Category Archives: architectural pathology

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 in barbaric Paris

A breathless New York Times ninny on a visit to the French capital writes that the 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.