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The New Brutalist Architecture Anthropology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Anthropology
Wordcount: 5585 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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New Brutalist architecture is the outcome of a British architectural ethic named ‘New Brutalism’. According to Peter and Alice Smithson, the term was coined from a newspaper paragraph heading which, by poor translation of French, called the Marseilles Unité by Le Corbusier ‘Brutalism in architecture’[1]. The Smithsons anointed their own British brand of Modernism by adding ‘New’ both because they came after Le Corbusier and also in response to the style of the Architectural Review which – at the start of the 1950’s – sunned many articles on the New Monumentality, the New Empiricism, the New Sentimentality etc.[2] Thus, New Brutalism was set to up be the direct line development of the Modern Movement.

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According to Banham (1966), whilst the terms ‘Brutalism’ and ‘New Brutalism’ are often used interchangeably, it is important to distinguish the meanings of the two terms as this paper will be focusing on the latter. Brutalism, though a British term, refers to an architectural aesthetic that is characterised by sticking repetitive angular geometries, and where concrete is used. A building without concrete can achieve a Brutalist character through a rough blocky appearance, and the expression of its structural materials, forms and services on its exterior. Another common theme is the exposure of the building’s functions in the exterior of the building. Banham (1966) summarises the key characteristics of Brutalist architecture as formal legibility of plan, clear exhibition of structure, direct and honest use of materials and clear exhibition of services. Thus, Brutalism casts back in time to include Le Corbusier as one of its important contributors.

On the other hand, ‘New Brutalism’ was coined before any New Brutalist architecture was built. It is an ‘ethic, not aesthetic’ and is associated with socialist utopian ideology supported by Peter and Alison Smithson and the Team 10 group of architects amongst which they belonged. It is more related to the theoretical reform in urban theory proposed by CIAM than to ‘béton brut’. Thus, having originated from entirely different, organic theoretical doctrines, the British brand of Brutalism has considerable differences to Brutalist architecture from the continent.

New Brutalism was born in the post-war era, almost exclusively in the Architect’s Department of the London County Council (LCC) – the only place where young graduated architects such as Peter and Alison Smithson and many  from the Architectural Association school (AA) could find work in London. Many architects who have returned from the world had fought to make the world safe but the economic terms of the price of victory was heavy and the country faced long periods of austerity resulting in shortages, a shortfall in housing and social services. It was a time of benevolent socialism and commitment to the welfare state following the election of the Labour Government in 1945. The government had assumed responsibility for the welfare of the people in a way that would have been unthinkable in the 1930s.[3] Many houses of the working class poor that were in the centre of large industrial cities such as London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham have been destroyed. In London, Abercrombie and Forshaw published the County of London Plan which described the challenge faced by the government. The report recognised that ‘there is abundant evidence … that for families with children, houses are preferred to flats. They provide a private garden and yard at the same level as the main rooms of the dwelling, and fit the English temperament.’[4] But, to put everyone in houses would result in the displacement of two-thirds to three-quarters of the people. The planners wished to minimise the out-movement of jobs. They settled on 136 persons per acre which – based on the research they did – put one third of the people in houses, and some 60 per cent in eight- and ten- storey flats; about half of families with two children will go into flats, but even this density meant the overspill of 4 in 10 of all people living in this zone in 1939.

Furthermore, there was the sense of l’esprit nouveau – of making a fresh start after the cleansing effect of the war. The London architectural debate was fractionized; largely between the student generation and practicing ‘establishment’ architects. The Establishment architects tended towards Socialist political alignment, with the welfare state architecture of Sweden as the architectural paradigm. For the whole generation of graduating architects from the AA were strongly influenced by the ideas of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe; ‘the Ville Radieuse and the Unité d’Habitation suggested a model to be applied by good hard socialist principles in good hard modernist materials.’[5] They felt the Establishment architects were tending towards what they saw as a ‘softer’ and more ‘humanist’ Modernism, a retreat from the pre-war, heroic form of Modernism[6]. The Architect’s Department at the LCC provided a model in the early years; it had an unusually free hand, because the Ministry’s ordinary cost sanctions did not apply to it[7]. It first produced ‘the great Corbusian slabs’ which culminated in the only true realisation of the Radiant City in the world – the Alton West estate in Roehampton[8].

