Archive: brutalism

This is part 2 of 4 in the series London trip (February 2012)

Day two map:

London day two map

Barbican architecture tour

Shakespeare Tower from Frobisher Crescent

St Giles' Cripplegate bell tower

Owing to my developing interest in brutalist architecture, I decided I would take a look at the Barbican Estate to see one prominent brutalist project in the flesh. I took a look at the Barbican Arts Centre website to see if there were any interesting events on. To my delight, I discovered that they do architecture tours.

The tour lasted just over 90 minutes, and was a fascinating insight into the project. The tour takes in parts of the Barbican Arts Centre and large parts of the estate.

From a distance we looked at the City of London School for Girls and the incredible St Giles-without-Cripplegate church.

Lauderdale Tower

It was absolutely freezing cold that day. This was the day that temperatures plunged to −7°C overnight. I am not sure what the temperature was during the day, but it certainly felt sub-zero.

The problem was that I was so fascinated by the tour — and we were standing in the outdoors for most of the time — that I didn’t think to put on my gloves only occasionally noticed just how cold my hands were. I think they are still recovering from the damage.

But that can only be a good reflection of the architecture tour. And as you can see, I got some great snaps. It was possibly the highlight of my trip. If you’re interested in architecture, I would get to one of these tours if you can.

Frobisher Crescent
Original Barbican pedestrian map
Barbican plaza

All of my photos from the Barbican estate:

Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising

In the afternoon I made my way over to the Museum of Brands. It is hidden away a bit, but once you get there it is like hitting upon a treasure trove of nostalgia.

The museum tracks the evolution of brands, packaging and advertising since Victorian times. You make your way through a winding tunnel, surrounded by cabinets jam-packed from head to foot with countless vintage packaging. The majority of this tunnel is laid out in chronological order, allowing you to see the trends over time.

To some it might seem like an obscure topic to have a museum about. It might be easy to dismiss it as a shallow nostalgia fest. But these ostensibly disposable objects tell the story of everyday life in the 20th century. It’s telling a social history too. And there cannot be many better places than the Museum of Brands to document this history.

There are stories about emancipation, technology and even international relations. One of the most striking items I noticed was “Adolf Shitler” toilet roll, designed to keep spirits up during the second world war by allowing people to wipe their arses on Hitler’s face.

I have a couple of criticisms. The layout is very claustrophobic. The corridors are quite narrow, so it’s easy to clatter into somebody else if you have just been peering into one of the cabinets. Also, the lighting isn’t great, and the cabinets are stuffed so full that it’s quite difficult to see some of the items.

I would also say that there is too much on display. It is quite overwhelming. On the plus side, I am certain that I could visit again and notice things that totally passed me by first time round, and I would be happy to do so.

If you are interested in advertising, design, or 20th century history in general, I would recommend a trip to the Museum of Brands.

This is part 1 of 4 in the series London trip (February 2012)

Last weekend I took a trip to London for the weekend. I arrived on the afternoon of Friday 10 February, and left on the afternoon of Monday 13 February. London is the sort of place I could keep going to. I go about once every two years, and every time I go away feeling like I needed much more time.

Typically, whenever I go to London, it is normally a last-minute deal — something I’m squeezing in around something else. This time round, it was still similarly last-minute, but I took the time to schedule everything in advance. Unfortunately, I was too optimistic and would have needed at least twice as much time to do everything I wanted to.

Day 1 map:

London day one map

Royal Observatory, Greenwich

My first stop was in fact the last addition to my itinerary. But as I kept refining the schedule up until the moment I arrived in London, I ended up deciding to come here first. It was the most out-of-the-way place and I couldn’t check in to my hotel yet, so I thought I’d get this done first.

Being an observatory, it is reasonably high up. So you get some pretty cool views of the area, which I wasn’t expecting.

London panorama

THAT photo on the prime meridian

I stood on the prime meridian line, which is something I wanted to do as a child. I took that picture. I guess you have to.

The Meridian Courtyard itself is surprisingly small. But not to worry, because the main action is to be found in the time galleries. It’s a good place to visit if you’re a time geek or interested in astronomy.

It charts the development of timekeeping over the years. There are lots of early experimental clocks on display. At the other extreme, there are modern-day atomic clocks and GPSs. In between, there are displays about the BBC’s pips generator and the speaking clock.

The nearby astronomy centre, which is free to enter, was a bit of a let down in comparison. But I suppose you get what you pay for.

Cutty Sark

On my way back I decided to take a quick look at the Cutty Sark. But there is a lot of work going on there at the moment, so it’s almost impossible to get a good look at it. But the photo I took of it is reasonably good, considering.

All photos from Royal Observatory, Greenwich:

Tate Modern

The Friday night was the one evening of the weekend in which I didn’t have prior plans. Tate Modern is open until 10pm, and is within walking distance of my hotel. So it came together quite nicely.

I think it’s really great that a place like this is open so late and free. If I lived in London I would probably go quite a lot!

Modern art is controversial, but at least it is interesting. Of course some of it is toss, and there is no way you will like everything on display. But to expect to like everything surely misses the point. Good art should be challenging and thought-provoking, and inevitably that means hating some of the stuff along the way.

