Nowadays, people always seem to seek a reason to celebrate. Birthdays are of course a suitable occasion, but it could be your pet dog’s birthday, or your friend’s dog birthday… or, even, the birthday of a block of concrete. Last week, one of London’s most memorable buildings celebrated its 50th anniversary after coming into existence in 1972: the Trellick Tower.
The Grade II-listed tower block in Kensal Green is almost 100m high and accommodates 217 flats over 32 stories. It was commissioned by the Greater London Authority and designed by Hungarian-born architect Ernö Goldfinger (yes, the Goldfinger to lend his name to Ian Fleming’s Bond villain).
The building’s façade as well as its interior is, as described above, best associated with a block of concrete. Towering over Notting Hill, the monolithic building is made in a similar fashion to other buildings that were erected in the time period of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. After WW2, a need for quick, efficient and cheap housing emerged to rebuild the towns and cities that once housed anything between a few thousand and millions of people.
Modern – with a capital M – architecture goes back to the early half of the 20th Century, but what paved the way for buildings like Trellick Tower can be traced back to Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and his work with concrete in the 1920s. Fellow architects, such as Alison and Peter Smithson, Mies van der Rohe or indeed Ernö Goldfinger, contributed to, and developed, this modernist style. Béton brut, French for “raw concrete”, eventually became its own movement within architecture, now known as Brutalism.
But Brutalism is much more than just a stylistic approach to design, it also entails a certain ethic and ideology. Influenced by the post-war era of housing shortage, the social revolution of the 1960s and the modernist idea that rational functionalism could produce the best architecture for people to live and work in, Brutalism tries to differentiate itself from all former approaches to design – as well as the history they embrace.
Goodbye gabled roofs, ornaments and other solely decorative pieces. Hello, purely functional, monolithic block building. ‘Form follows function’ is the best way to describe a building like Trellick Tower, but the reason behind this lies deeper than simple utility. Brutalism’s core ideological belief was to revolutionise society by revolutionising the way we live, based on the desire to create a new and democratic type of building, which is transparent in what it was made of and for.
By doing so, it simultaneously rejected all that came before it, as was mirrored in the revivalist movements of Neoclassicism or Victorian architecture, which sought to imitate Ancient Greek and Roman aesthetics amongst others. Instead, the movement aimed to form and mould society anew, from a blank slate, detached from history and tradition.
To me, Brutalism is aesthetically as well as ideologically the worst movement to come out of architecture. This sentence might cause outrage in some architectural departments at universities, but the majority of the public in fact agrees with me. A 2018 report by Policy Exchange found that on average, people want their homes to be built in a traditional not Modern style, whether they live in inner London or the countryside.
And this bias makes perfect sense. Research by Ipsos suggests that people are more likely to experience beauty when they feel that there is a shared history, a sense of community and pride in a place. A shared past to look back on, filled with tradition and culture is what makes a community appreciate the value of their houses surrounding them and find beauty in what they see.
Brutalism does not achieve that. It lacks soul. The tabula rasa approach left many feeling unsettled, associating them with totalitarianism and oppression. The buildings often became places of violence, crime, prostitution and not least graffiti. They symbolise social decay unlike any other structure to be found in cities.
On a side note, it is interesting to see that brutalist buildings are most commonly commissioned by the government whose officials don’t end up living in them, as can be seen in the case of social housing, public universities, libraries but also particularly in ex-Soviet countries where they appealed to the widespread socialist principles.
Beauty ought not to be disregarded as less worthy of pursuit than mere functionality. Building houses is as much about the future inhabitants as well as their neighbours and the community it surrounds. In fact, these buildings are what shape and create the community. By erasing our shared history and tradition, creating a purposeful present let alone future becomes meaningless.
So if we are keen on building more houses, which we definitely should be, then it might be worth ensuring that these buildings are to the liking of those who will live in and frequent them. This means no more Trellick Tower-esque buildings erected to make you feel small and insignificant, devouring you like a dark cloud above your head.