The New Brutalist’s concept of order is not classical but topological: its implementation on a site could have involved judging the case on its merits (i.e. land form, accommodation required, finance available) rather than in accordance with a pre-established classical or picturesque ‘schema’.[9] Thus, they distinguish themselves from the earlier Brutalists such as Le Corbusier who proposed in his 1925 ‘Plan Voisin’ to bulldoze most of central Paris north of the Seine in order to replace it with a hard of identical sixty-story towers. The Swiss architect was working in an inter-war Paris of ‘exuberant, chaotic and often sordid everyday life’[10] when the city was racked by disease and slums. He believed in centralising order (‘The design of cities was too important to be left to citizens’[11]). His plans always relied on his famous paradox: we must decongest the centres of our cities by increasing their density; in addition, we must improve circulation and increase the amount of open space. The paradox could be resolved by building high on a small part of total ground area[12]. This vision required clearing entire sites (‘WE MUST BUILD ON A CLEAR SITE! The city of today is dying because it is not constructed geometrically’[13]). In war-torn London, the New Brutalists had the ‘luxury’ of bomb-cleared sites but they also had a greater awareness for the historical fabric of the place-the designers of the Barbican estate built around St Giles church which survived the bombing and designers of Park Hill in Sheffield preserved old street names from the slum for their elevated walkways.

Le Corbusier developed his principles of planning most fully in La Ville Contemporaine (1922) and La Ville Radieuse(1932). The plans differed in their recommendation for social distribution. The Contemporary City’s clearly differentiated spatial structure was designed to reflect a specific, segregated social structure: one’s dwelling depended on one’s job[14]. The residential areas would be of two types: six-storey luxury apartments for professional white collar workers (e.g. industrialists, scientists and artisits), and more modest accommodation for workers, built around courtyards, with less open space. These apartments would be mass-produced for mass-living. The apartments would all be uniform, contain standard furniture and be collectively serviced much like a hotel. Le Corbusier also designed entertainment and cultural complexes close to the middle-class in the centre of the city. The blue collar workers would not live like this. They would live in garden apartments within satellite units. A different and appropriate sort of green space, sports facilities and entertainments would be available for these residents. Many aspects of New Brutalist architecture echo ideas from the Contemporary City. Income segregation has been practiced to different extents; the Barbican estate’s apartments vary between elaborate and fashionable layouts on the affluent south side (where the tenants were mainly city workers) and simpler layouts and designs on north side where social housing is concentrated[15]. Furthermore, whole out of town social housing estates such as Thamesmead have been built to resemble Le Corbusier’s ‘satellite units’.

By the time of the Radiant City, though the tenets of the Corbusian religion remained unchanged, there were important theological variations.  Everyone will be equally collectivised and live in giant apartments called ‘Unités’. Every family will get an apartment not according to the breadwinner’s job, but according to rigid space norms: no one will get anything more or less than the minimum necessary for efficient existence. Everyone will enjoy collective services such as cooking, cleaning and childcare. Similarly, New Brutalist architects have tried to logically work from basic human needs in order to distinguish the necessary from the unnecessary and thereby simplifying existing architectural conventions to create an efficient living or working space[16]. However, rarely have they attempted to create truly mixed-income neighbourhoods, having concentrated on social housing estates. Although the recent redevelopment of Park Hill estate in Sheffied is mixing affordable and commercial residential housing in the Brutalist estate, it cannot be said that mixed-income communities were a tenet of New Brutalism.

Brutalist architecture quickly became the official architecture of the Welfare State. Criticisms of its severe problems took a very long time to come. In order to see why, it is important to appreciate how bad were the original dense rows of smoke-blackened slums that the towers replaced. Six years of war had reduced those parts of London and the great provincial cities to a sinister squalor. For two decades, any social disbenefits of modernist planning and its transformation of the town passed largely unremarked[17]. Criticisms rapidly became deafening in the 1970s after the subsidy system had been recast and local authorities were already phasing out their high-rise blocks. Though the outburst was triggered by the collapse of a building in a gas explosion, the majority of the complaints were eloquently summarised by Kenneth Campbell, who was in charge of housing design at the LCC and GLC from 1959 to 1974, to be the lifts (too few, too small, too slow), the children (too many), and the management (too little)[18]. Most importantly, critics like to point out that the true cause of all such problems, of which Corbusier is a fully culpable as any of his followers, was that the middle-class designers had no real feeling for the way a working-class family lived[19]; in their world ‘[children] are not hanging around the landing or playing with the dustbin lids’[20].

Chapter Two

Dreams v Reality

Inside the Minds of Brutalist Architects

‘The sin of Corbusier and the Corbusians thus lay not in their designs, but in the mindless arrogance whereby they were imposed on people who could not take them and could never, given a modicum of thought, ever have been expected to take them’[21] Corbusian Brutalism and New Brutalism suffered very much similar design failures, and the two have often been combined or confused in ridicule. However, this chapter points out that New Brutalism should not be indiscriminately blamed for deigning solely for the ideals of the middle-class, or that the designers similarly imposed the designs upon such unwitting residents without considering their social-economic needs and lifestyle.

