Category Archives: public housing

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.

The part played by the public sector in this tragedy

Before and after the ‘refurbishment’, with its deadly flammable cladding

Grenfell Tower was built, Dalrymple notes,

as public housing in 1974. Like all such towers (4,000 of them in Britain) erected at the time, it was an aesthetic blot on the townscape, irredeemably hideous, and destructive of the possibility of civilised sociability.

One reason, Dalrymple explains, that the block of flats was ‘refurbished’ at a cost of more than $10m shortly before the fire

was to improve its appearance slightly, to make it look less Soviet. There was, of course, only so much that could be done in this direction.

Unfortunately, the cladding used to insulate the building, protect it from rain, and improve its appearance

was highly flammable, and it was attached to the building in such a way that it acted as a kind of chimney once the fire began.

Under construction

The local borough council

owned the building but had devolved its management to a non-profit-making management quasi-company that was, in essence, in the public sector, though it paid its senior staff, in effect local-government civil servants, private-sector-sized salaries.

This effectively public-sector management firm

was responsible for choosing the refurbishment and for guaranteeing and certifying that the work done was safe, though similar such work had previously caused fires in buildings like Grenfell Tower. It hired a private contractor, the successor to a company that had previously gone bankrupt after a large claim had been made against it for defective work.

The quasi-public-sector management company

disregarded the tenants’ repeatedly voiced concerns about the lack of proper fire precautions in the building.

An aesthetic blot on the townscape

Dalrymple’s experience of public-sector housing authorities, when he was a doctor with many patients who lived in public housing, was that

they were stone deaf to all justified tenant complaints, unless someone like me made firm representations on the tenants’ behalf.

These authorities, he relates,

were unutterably heartless and dishonest, as well as incompetent. They had to be protected from their clients by bulletproof glass.

Yet

the horrible fire, which is among the most terrifying anyone has witnessed, is being used to demand more public expenditure, raised and administered by the same kind of people who brought such joy to the residents of Grenfell Tower.

The design alone was always destructive of the possibility of civilised sociability

Before and after ‘refurbishment’, aimed at making the building less Soviet

Irredeemably hideous

Under construction

War of permanently inflamed egos in the Corbusian housing projects of the West

Red Road Flats, Balornock, Glasgow

Red Road Flats, Balornock, Glasgow

Egos in the Corbusian projects are

inflamed by the fact that the inhabitants have been, and continue to be, treated so transparently by social policymakers as faceless, interchangeable, passive ciphers that the only way to assert their individuality is to behave antisocially. I fight, therefore I am.

What do the tenants think of the Corbusian blocks of flats where they live?

They vote with their urine. The public spaces and lifts of all public housing blocks I know are so deeply impregnated with urine that the odour is ineradicable. And anything smashable has been smashed.