Brutalism, identified by its chunky peculiarity and concrete oddity is both adored and loathed, understood and condemned. But as its national demolition is routinely being called for, an insurgence in its popularity has emerged, only to illuminate the current isolation between politics and architecture – a relationship once intrinsic to our fabric of life.
Socialism was embedded in the rubric of British brutalist designs. The hoary buildings took precedence in housing those living in poverty following the Second World War – an optimistic odyssey that stood bold amongst the passivity of previous everyday life. At its core, is the ethical realism that British architects, Alison and Peter Smithson (architects of Hunstanton School and Robin Hood Gardens) cemented into the essence of what they termed, “New Brutalism”. This architecture was, inarguably, an attitude of dissatisfaction that demanded to be recognised, the “rough poetry” that commanded a sympathetic response. It was a direct attack on dominant culture and the apathy that defined it.
With its honesty unabashedly visible through its exposed piping, ventilation, and electricity, Brutalism communicates its utility in an extremely avant-garde fashion. However, this element of functionality is no stranger to working-class culture. From fashion to home décor, the working-class aesthetic, as claimed by French sociologist Bourdieu, is defined by its ability to be utilised. Examples include workwear such as boiler suits and dungarees, items that have peaked in recent trends. With the current revival of Brutalism, we must consider whether those who it once attempted to aid are still recognisable in its foundations.
Many have argued that the revival of Brutalism is another example of gentrification. Once defined by ethics over aesthetics, the ideology that birthed it has now been lost in translation. Buildings such as the Trellick Tower that originally sought to house those with low incomes, have become concrete manifestations of wealth, following Thatcher’s Right to buy scheme in 1980. During its genesis, Trellick Tower and familiar brutalist high-rise buildings were deemed cesspits of crime, misery, and alienation. Political theorist Patrick Dunleavy argues that those in high-rise flats are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses, especially those who are elderly.
But underlying this narrative is the failure to contextualise the political climate in which the new brutalist radicalism appeared. The deliberate decay of the Trellick Tower before its privatisation reveals the obsolescence prescribed to them by a government that did not subscribe to the post-war socialist ideals that the building strongly symbolised. Once privatised, the building was given a facelift, greater security, and purged of the lower classes. It no longer became known as the “Tower of Terror”, instead after its renaissance, it’s one of London’s most sought after properties by young hipsters. A likely route that its neighbour The Balfron will take, too. But a reality that must be remembered, is that those living in poverty will indeed, bring their poverty and subsequent crime and addictions with them unless the root of their poverty is addressed.
The hopefulness that moulded together the bricks of Brutalist buildings has been lost, silencing those who demand an alternative
In the same way that Kim Kardashian can ironically flaunt a $700 Vetements hoodie adorned with the communist hammer and sickle symbol, those able to aestheticise Brutalism and inhabit brutalist buildings because of their edgy desirability are able to benefit from the pretence of poverty. In the words of Guy Debord, “dissatisfaction itself has become a commodity”. Urbanity and poverty alike have frequently been victim to switching between démodé or high fashion in popular culture. Once upon a bleak time, the Kappa tracksuit was regarded as the oeuvre of chav scum. Now, it’s modelled by Kylie Jenner to several million Instagram followers who flock to imitate her edginess. But perhaps we shouldn’t regard these trends as just harmless fun, for they do have their implications. Just like the working-class can no longer afford the brands they once were forced to wear out of lack of other options, Brutalism’s revival has lost its vernacular essence.
But more significantly, the optimistic odyssey that Brutalism once ventured upon has been demolished whether the buildings remain standing tall or not. An example being the Brutalist architecture of Skopje that underwent a makeover in 2014 to reface its national identity – branded insincere and false by those who grew up around the previous communist-era architecture that made Skopje so special. The hopefulness that moulded together the bricks of Brutalist buildings has been lost, silencing those who demand an alternative. It was not the socialist ethos that failed us, but the will of the powers that divided us.
In a climate where Kendall Jenner can star in a Pepsi advert that bolsters a message of compliance and sweetened cooperation, the boorish Brutalist message of freedom has been long forgotten. With homelessness an epidemic and no new houses being built, the revival of the aesthetic of Brutalism goes against the very purpose of the architecture itself. As Peter Smithson stated, “We are interested in expressing not ourselves, but what is going on and building which denies what is going on is just the opposite of Brutalism – it is chichi”.