With ambition for a new approach to modernist architecture, the New Brutalists sought to exploit the low cost and pragmatism of mass produced materials and pre-fabricated components[22], mixing uses instead of segregation (as in Le Corbusier’s design of La Ville Radieuse), designing specific to location and purpose and to use their signature elevated walkways which they named ‘streets in the air’. A satisfactory analysis of the architecture would evaluate the performance of such design features one by one, in essence performing an autopsy and separating the healthy organs, from the moderately healthy and the failed. After the procedure is over the pathologist may wonder why certain failed organs were designed in a way that may have been responsible for putting them in the line of trouble. To understand this we will look at what the architects were trying to achieve and the sources that influenced them.

Peter and Alice Smithson wished to achieve the Virgilian dream – the peace of the countryside enjoyed with the self-consciousness of the city dweller – into the notion of the city itself[23]. Thus, unlike Ebenezer Howard who created the garden cities to combine the benefits of the countryside with the utility of city services, the Smithsons wished to take the garden city back into the city. They sought control and calm as key qualities in the modern city.

They were also inspired by the flood of new consumer technologies and advertising. The Smithsons felt Le Corbusier was the first to put together the world of popular and fine arts towards the end of his life in Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles. They felt he viewed historic art – possibly the classical origins of heroic architectural principles — not as a stylistic source but as a pattern of organisation, and a source of social reform and technological revolution[24]. The Smithsons themselves recognised that advertising was making a bigger contribution to the visual climate of the 1950s than any of the fine arts. Advertising was selling products as a natural accessory to life and is packed with information for the average man – it had taken over from fine art as the definition of what is fine and desirable by society. They recognised that the mass produced consumer goods had revolutionised the house without the intervention of the architect. However, they also felt that pre-fabricated buildings built for utility and not aesthetics (e.g. schools and garages) have adapted to the built environment a lot better to the existing built environment than buildings designed by fine art architects. Thus, in context of the desire to create calm and safe dwellings for the city dweller, architectural should be developed for the machine-served city.

As with the majority of architects of their age, the Smithsons were profoundly influenced by the architecture of Mies van der Rohe. The Smithsons in particular stated that they were profoundly changed by two of Rohe’s themes:

1. To make a thing well is not only a moral imperative, but it is also the absolute base of the pleasure of use

2. The machine-calm city. No rhetoric, just ordering of elements to effect a gentle, live, equipoise ordinary quality. Neoclassicism.[25]

The first point touches on the material aspect of Rohe’s love for perfection of detail and the use of the finest quality of materials, with the greatest care. The Smithsons’ felt Rohe had a ‘special feeling for materials as luxury … the observer is made aware of the essence of each material’[26] Interestingly, this focus on the existential qualities of concrete and the keenness to use the material for its physical characteristic has enjoyed a recent revival in architecture. Conversely, there is debate with regards to the reason why the Smithsons and the Modernist architects before 1980s used the material so liberally. Sarah Williams Goldhagen believed that the Smithson did employ concrete for its physical properties whereas Adrian Forty argues that such conclusions are misguided in part because the Smithsons themselves tried to appeal to a later audience by discussing their earlier works in a new light in their publications. Forty believes that the Modernist architects of per-1980s were primarily interested in the form of their structures; further that in the ordinariness of their forms and the unremarkable, smooth and grey expanse of concrete they sought to achieve an abstract formlessness, as if literally urging the structure to disappear with irrelevance. Thus, concrete was not chosen because it was concrete, but rather because it had the properties the architects desired. The latter explanation seems to be the case of the Smithsons in 1974 when they wrote that many old cities the feeling of ‘control’ is derived from the repetition of the use of materials on every roof, the roofs having been built at the same pitch, with similar roof lights etc. This suggests that perhaps the repeated use of concrete in so many parts of the building was not motivated by its suitability but by the need to repeat and extend control.

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The Smithsons were keen for their repetition of elements to seem to derive from the intention of the whole, rather than seeming to have been designed as one separate entity which is then repeated. They found that a repetition with subtle differences used by Rohe in creating a large at-the-whole-community-scale central open space was ‘life-including’[27]. They also felt that a building is more interesting if it is more than itself – if it ‘changes the space around it with connective possibilities’ but ‘by a quietness that until now our sensibilities could not recognise as architecture at all’. They felt a sense of wellbeing can be found if the built-form and the counterpart space are ‘locked’ together[28].

