A Forgotten Dream of Progress (The Nationalisation of Architecture)

trellick branding

There’s much talk of Brutalism about these days, relatively at least. As these strange and at once futuristic and ancient-seeming structures begin to vanish from the landscape people seem to be considering more and more why they were ever considered beautiful. And, oddly, they are. Ultra functional, no-frills, beige concrete monoliths which for the previous couple of decades have been generally considered dour and miserable eyesores, artefacts of a now unknowable past epoch which must have been grim and boring.

We have never had ‘socialism’ (whatever that means anymore. Answers on a postcard) in this country, but the closest we ever came was the system of welfare-capitalism that characterised the post-war years up to the neo-conservative boom of the 80s. Though still very much in the capitalist model, certain tenets of socialism, such as universal welfare, free health care, and nationalised industry served to bring together, ideologically, the population of the country in an agreement of shared ownership/responsibility. It was possible to imagine progress, to imagine a future that would benefit everyone. The style that came to be known as Brutalism was usually adopted in the design and construction of municipal buildings; social housing etc, and their utilitarian and uniform design pointed toward an ideal of anti-decadence in favour of a mutually beneficial, inclusive doctrine. This was, of course, also a reaction to a shortness of materials following the war and , as such, a necessity to redefine beauty within the parameters of a buildings functionality, in its maximisation and optimisation of the space. Sparsely adorned and usually of immense, imposing dimensions, these buildings can be seen to have represented the broadness of social vision and the vastness of possibility to be found within democracy and society. The brutality of Brutalism was modernism’s rejection of the ornateness of past epochs.

Trellick Tower

Trellick main pic

We’ll dispense with any historical details of the Trellick Tower itself but suffice it to say that today it is perhaps the best-known and most admired example of Brutalism in Britain. A sort of B-list London landmark, you will not find many tourists there although it has featured in a number of high-profile music videos. It is exemplary of the form in a number of ways and embodies the ethos of civic responsibility and community. The high-rise boom throughout the sixties and early seventies  was underpinned by the idea of providing affordable housing that would, by virtue of its sheer size, transcend the built-up polluted dirge of the lower city landscape; that communities in the sky could exist, self-sufficient communities now made possible by technology which could, in response to a lack of space on the ground, utilise the freedom of the open skies to give people light and fresh air. The tower itself is part of a complex functionally designed to serve the various needs of its tenants. The thinner tower, attached to the main housing block, is connected via bridges on every other floor. This additional tower housed shops, hairdressers, laundrettes  and other useful communal utilities, with underground delivery bays and concourses to surrounding features.

Trellick Complex 1Trellick Complex 3Trellick Complex 2


Given our current prejudices about high rise housing estates, this dream seems naïve. It is important to remember that, although by no means an unturbulent time, hope was not quite as dead in the seventies as it is now. ‘Progress’ (with a capital P) was still a thing. Much in the way that regress is the defining motif of our time. Whereas there is an unspoken and yet ubiquitous sense of stagnation behind everything in our modern world, perhaps from the everyday understanding of our diminishing resources and the harmful nature of our culture in general, in the post-war years, eyes were still very much on the future and what it might bring.

 Preston Bus Station

preston main

Although function took priority over form in these buildings, they were by no means featureless. Rather, they had an unusual and austere approach to decoration. They were ultra-functional for sure but a look at the terraces of the Preston Bus Station car park shows how beautifully this functionality could be rendered. Even the design of these curved ‘balconies’ served a function since they were designed to maximise space inside by allowing cars to be parked closer to the edge of the building, an over-hang where bumpers could be free from contact with the concrete, and thus accommodate more vehicles; in the process producing a bizarre and otherworldly feature. The terraces look almost metallic but are actually individual blocks of concrete locked together to create a smooth and uniformed, futuristic design.  Again, immensity is the overriding impression; maximisation of space for maximisation of public utility. We weren’t able to gain access to the interior of the Trellick Tower, but as a public space the Preston Bus Station interior is a wonderful time-capsule to explore, and everywhere in this recently Grade-2 listed building, a past sense of optimism can be felt, haunting the symmetry, minimalism and antiquated functionality of the space. In the same way that the brief period of atomic-optimism in the early 1950s, before the escalating Cold War would make nuclear power synonymous with apocalypse in the mind of the public, must have made the future seem filled with inconceivable innovation, so too do these buildings, and indeed the post-war community-spirited futurism of Brutalism seem to carry trace remnants of a short-lived and thwarted belief in progress.

