Much maligned, yet increasingly loved, brutalist architecture continually divides opinion. A quote by Jonathan Foyle, chief executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain said humorously, “It is damned by its name which comes from the French, béton brut, or raw concrete, but we use the same word [Brut] to describe Champagne and this perhaps sums up the dichotomy at the heart of this style”.
After the destruction of so many buildings during WW2, there was a great need for new social housing which made the techniques used in brutalist architecture very popular in the 60s and 70s. Based on the philosophy of form following function and celebrating the materials used in construction. It is identified by extensive use of exposed, unfinished concrete and often features bold geometric forms with an abstract sculptural quality.
Since becoming the owner of this little map pinpointing brutalist architecture in London, I’ve been working my way around it very slowly. Here are some of the ones I’ve visited:
Designed by the architect Denys Lasdun, the National Theatre has divided public opinion since it opened in 1976 along the South Bank. Prince Charles once amusingly called it a ‘nuclear power station’ and in 2001, a Radio Times poll featured Lasdun’s building in the top five of both the most hated and the most loved British buildings. To make up your own mind, and get a real understanding of Brutalism, join one of the architecture tours available from the Southbank Centre.
Closest tube station: Southwark, Waterloo or Lambeth North
Also located along the South Bank, Hayward Gallery is one of the world’s leading contemporary art galleries designed by a group of architects led by Ron Herron. Since it opened in the summer of 1968 with an exhibition by Henri Matisse, it has played a crucial role in presenting work by some of the world’s most significant artists. After being closed for renovations, it re-opened in January 2018 with a retrospective of the work of acclaimed German photographer Andreas Gursky. Some people will be happy to know the new renovations consists of a new roof with much-improved pyramidal lights, giving the top-floor gallery proper natural light for the first time.
Closest tube station: Southwark, Waterloo or Lambeth North
My favourite venue in the whole of London. The Grade II-listed Barbican Centre is Europe’s largest multi-arts venue and one of London’s best examples of Brutalist architecture. It was developed from designs by architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon as part of a utopian vision to transform an area of London left devastated by bombing during the Second World War. It took over a decade to build and was opened by the Queen in 1982, who declared it ‘one of the modern wonders of the world’. And FYI, architecture tours of the building are organised for those who wish to know everything there is to know about the Barbican’s design.
Nearest tube stations: Barbican or Moorgate
For a 14th-century organisation devoted to salts in food and chemicals, the Worshipful Company of Salters has a surprisingly contemporary facade. Located on Fore Street and completed in 1972, the old Salters’ Company headquarters, built by Basil Spence, is a very rare example of a post-war livery building. Notable for its distinctive ribbed and knapped concrete, the hall is now Grade II-listed and has recently been refurbished by architect De Metz Forbes Knight, who won planning consent for the £8.5 million project.
Closest tube station: Moorgate
The 27-floor Balfron Tower in east London designed by Ernö Goldfinger is the precursor and testbed to the larger and more famous Trellick Tower. The Hungarian-born architect is considered a key member of the Modernist architectural movement. Goldfinger had a reputation for being a formidable man, so much so that Ian Flemming named his most notorious Bond villain after him. Unsurprisingly, the architect was not thrilled by this and tried to sue Fleming unsuccessfully.
Closest DLR stations: Langdon Park or All Saints
For some a classic, for others an ugly blight on the landscape. Perhaps the most iconic example of Brutalist architecture in London is Trellick Tower by Ernö Goldfinger, a Grade II*-listed block of council flats sitting at the end of Golborne Road in Notting Hill. Consisting of 217 flats across 31 floors, it was completed in 1972. The main block of the 31 storey tower takes the form of thin slab, enabling all apartments to have windows on either side of the building, giving fantastic views of the city to all residents.
Nearest tube station: Westbourne Park
20 Bedford Way
This controversial Grade II* listed building, opened in 1977, was designed by Denys Lasdun who also built the National Theatre. 20 Bedford Way has a range of meeting and function rooms, including the 930 seater single tier lecture theatre, the Logan Hall. The building was not well received initially. The 800-ft monumental façade along the full length of Bedford Way, with its five sentry-like service towers rising to 115 feet, attracted most criticism. William Curtis, an architectural historian, identified it as a relative of the ‘Teaching Wall’ at the University of East Anglia, but without the softening benefit of the changes in direction there, describing it as having a “megastructural, elephantine quality…[that] does seem to lack subtlety and poetry”.
Nearest tube station: Russel Square
One Kemble Street
Completed in 1966 One Kemble Street used to be called the Space House and was designed by Richard Seifert, whose buildings included hotels, railways stations and office blocks. He was known for his 1960s and 1970s designs and for having been a big influence on London architecture during that period. The building was first let to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in 1975 and other tenants including the Government Legal Department and the Office of Rail and Road moved in. It became a Grade II listed building in 2015.
Nearest tube station: Holborn or Covent Garden
Alexandra Road Estate
Flickr © Daniel Wilkinson
Completed in 1978 by architect Neave Brown, this Grade II*-listed estate is constructed from site-cast board-marked white and unpainted reinforced concrete typical of Brutalist architecture. Along with 520 apartments, the site also includes a school, community centre, youth club, heating complex, and parkland. But any starkness here was to be offset by profuse greenery and the estate has managed this pretty well, leading one critic to describe Alexandra Road – he argued the vegetation was being used to hide the architects’ mistakes – as the ‘hanging gardens of Camden’.
Nearest tube station: Swiss Cottage