The recognition that a building is not alone, that it exerts an influence on its surroundings and needs to interact with it to be successful seems now far off from the emphasis of today’s planning policies for ‘high quality, inclusive design’ which should integrate into existing urban form and the natural and built environments[29]. However, what sounded similar is very different in practice as we can see in Robin Hood Gardens, a project by the Smithsons where they consciously incorporated their vision of ‘inclusive design’. We can see that the buildings were definitely designed with the central space in mind – they are even curved according to the landscape features. However, the estate does not integrate with buildings of the surrounding areas very well in terms of scale or layout. Critics state that it failed to come to terms that existing spatial fabrics held ‘memory’ and value[30]. People adapt slowly to change – a building that nods to the original fabric will aid the adaptation process. This design fails to be ‘inclusive’ for the surrounding areas that are outside the architects’ control and thus does not fall into the broader scope of today’s standard of good design. However, an earlier project by the Smithsons was a widely held success for integrating well within and introducing variations to the City of London. This was the Economist Plaza which was completed in 1964. A group of three office towers built on a picturesque piazza to allow pedestrian movement independent of the road system with street level access to services and shops, it broke the London tradition of the closed block, and may be considered the precursor of later office developments such as Broadgate[31]. However, its success was also attributed to restraint that was sensitive to context, by the use of stone instead of concrete to assimilate choice of material of older buildings nearby, and designing on the basis of an ancient Greek acropolis plan to maintain with the scale and governing lines of tradition-bound St Jeremy’s Street. The successful features of this project also marked a retreat from Brutalism to the restrained Classicism of Mies van der Rohe[32].

The Economist Plaza is an example of how the Smithsons usually go about the designing process — they conducted length research into the working practices of the journalists of the Economist magazine in order to create the most efficient structure. Their aim was for their buildings to be specific to their location and purpose[33]. They also took inspiration from the works of others. At the time when the Smithsons were compiling their entry to the Golden Lane housing competition between 1951 and 1953, they had contact with the Hendersons who were conducting social studies in the East End of London. This steered their reading of the city towards a form which reflected the structure of human association. This led to their radical suggestion that the street and housing blocks might multiply in a random and biological way to form a network overlaid on the existing city in a way reminiscent of molecular patterns or fractals. Thus, the topography or the context of a specific site would mould the disposition of the project.

The idea of a network is based on the Smithsons’ belief that a community cannot be created by geographic isolation which, they feel, was the mistake made by English neighbourhood planning (through grouping around an infant school, community centre or group of shops), and the Unité concept of Le Corbusier[34]. They aspire to aid social cohesion through the looseness of grouping and ease of communication. They felt the quintessential role of the planner is to create a ‘sense of place’ by encouraging the creation of non-arbitrary groupings and effective communication, making possible groupings based on the family, street, district, region and city apparent. To maintain the looseness of grouping and the ease of communication, density must increase as population increases. The Smithsons believed that ‘we must build high to avoid eating up farmland and creating congestion and increasing travel time on the roads.

The architects recognised that high-rise living led to problems such as deprivation of outdoor life, the ‘ineffectiveness of vertical communication’, and difficulty in forming friendships for the lack of horizontal communication at the same level[35]. And so they proposed an ambitions vision of a multi-layered, city, leaving on the ground the support networks such as freight and utilities. ‘In large cities, such things as light industries, workshops, clinics, shopping centres and small hotels could easily be located on raised levels: integrated with the deck-dwelling pattern … the hope is that the advantage of close physical proximity will draw people to the clearly different districts of the city – cause an urban revival – a new city in which the home will be very much the centre of all activities[36]‘.

The council house in the UK should be capable of being put together with others in a similar sort, so as to form bigger and equally comprehensive elements which can be added to existing villages and towns in such a way as to revitalise the traditional hierarchies, and not destroy them. The architects felt that building imitation market towns both inside and outside cities deny them the right to be urban forms because they do not engage with the pre-existing community to which they have been attached.

The architects were also interested in achieving clarity between private and public space, much like Le Corbusier’s Unité which ‘preserved the individual in seclusion while giving expression to the communal life and faith of the Order with a double-height ‘collective’ space, and links through the balconies with the world outside. The interior street provides an enclosed world of neighbours whilst the shopping arcade and the roof space belong to and give expression to the total community.[37]‘ The Smithsons were keen to preserve this divide: ‘From the moment the man or child steps outside his dwelling our responsibility starts for the individual has not got the control over his extended environment that he has over his house’[38].               

