Category Archives: modernist slums

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.

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.

Larkin’s Coventry

Philip Larkin, Dalrymple points out,

was a bit odd. Could it be that the destruction of his home town, Coventry—its transformation from mediæval city firstly to rubble and then to modernist urban wasteland, not to mention hell—had something to do with the bleakness of his vision?

Dalrymple explains (from 8:17) that until the bombing in the Second World War, and the depredations after the war of the socialist planners (who regarded the bombing not as a tragedy but a heaven-sent opportunity), Coventry was one of the finest mediæval towns in Europe. He is reduced almost to tears by the destruction wrought both by the Luftwaffe and the post-war desecrators.

Much of Coventry could have been restored, and the very little that was restored is of outstanding beauty (though actually it was all everyday architecture at one time).

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Postcards from Poissy

Banksys of the world! This 'villa' is an ideal canvas. Please visit and tell your friends!

Banksys of the world! This ‘villa’ is an ideal canvas. Please visit and tell all your nice friends

A broken-down ‘machine for living in’

Dalrymple travels to the commuter town outside Paris to view the fascist architect Le Corbusier’s villa Savoye (1928-31). The absurd edifice, Dalrymple points out, is

the acme of incompetence.

Such a blot is, needless to say,

uninhabitable.

It was abandoned by its owners, who found they could not stand, among many other things, the leaks from the roof that were a direct result of the gimcrack design. The structure resembles, Dalrymple says,

a laboratory

or a lavatory.

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Calling all graffiti practitioners: whatever you do to this ‘villa’ will improve it. You are always welcome here

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Get that spray-can out!

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Micturate at your leisure. Thank you

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Yes, you may defecate here

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Fly-tippers will not be prosecuted

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Drug dealer? Operate here, please

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Prostitute? You are welcome to inject heroin into yourself and/or service your clients here. It will improve the ambiance

 

Postcards from Chandigarh

‘The finish is crude and rough, the raw concrete horribly stained and deteriorated.’ It was so ‘even before completion’

Corbusian Mecca

Dalrymple exclaims to the pilgrim couple next to him:

What incompetence!

The woman

opened her eyes wide, as if I had denied the prophethood of Mohammed. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked. Of the aesthetics of this hideous place I did not speak. ‘The temperature is forty-five degrees,’ I said. ‘There is no shade.’

Dalrymple claims

no particular merit in having seen at once that in a very hot climate it is best not to have large open expanses without shade, expanses paved in a material perfectly adapted to reflect and radiate heat.

That Le Corbusier did not see it

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 08.15.19is not in the least surprising in the light of his character and life’s work: his blindness was of a piece with the inhumanity that he displayed for decades and that made fascism—indeed, any totalitarianism—so deeply attractive to him. And it is his inhumanity that makes him so much a hero still in French architectural schools, liberating the architect from the need to consider anything but brute technical feasibility.

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Coventry sojourn

A jewel of Coventry commercial architecture

A jewel of Coventry commercial architecture

Dalrymple visits the West Midlands city, where

amid the hideous and dilapidating buildings of a failed modernism

he sees

  • precincts with half the shops boarded up
  • youths in hoodies skateboarding all day along the walkways
  • the prematurely aged, fat and crippled unemployed occupying themselves in the search for cheap imported junk in such shops as remain open
  • lurkers, muggers and dealers waiting for nightfall
One of the city's elegant hotels

One of the city’s charming hostelries

He stays in an establishment

whose nearest architectural equivalent is the hotel in which I stayed in Makhachkala in ex-Soviet Dagestan.

Council House, Coventry: the delicate, judicious, infinitely sensitive blending of the old with the very finest of the new architecture

Council House: the very finest of the new architecture is judiciously and most delicately grafted upon the old edifice to make a charming, congruous and unified whole. The conjoining of the two structures in this way is considered a masterstroke of restraint and elegance, much loved by the inhabitants. Truly the city is blessed to have working for it architects the likes of these

Keep your enmities in good repair

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 07.25.25Dalrymple does so by visiting a Le Corbusier exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou. He writes:

I can hardly think of a figure worthier of hatred than Le Corbusier, still hero-worshipped in French architectural schools.

A few of the French, he notes, have — too late — woken up to the fact that

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 07.36.09Corbusier was a fascist, not in the debased 1968 sense of the word, but in the boot-in-the-face 1938 sense of it. A page of his writing, or a glance at his plans for the Ville Radieuse, should have been sufficient to convince anybody of it.

Radiant

It radiates totalitarianism

Against this I raise my sword-spraycan

Heygate Estate, Walworth. Tim Tinker, 1974

Heygate Estate, Walworth, London. Tim Tinker, 1974

Enemies of Corbusian profanation do not hesitate to act

Whole acres, writes Dalrymple, of man-made surfaces are disfigured in Europe by graffiti,

in which some people, ever on the lookout for something counter-intuitive to say, claim to have found art. This is the tribute money pays to poverty without having to part with anything.