It’s the same with experimental music, which I love. If you liked it all, there wouldn’t be much point.

I much prefer to visit a gallery like Tate Modern than a gallery of traditional art containing portrait after portrait after portrait.

I was disappointed that the Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals are no longer on display. I was looking forward to seeing them, and it turns out they were removed from display in October.

Among my personal highlights was the display Architecture and Power, which explores modernist and brutalist architecture. It offered a lot of the social and political commentary that I found was lacking in the Brutalism book. Very thought-provoking.

I also enjoyed the Dark Humour display.

But my favourite individual piece was Fall by Bridget Riley. I have not been particularly struck by op-art before, and nor was I particularly keen on the other Bridget Riley paintings on display. But physically standing in front of Fall was a real experience. It is very eye-catching, almost literally, as the waves appear to pop and fizz when they are in fact clearly stationary.

I ended up buying a print of Fall in the shop, although when I got home I wondered where it would put it, because looking at it all the time would surely drive me mad. It is now hanging up behind the sofa.

The shop was brilliant, with loads of books about art and design. My wallet was partially destroyed here.

Campo de Carabobo (1)

There was a bit of feedback on the brutalism post that I wanted to share, as well as an article I was already aware of that didn’t quite fit into the original post.

First up, this interesting article in the Guardian that defends brutalism. It is an interesting viewpoint. I would also recommend reading the comments, which provide the full range of opinions on brutalism.

Fuck Yeah Brutalism is a simple but brilliant tumblelog. Simply photographs of brutalist buildings. A brilliant celebration that demonstrates the beauty of brutalism. Looking at this, it’s almost difficult to see why brutalism would be so fiercely reviled by many.

Thanks to Jonathan Pelham on Twitter for pointing me in its direction.

Finally, a friend informed me about these abandoned brutalist monuments built in Yugoslavia during the 1960s and 1970s. They look absolutely spectacular.

I have found myself developing an interest in brutalism, the style of architecture that was predominant in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. I have had a slight interest in modern architecture in the past, but I am finding myself increasingly drawn to brutalist structures and other buildings from this era.

It is not just the aesthetics of brutalist buildings that draw me. I am more fascinated by people’s interaction with them. It is a puzzle.

This is a style of architecture that dominated the scene just a few decades ago. If you view contemporary publicity films about post-war urban development, there is nothing but unflinching optimism (similar to the new towns I posted about a couple of days ago).

Telly Savalas looks at Birmingham. “You feel as if you’ve been projected into the 21st century,” he said. But by the time the 21st century came, many people would be itching to demolish the very buildings he was enthusing about.

Today, conventional wisdom derides brutalism utterly as carbuncular. Moreover, it is inextricably associated with poorly-maintained social housing, and in turn, crime and deprivation.

Brutalism: Post-War British Architecture cover

I was eager to learn more about brutalism, so went to see if there were any books on the subject. I was delighted to find out that a book, Brutalism: Post-War British Architecture by Alexander Clement, has been published very recently.

Around half a century on from the height of brutalism, now is a good time to look back at the style with, as the blurb describes, “a degree of rational reappraisal.” I am really glad to have found this book, which documents many of the notable brutalist buildings in Britain.

Speaking personally, I felt as though this book could have been a bit more accessible to someone like me, who has almost no prior knowledge about architecture. But I doubt there are too many people like me — relatively new to architecture, but interested specifically in brutalism — so I can understand this.

Besides, it didn’t prove to be too much of a barrier to my enjoyment of this book. The reader is taken on a whistle-stop tour of brutalist buildings. Public buildings, universities, service stations, office blocks, churches and, of course, social housing, are all covered in turn.

The success of the book rests on the wonderful photographs. These vary in quality, but are often very striking, demonstrating the awesome magnificence of these buildings.

But the book focuses too much on the architecture. This is probably an odd thing to say about an architecture book. But people’s interactions with brutalist architecture — positive and negative — are such an important part of the story, and are what drive my interest in the subject.

I would have liked there to have been more on the background behind brutalism. Deeper explanations of the theories and ideas behind concepts like streets in the sky and other brutalist hallmarks would have been useful and interesting.

A deeper exploration of the criticisms of brutalism would also have been welcome. I wanted to learn more about the other side of the story. Inadequate, poorly or cheaply-built buildings, that age badly in the British climate, and don’t cater for humans properly, are frequent criticisms of brutalism.

While these aspects are all mentioned, their treatment is brief. This left me slightly disappointed and wanting to learn more than the book was giving me.

The book focuses almost exclusively on the positive sides of brutalism. This may be expected, and the author seems to be on a mission to improve the image of brutalism (and why not?). But it did leave me feeling as though the full story hadn’t been told.

Overall, though, I am really glad to have found this book. It has taught me a lot about brutalism, and has inspired me to think again at buildings I already knew, and also to view in person some of the magnificent buildings featured in the book.

Brutalism: Post-War British Architecture is a brilliant document of an important style of architecture that sometimes seems as though it’s in danger of being completely wiped out by a generation that cares nothing for it.