The Smithsons’ entry for Golden Lane failed but their design laid the foundations for the development of ‘streets in the air’. The ‘streets in the air’ are a reinterpretation of East End bye-law streets because the Smithsons saw that such traditional streets in the East End function well as a main public forum for communication, as a playground for children and provide open space for public gatherings and large scale sociability in working class Britain. To fulfil these functions in a Brutalist apartment block, Le Corbusier’s ‘rue intérieure’-the double-loaded, long, dark corridor on the inside of the building – will need to be moved to the exterior. They will be 12 foot wide, continuous and reach every part of the development. At Park Hill estate, Sheffied, the architects even made sure that original Victorian street names were kept and neighbours from the original slum area where the estate replaced were housed next to eachother. This contributed to the initial popularity of the estate but it could not stop problems of crime and dilapidation following.

It is interesting to compare the fates of Robin Hood Gardens and Park Hill. The vertical circulation system and access from ‘streets in the air’ were said to make the Robin Hood estate unpopular[39]. However, it was also blamed for disagreeing with the Smithson’s idea at Golden Lane of housing elements forming networks or clusters – and the Team 10 premise that a building’s first duty is to the fabric in which it stands – by having been divided into two building blocks. They do not demonstrate, by combining into a longer entity the potential for a city wide pedestrian network[40]. On the other hand, Park Hill estate does join up into a large entity but its 12 foot decks were in turn blamed for providing quick getaways for burglars and other criminals. Neither building realised the dream of the elevated community utopia. Does this suggest that ‘streets in the air’ in actuality never ‘got off the ground’? The Barbican estate offers safe and secluded elevated decks with beautiful views over the estate but it does not serve as a social gathering place for the residents nor a playground for the children. It seems somehow it is extremely difficult to recapture the East End feel in the Smithsons’ signature design feature.

At the CIAM conference in 1953, they attacked the decades-old dogma propounded by Le Corbusier and others that cities should be zoned into specific areas for living, working, leisure and transport, and that urban housing should consist of tall, widely spaced towers[41]. The Smithsons’ ideal city would combine different activities within the same areas. However, the legacy of CIAM and of Le Corbusier was a significant burden and will take time to wear off[42]. By the close of 1960s, there was a shift from the ‘raw’ Brutalism of the 50’s to a gentler and more refined form of architectural language[43]. Team 10’s urban productions were marked by a distinct retreat from the early mobility-driven solutions to solutions based on the ‘metamorphosis’ of inherent qualities of existing urban structures where large open sites were concerned; or rehabilitation and reuse of existing structures combined with new small-scale interventions, were existing structures are concerned. In effect, many of the so called Post-Modern revolutions of 1970s, including participation, rehabilitation, restoration, preservation, and political reorganisation, had been pre-dated by Team 10’s thinking during 1960s.[44]

Does this suggest that the New Brutalists finally acknowledged the mistakes of their designs and retreated? Such an interpretation would have ignored the context of 1950s where a quick solution was needed to re-house many people from bombed out regions in the centre of industrial cities and putrid slums. However, haste is a lazy excuse for questionable design. It cannot be ignored that the hard concrete aesthetic and morphological autonomy in part alienated Brutalist works from their residents and ended up forming ‘ghettos’ for housing for the lower classes. In fairness, many estates in Britain were brought off the peg by local authorities ‘too lazy or unimaginative to hire architects and planners of their own’[45] that resulted in ‘appalling dimness and dullness’[46]. But, the original designs from New Brutalist architects also proved to be ‘design disasters’. Despite their efforts to accommodate the working class into their towers, they designed buildings with features that were highly unsuitable for such residents and eventually drove them away.

Chapter 3

Design Failures

According to R. K. Jarvis[47], Le Corbusier’s urban design principles belong to the artistic tradition in urban design, sharing the umbrella term with Camillo Sitte, Gordon Cullen, Roy Worskett and the Ministry for Housing and Local Government in London which designed the post-war British towns and villages. From first appearances, such principles could not be more different. Sitte’s emphasis ‘artistic principles’ in city building is the direct aesthetic antithesis to modernist’s conception of Order by pure geometry; and neither would have tolerated the rows of front-and-back garden semi-detached houses of post-war England.

Martin Kreiger’s Review of Large Scale Planning[48] sets out ‘three binds’ – the set of limitations of particular attitudes that are common with all urban designers of the artistic tradition. Firstly, the desire for a formal, general model which will provide a scientific foundation for planning analysis and proposals can be seen just as clearly beneath Sitte’s sensual and overwhelmingly visual impressions as Le Corbusier’s utilitarian explanations of the benefits of international-style living. Guidelines, whether calling for ‘That the centre of plazas be kept free’ or ‘WE MUST BUILD ON A CLEAR SITE!’ 

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