interior 2interior 1interior 3

Eventually Brutalism would become just a style, and quite a ubiquitous style, elements of which can be seen in schools and office blocks of the 70s, but at its best Brutalism represented an ideology of unity. These buildings are relics of a dead optimism. A utopian dream of cohesive living, sustainability and an ideal of co-operation and social inclusivity. The fact that they stand debased and crumbling (if still standing at all), is testament only to the abandonment of that dream and the move away from ideas of community and towards the cult of the individual that would characterise the last two decades of the twentieth century and beyond.

As maudlin and hopeless as this analysis may seem at first, we think it is actually a good thing to remember a pre-Neo-Liberal period, especially as there seems to be a very real sentiment growing against economic injustice and systemic inequality growing within the mainstream. There seems to be a public call for a new way of structuring society in the interests of the majority and while at times we may in this post be guilty of idealising an era which was in fact beset  by its own myriad economic and social crises, not to mention the lingering spectre of nuclear annihilation, we hope at least that it serves as a reminder that it is still possible to believe in progress and a brighter tomorrow for everyone.

exit pic

Further reading/viewing:

For a much more comprehensive and academic history of post-war modernist architecture please watch the lecture ‘Coming to Terms with Modern Times: English architecture in the post-war era’ by Dr Simon Thurley (from whom we nicked the subheading ‘The Nationalisation of Architecture’)

Also visit the site of the Twentieth Century Society, who are devoted to the preservation of Architecture, post 1914

Progressive Music for Utopian Societies

music cover

The late 60s and early 1970s also saw a great leap forward in the development of popular music, which was beginning to innovate with electronic sounds and previously unconventional methods and structures. In the spirit of Brutalism’s attempted break with the past and forward-looking ethos, we’ve made a mix of ‘Krautrock’ (and similar innovative music) which, during the late 1960s exemplifies the break with the previous model of popular music which until that point could be seen to have grown steadily out of the blues/rock n roll tradition. In the wake of the Second World War, much of Europe was recovering and rebuilding itself. Krautrock, like Brutalism, looked to redesign the future.

Further viewing:
For a more in-depth look at the origins of Krautrock, watch the BBC documentary ‘Krautrock: the rebirth of Germany


2 thoughts on “A Forgotten Dream of Progress (The Nationalisation of Architecture)

  1. Nice piece, beautifully presented as usual. Listening to the soundtrack now and much enjoying it.

    Did you see Jonathan Meades’s recent documentary on brutalism on BBC4? Two parts, if I remember rightly. Should be dig-outable somewhere. He takes a machoistic verging on sado-masochistic attitude in his eulogising, which is probably unhelpful and certainly elitist. Fundamentally, focusing on the sculptural qualities, he seems unconcerned with whether these spaces were actually liveable. Still, like all his stuff, it’s full of great writing and clever filmmaking, so recommended.

    Regarding the question of liveability, I was also struck by Zadie Smith’s recent piece on Ballard in the Guardian, in which she talks about how this style of architecture defined her childhood and meant simply domesticity and even beauty to her until she read ‘High-rise.’ She credits Ballard here with a sort of pitiless truthteller’s eye for a demonic sublime to which she’d been blind, failing, it seems, to consider the possibility that he was just being a squeamish snob, unable himself to see beyond the initially threatening otherness of brutalism to its more humane intent and potential.

    And finally, this http://www.amazon.co.uk/New-Kind-Bleak-Journeys-Through/dp/1781680752/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1404748737&sr=8-4&keywords=owen+hatherly is going on my birthday list.

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