Brutalism, me and the future
Seven years old and there I was looking-up at it. I’d been dreaming of it, I was mildly obsessed with it, and now after my first trip on an Intercity 125 I was there. Standing next to my father, beneath it, looking at it soar into the sky, pencil thin, futuristic, mesmerizing and closed to the public.
This was my first brutally disappointing encounter with Brutalism. Due to the “troubles” the Post Office tower was no longer open to the public. I think Dad just assumed it was open, but although disappointed I didn’t get to travel up the tower, just being able to see it up close pretty much sealed my love affair with Brutalism.
I also knew that one day I’d be back and I’d get to the top. That day came 22 years later!
For a new business programme, I wanted a special launch event, and thanks to BT the vision of launching at the BT Tower became a reality, I couldn’t believe this was happening I was going to spend the day at the top of this Brutalist beauty.
On the morning of the big day, my heart sank when I saw the newspaper headline: “London on terror alert.” No way I thought, please, please, please don’t cancel my event. I regressed back to that seven year old being refused access to an icon closed by a different type of terrorism in a different time.
Thankfully, I was worrying needlessly, we were good to go. The launch was a great success, and for me, I got to spend the day in architectural heaven. As we revolved, looking down and watching the floor move as the core remained static was just spellbinding.
Then as day turned to night I stood still as the Tower took me around London, and the whole city lit-up right in front of my eyes. The experience was worth the wait, it sealed the deal, my lifelong love of Brutalism was set firmly in concrete.
Brutalism is enjoying a resurgence at the moment, maybe that’s down to its visionary approach to design, maybe people just appreciate its uncompromising appearance? Worryingly, not all Brutalist icons are safe from the developers, and the loss of the Welbeck Street Car Park by Michael Blampied and Partners (1968-70) will in time be truly regretted. Even the Barbican Centre, London’s exceptional Brutalist destination is facing plans by the City of London School for Girls to develop their site in a manner that will compromise the architectural integrity of the part of the Centre the School is located in. I truly hope this doesn’t happen.
Thankfully, there are examples of sensitive regeneration that’s breathing new life into Brutalist developments. One of the most successful being the award winning redevelopment of the Brunswick Centre in Camden. You can read the story of how the Centre has been transformed here.
I’m the first to admit that not all Brutalism is exceptional, yet the same applies to all buildings of all eras, and new development is needed to ensure our urban centres can effectively meet the needs of citizens and commerce. Our urban environments need to continue to adapt, especially as we need to tackle significant challenges including climate change, and population growth.
Ultimately the aim should be to enhance our towns and cities in a way that is sustainable, liveable, uplifting, affordable and welcoming. This is a big ask, and an important one to get right. Maybe now is the time to be brave and create a vision for our urban future that’s as ambitious as the plans that brought the Brutalist vision to life. This could be the opportunity to:
learn the lessons from the past
review and challenge the present nature of, and approach to, urban development
create plans to ensure the long term sustainability of our towns and cities
put people at the very heart of the urban environment.
As for the Brutalism that at time offered an enticing vision of the future, I believe it is increasingly important to value and contextualise its place in our architectural heritage, and to evaluate the ways in which is could provide inspiration for our future.