Category Archives: brutalism

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.

Shelter for the homeless

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-20-07-43The São Paulo Museum of Art, writes Dalrymple, is

a brutalist black glass-and-concrete block of pleasing proportions, elevated above the ground by four concrete structures, preserved from being completely dismal by their deep red coloration.

The raised block

provides shelter for some of São Paulo’s homeless who camp under it. I assume they are not an artistic installation. One never knows these days, the frontiers of art having expanded like Muscovy’s under Ivan the Terrible.

Fuck off, humanity!

Tours Nuages, Nanterre. Emile Aillaud, 1977

Tours Nuages, Nanterre. Emile Aillaud, 1977

This is the message, writes Dalrymple, of modern French architects. Their work, he points out, is

some of the worst in the world.

Perhaps, he says,

the rejection of beauty as a goal by French architects accounts in part for the adoption as a style by so many of the young French of deliberate ugliness and self-mutilation. In a world of brutal ugliness over which you have no control, you might as well admit defeat and join in.

He notes that while the worst of modern culture originates in England, it has in the rest of Europe

spread rapidly.

Little love for Lasdun

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Denys Lasdun: apartments

Dalrymple does not have much time for Denys Lasdun (1914-2001). He says:

I doubt whether a worse architect has ever lived. To design uglier buildings than his would be a stimulant to the imagination worthy of a prize competition.

Lasdun loved concrete, and

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Denys Lasdun: theatre

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Denys Lasdun: college

his designs were as dehumanising as any dictator’s decree.

Dehumanising cities with hideous concrete buildings, Dalrymple says,

is bad. One suspects a generalised or epidemic spiritual sickness. Architects of Lasdun’s times mistook destruction for creation.

Bad buildings

are noxious but inescapable. An author has a right to his badness, but not an architect.

Dalrymple suspects that those who claim to like Lasdun apply

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Denys Lasdun: offices

extra-æsthetic considerations, such as that they were at the cutting edge in the way Lister was at the cutting edge of the surgery of his time. They indulge also in an architectural variant of Macbeth’s logic: that past architectural crimes are so heinous one has to continue them or admit them.