The Rise of British Brutalism

Barbican buildings and pond

It’s always been controversial, but is brutalism once again cool? We explore the surprising rise in popularity of brutalism, one of the most divisive forms of modern architecture.

Beginning in the 1950s and 60s, brutalism is a style of architecture that’s characterised by simple block buildings made from a raw concrete construction. The first use of the word was by Swedish architect Hans Asplund, who used the term nybrutalism, or ‘new brutalism’, to describe Villa Goth, a small house in Uppsala. His term caught on in Stockholm and was picked up by British architects in the city, and later taken up by arty young designers in London including Alison and Peter Smythson.

British architectural critic Reyner Banham expanded on Asplund’s term, turning it into a tongue-in-cheek pun on the French ‘béton brut’, which literally translates as raw concrete. Left rough and untreated, this material would become the defining trait of the movement.

Brutalism descended from the modernist architectural movement of the early 20th century, when function over form became the norm. Rather than adornments and design details, the style embraced raw construction materials, with reinforced concrete, brick, glass, steel and some rougher stone used such as in the form of gabions, usually used in sea walls to prevent coastal erosion.

close up of brutalist building detail

BRUTALISM TODAY

While examples of brutalist architecture can still be seen widely across the country, many have been demolished to make way for more modern and ecologically sound buildings. Here are a few of the best examples of British brutalism.

close up of brutalist design
a brutalist residential property

The Barbican Estate

Hayward Gallery

National Theatre

Trellick Tower

The Lawrence Abbot apartments

Barbican brutalist buildings

The Barbican Estate

Constructed between the 1960s and 1980s within central London, the Barbican Estate is a sprawling residential and social enterprise complex that includes many houses, apartments, an arts’ centre, the Museum of London and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The complex was built in an area once devastated by World War II bombings, and it is one of the most prominent examples of British brutalist architecture. With the exception of Milton Court, now demolished to make way for a new apartment tower, the entire estate is Grade II listed — meaning it is a site of special interest that warrants every effort to preserve its design and status.

The 35-acre estate was largely razed to the ground during the war, with the area suffering from serious damage and loss of life. A proposal was put forward to redevelop the area, to provide residential housing and services for the residents who lived there. The site was designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon after the success of their Golden Lane Estate, and was officially opened in 1969. While its brutalist style has received a certain degree of criticism, the estate has largely been a success and in recent years has gained cult status, particularly among younger residents. Today, there are approximately 2,014 apartments hosting 4,000 people. The estate was listed in 2001.(

Other famous examples of brutalism in Britain include the Hayward Gallery, the National Theatre and Trellick Tower.


Local examples of brutalism

It’s not just London that’s home to brutalism: the Fourwalls HQ office is based in Camberley, Surrey, and within a short drive is another fine example of British brutalism. The Lawrence Abbot apartments in Frimley, Surrey were constructed in the 1960s and has received awards for its design.

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