floor after a night of debauchery.

Repulsive, disfigured Paris

The approaches to the city are visually hideous, writes Dalrymple.

Practically everywhere beyond the confines of the centre, the eye is greeted by a modernist mess of gargantuan proportions, and every occasional building that is not a total eyesore was built before 1945.

He notes that there has been

an utter collapse of æsthetic ability, judgment, and appreciation in France.

Postcards from Birmingham

The Bull Ring: unutterably hideous. The only suitable penalty for the architects, town-planners and city councillors of the Birmingham of the 1960s is death

The Rotunda: a horrible 1960s monument to British architects’ incessant search for originality in the absence of taste or imagination. It has been preserved by the kind of criminals who allowed it to be built in the first place, in the hope that by doing so their own lack of taste and imagination will be justified or overlooked

Central Library: a preternaturally ugly and uncleanable inverted step pyramid of concrete, which replaced the magnificent and thoughtlessly demolished Victorian library

The Digbeth Dalek: there isn’t anything else like it in the world, nor should there be: uniqueness in art or architecture is no guarantee of merit or virtue, and in the hands of British architects is a guarantee of their opposite. This wall is already dirty and looks shabby; the glass roof of much of the shopping centre is also already dirty. The wall and the glass roof will be cleaned infrequently, if at all, because cleaning means costs rather than profit, and the British population has made perfectly clear by its behaviour that it doesn’t mind squalor in the least

Postcards from Melbourne

When Dalrymple first visited Melbourne in the late 1930s, it was, he says,

handsome, if not characterful.

Returning, he was

aghast at what had been done to the city. It was like a vast open-air museum of modern architectural pathology, waiting for Unesco to declare it a world heritage site.