Review – Baby Boomers and Brutalism

Raw Concrete: the beauty of Brutalism by Barnabas Calder

This book came out in 2016. Through dogged perseverance, I have managed to get it from my local library twice now – it is very popular and far from cheap to buy. It’s popularity is slightly surprising as it is not an easy read, if you are not steeped in architectural forms (as I am not). Nevertheless, it is fascinating.

Barnabas Calder is an entertaining writer, although he makes no allowances for the tyro reader. I enjoyed his enthusiasm for concrete structures – and learned a lot about them: the different finishes that can be achieved with physical effort (eg chipping away the top surface with power tools – various – to expose the one underneath), the sturdiness of the builds and their fitness for purpose (which was usually social housing). I have not learned to love them, but I do feel I understand them better now. The sink estates that some of Brutalist designs became was apparently (and why would one be surprised by this) due to parsimony by the councils operating the estates rather than flaws in the buildings.

Some spectacular structures I have always thought were Brutalist, he does not mention (the ziggurat halls of residence at UEA, the Alexandra Road estate in Camden). I once spent a week ‘sleeping’ on the concrete bed extrusion in one of those hall rooms at UEA. Yes it had a mattress: but said mattress was only about three inches thick. I had recourse each night to copious amounts of alcohol in order to lie comatose and not attempt to turn over in the night. Turning over resulted in bruised hips because the mattress was so thin and the bed so hard, and scrapes on knees and hands from semi-conscious contact with the rough concrete wall. Calder speaks with admiration of built-in furniture of this kind – and describes how he spent a night in a Brutalist concrete sarcophagus in the ‘Hermit’s Castle’ at Achmelvich somewhere near Lochinver in Scotland. As this is a sort of pilgrimage for him, the night he passes there has rather a different quality from the week I spent on my concrete ledge. I could only pity students who had to spend whole terms thus. Those bed shelves must’ve been a powerful contraceptive for the student population.

So, an interesting and enjoyable book. But I have to take issue with the illustrations. Architecture is an art: art is best illustrated with pictures. It is true that the book has a goodly number of illustrations. Unfortunately they are all in matt greyscale on a buff stock, which makes them very muddy and reduces many of them almost to pattern, rather than picture. This I suspect was deliberate, to demonstrate the subtle textures and formwork in the concrete. OK. If you must. But there are two more serious defects with the illustrations: 1) a lot of them have no captions and 2) a lot of illustrations which would have been really helpful are not here. A building by Corbusier and one by Frank Lloyd Wright are needed. So is an example of a Modernist Thirties building which Brutalism succeeded post war, for comparative purposes. There are no portraits of any of the architects, even Ernö Goldfinger (who was, yes, the model for Ian Fleming’s villain of that name). More plans of the inside of places like Trellick Tower would have been helpful too (as Brutalist architects tended to create buildings holistically). But splitting the illustration of the ‘Hermit’s Castle’ across two pages was the worst idea of the lot – the crack in the middle makes it impossible to get any sense of the proportions or uniqueness of the building.

Nevertheless, Baby Boomers like me grew up with Brutalism and Barnabas Calder explains very ably why Brutalism was, what it was, and why that was a good thing. If you have any interest in the buildings around you, you will find this book rewarding. Just don’t expect to get much from the illustrations.

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