The need to assert (rather than express) oneself in some way, no matter how pointless, becomes imperative in a society in which

  • we are all called upon to be unique individuals
  • celebrity has an exaggerated importance in the mental economy of so many
  • employment is often precarious and is felt to be without dignity
  • powerlessness is obvious (powerlessness in a democracy is more humiliating than powerlessness in a tyranny)
Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London. Denys Lasdun, 1967–76

Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London. Denys Lasdun, 1967–76

Taggers tend to deface

ugly surfaces, often of inhuman size, in which modern urban spaces are so richly, or impoverishingly, supplied. It is true that tagging never improves those surfaces, but they are often in themselves of degrading hideousness.

The epidemiology of graffiti

suggests a subliminal aesthetic criticism. It is a commentary on the kind of building and concrete surface that the fascist modernist architect, Le Corbusier, extolled and desired, with the enthusiasm of a revivalist evangelical, to spread throughout the whole world. In a sense, taggers in England and France are endowed with taste.

Having said that, in Italy or Portugal,

18th-century buildings are not exempted from the attentions of bruised and inflamed young egos.

England, foul England

Discobolus, copy of fifth-century Greek original, Water Gardens, Hemel Hempstead. It was in private ownership and stood at Amersfoot Hall, Potten End, until acquired by the development corporation in 1960

Discobolus, copy of fifth-century Greek original. Water Gardens, Hemel Hempstead. The statue was in the possession of a private collector and stood at Amersfoot Hall, Potten End, until acquired at auction by the town’s development corporation in 1960

The British townscape has been coarsened to a degree unequalled in Europe

Dalrymple writes that the destruction of Britain’s urban patrimony,

and its replacement by modernist multi-story parking garages and office buildings, represent a lowering of every Briton’s quality of life.

The unremitting tastelessness of British modernity

Britain’s townscape,

once civilised and gracious, has fallen prey to an ideological pincer movement:

  1. The rawest and shortest-sighted commercial interests demanded and won freedom to do whatever they wished with the inherited townscape, in the cheapest and most profitable way, so that harmonious assemblages of buildings centuries old suffered the most philistine and incongruous redevelopment that ruined them beyond hope of restoration.
  2. Birmingham

    Birmingham

    Radical reformers fanatically hated the architectural symbols of the past, merely because they were symbols of the past, whose despised élitist culture supposedly rested solely on exploitation, racism, slavery, and so forth. The official architect and town planner of the city in which I live wanted to pull down every single local building that dated from before the second half of the twentieth century, including entire Georgian streets and many masterpieces of the Victorian gothic revival. Fortunately, he retired when perhaps a tenth of the old buildings remained, the rest having been replaced by Le Corbusian leviathans so horrible and inhuman that many are scheduled for demolition less than 30 years after their erection. The Georgian spa city of Bath offers an even more startling example: in the 1950s, the city council wanted to raze it.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 09.23.10The utter destruction of the aesthetic quality of British life

The British are

barbarians camped out in the relics of an older and superior civilisation to whose beauties they are oblivious.

Irredeemable ugliness

Britain’s city centres are the site of

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Civic Centre, Plymouth

depressingly uniform chain stores without character or individuality, plate-glassed emporia hacked into the ground floors of historic buildings without regard to the original architecture.

This has deep social and economic consequences.

Where all is ugliness and indifference to aesthetic considerations, it is easy for behaviour to become ugly and crude and for collective municipal pride to evaporate. It seems not to matter how people conduct themselves: there is nothing to spoil. Attention to detail attenuates in an environment of generalised ugliness. What is the point of wiping a table, if the world around it is hideous?

Birmingham’s giant pissoir

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The much-loved Free Public Library (left): rebuilt superbly in 1882 after a fire, demolished in 1974

Dalrymple confesses that he finds it difficult to write temperately on the subject of the mass desecration of Britain’s architectural heritage, which often, he says, leaves him

trembling with rage. My wife tells me to calm down; as she rightly notes, I can do nothing about this disaster now.

No town or city in Britain, he writes,

has inherited so little in the way of beauty that officials did not think it worth destroying.

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Birmingham Central Library: opened 1974, demolished 2015, replaced with something just as bad if not worse

It was the hope, for instance, of Sir Herbert Manzoni, an energetic city engineer and surveyor of Birmingham with modish proclivities,

to pull down every non-modernist building in Birmingham’s city centre.

Fortunately Sir Herbert dropped dead before achieving his ambition,

but he got quite far, and his spirit sputtered on after him.

The magnificent Victorian library

was pulled down and replaced with an inverted concrete ziggurat of such ugliness and, before long, dilapidation, that it defied description, at least by me.

Paris 1865

Ordinary, human-sized pissoir. Paris, 1865

Rapists’ haven

The environs of the library served as

a giant pissoir and, at night, as a haven for drunks and rapists.

In this way

the Albert Speers of Britain converted the Victorian dream of municipal munificence into the nightmare of administered anomie.

Manzoni and Speer

Manzoni and Speer