Running head is Architecture Review
Hooray for Carbuncles
The Tricorn Centre, the South Bank… No one has a kind word to say about the Brutalist concrete experiments of postwar British architecture. Except, that is, for Tom Joplin.
South Hill Park is a middle-class dream. It is quintessential Hampstead: a leafy avenue with the heath on all sides. Its huge brick terraces are crammed with North London media types keeping up appearances behind furiously twitching Cath Kidston curtains. And the house prices are enough to make you wince. Perfect. Well, not quite.
Number 78, to many locals, is the worm in the apple. No 78 is concrete. Very concrete. In fact it almost revels in its very un-Hampstead concreteness, with rough, muscular, bunkersized slabs that don't even nod good morning to the neighbours, but glower at them. Its roofline, low and flat, cold-shoulders their pitched roofs. It looks unfinished, awaiting its pretty facade. But this is it—solid, brutish, without a care for the delicate sensibilities of Hampstead. There's no other house like it in Britain. I love it.
Who put this abomination here? Brian and Margaret Housden, an awfully genteel pair as it turns out, dressed in tweed and twin-set as if permanently primed for afternoon tea. When Brian, fresh from architecture school, started on No 78 40 years ago locals were aghast. "People kept coming to the front door and peering in," he recalls, puffing benignly on his pipe. Housden's inspiration was Aldo Van Eyck, a colleague of the Smithsons, who tried to build intimate spaces that felt more rich than they looked.
"Van Eyck called it deliberate ambiguity," says Housden. "He wanted an evocative architecture which aspired to poetry. That's what I've tried here." He's decorated the house in symbols, quotes from Heraclitus, and sheets of glass lenses, which fracture Hampstead Heath into a collage.
Many still haven't got used to it. Think of the house prices! Quick unscientific poll of passers-by: three against ("looks like a prison"), one hurrying doctor for—"It's fun. Look at all these boring ones up the street." As far as Brian and Margaret are concerned, they are just exercising their Englishman's right. And if people don't like the, well, castle-like look of their castle? "They can look the other way," chuckles Brian. He has a steely glint behind the pipe. "I don't think they understand," adds Margaret. "I can see how some people wouldn't be able to live with it. All these browns and greys are a bit dismal, admittedly. But if you look close it glistens."
People have been upsetting the neighbours with eyesores for centuries. Overcrowded Britain is spiritual home to the Nimby, tirelessly battling against the modern, which, in whatever form` never quite fits in with some undefined, somehow "authentic", green and pleasant British landscape and culture. Britain has only just come to terms with white-walled modernism, thanks to 40 years of Terence Conran.
But No 78 belongs to a breed of modernity that gets passions boiling like no other: postwar concrete carbuncles.
Concrete is still beyond the pale. So much so that, 20 years after the Prince of Wales's infamous "carbuncle" speech, it's the carbuncles themselves, ironically, that are under threat, just like Victorian or Georgian architecture 50 years ago. This year's highest profile victim was the Tricorn Shopping Centre in Portsmouth, whose elephant hide turrets, once so a la mode, didn't suit the city's shiny new image; it's being demolished for a glitzy new-model shopping mall.
Birmingham wants to demolish its Central Library, a spirited upside-down ziggurat that the Prince likened to an incinerator. The future of the Hayward Gallery, says the chief executive, Michael Lynch, is far from secure in his masterplan to polish up the South Bank. What to do with postwar architecture still causes the most headaches at English Heritage, which first raised the possibility of listing it in 1995. Concrete Brutalism is just beyond the cutting edge of taste, not the kind of thing you'll see on Restoration. Many find it hard to think fondly about architecture once the very enemy of conservation.
It's easy to hate Brutalism. It seems to conform so effortlessly to that hackneyed image of the ruined concrete jungle photographed in black and white, windows smashed concrete stained and dripping.
It was a very convenient image for those in the late Seventies and Eighties keen to "prove" the failure of the welfare state. Here were the ruined monuments. Their ruination was often the fault of developers, architects and planners, pushing technology and a material, which, despite being used by the Romans, was still in its infancy in Britain. But then we did need to repair a whole postwar country fast. More often, though. the failings were due to money.
Most Brutalism, though, was built as public space, and when public finances shrivelled up in the Seventies Brutalism was often left unfinished and unmaintained. The Hayward, for instance, was meant to be draped in hanging gardens, Pop Art neon and projections; instead, budget cuts slowly sealed off its walkways and terraces, leaving it a Cold War bunker. Only recently, with its walkways reopened, its concrete cleaned and a new entrance built by the artist Dan Graham and architects Haworth Tompkins, has the Pop Art fun palace its creators intended started to creep back.
Like all good art, Brutalism divides opinions because it demands effort from you. Its avantgarde "inventors" wanted to build an architecture that both challenged us and comforted us. It challenged us because it was so—well—architectural. The chief apologist for Brutalism Rayner Banham, wrote in the Fifties how, even then, people "complained of the deliberate flouting of the traditional concepts of photographic beauty, of a cult of ugliness". Brutalism was "anti-art, or at any rate anti-beauty in the classical aesthetic sense of the word".
Britain, in particular, has long promoted a very picturesque appreciation of architecture. But Brutalism replaced Thomas Aquinas's idea of beauty—quad visum placet (that which seen pleases) — with quod visum perturbat (that which seen, affects the emotions). Brutalism is gutsy stuff. You have to get inside it to appreciate its sculptural forms, its tactile surfaces. This is architecture to explore like sculpture, to let yourself go in. Not something the British are awfully good at.
Most postwar avant-garde artists and architects were seeking a common form to express and salve their existential angst. Not the easy nostalgia of the past, nor the Utopian machine age rationalism of Mies van der Rohe and Corbusier, but something modern and traditional, collective and personal, a physical version of John Osborne and Lindsay Anderson's anti-intellectualising plays and films, something speaking the language of the street. Banham called them "new brutalists" not because they intended us misery, but in homage to Jean Dubuffet's art brut.
Rawness was all. The architects Alison and Peter Smithson called it "the warehouse aesthetic", whose exposed structure and honesty would communicate more directly with us. It was a modern version of Arts and Crafts. Some saw this new vernacular in the "primitive" adobe towns of North Africa; the Tricorn was called "casbah" architecture. Others looked to barns or caves. Denys Lasdun created the National Theatre as an English hillside.
The artist Dan Graham likens it to punk. Without this form of expression, where the experience of the building is more important than its looks, we'd have no Frank Gehry, no Daniel Libeskind, no Zaha Hadid. Brutalism never went away; it just got better looking and learnt to sell itself. In Waterloo, a bunch of neo-Brutalist apartments, concrete raw-and hard, by the fashionable architects De Rijke Narsh Morgan sell for £750,000, packaged as the height of urban gritty cool. In South Hill Park, No 78's no eyesore. It's a gold mine.
Concrete is still beyond the pale 20 plus years after the Prince of Wales Speech