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Paean to brutalism

Architectural historian Barnabas Calder found his way to brutalism via mediaeval architecture and baroque. Now he’s not so much a convert as a zealot

Hermit’s Castle at Achmelvich in Scotland.
Hermit’s Castle at Achmelvich in Scotland. · Credit: Barnabas Calder

Barnabas Calder is an enthusiast for concrete, and Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism is written with a convert’s fervour.  For him, the concrete buildings of the 1960s are architecture’s all time high water mark, to which nothing built before, or since, matches up.  What distinguishes this impressively well-written book from the ravings of yet another concrete junkie is that as an architectural historian, Calder cut his teeth first on mediaeval architecture, and then the baroque, before discovering brutalism: passionate and energetic, some of his judgements may seem extreme, but they are never shallow, nor ill-considered.

Calder was not born loving concrete, and Raw Concrete is the story of his conversion, told through encounters with a dozen British buildings. The stages of his conversion went more or less in reverse order to the historical sequence in which they are presented, so that the oldest, the strange Hermit’s Castle at Achmelvich in Scotland, is the scene of his most recent experience.  His Damascene moment occurred at the Barbican, while his seminary was the National Theatre – ‘the gold standard for concrete’ – upon which he wrote his doctorate. Another Lasdun building, New Court at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he lived while writing his thesis, was his mortification. Out of this all too intimate contact with Lasdun’s architecture he became an expert on brutalism. 

Calder writes with the opinionated self-assurance of the young Ruskin, and like Ruskin, the intensity of his observation can be startling. Calder has looked longer and harder at the buildings he writes about than most other people, and this makes for compelling reading:  I had thought I knew some of them rather well, but Calder’s descriptions, alternating between the whole and the detail, made me think again. 

  • New Court at Christ’s College, Cambridge by Lasdun where Calder wrote his thesis.
    New Court at Christ’s College, Cambridge by Lasdun where Calder wrote his thesis. · Credit: Barnabas Calder
  • Barbican detail.
    Barbican detail. · Credit: Barnabas Calder
  • Newbery Tower during demolition.
    Newbery Tower during demolition. · Credit: Barnabas Calder

Raw Concrete covers some of the same ground as Owen Hatherley’s books, especially when Calder goes to unloved portions of British cities, such as Glasgow’s Anderston Centre. (Two other Glaswegian buildings feature in his narrative, the University of Strathclyde School of Architecture, and the now demolished studio block at Glasgow School of Art, replaced by the Steven Holl building). Unlike Hatherley though (whom he avoids naming), Calder is adamant about not treating brutalism as a proxy for something else; in Hatherley’s case it serves as an indictment of the neo-liberal policies responsible for the destruction of the welfare state. Instead, Calder’s purpose is to recognise brutalism as a ‘self-conscious, self-confident, hugely celebratory high art’, devoted to the fulfilment of a very particular kind of robust, forward-looking luxury. 

Calder is moved by the excitement of brutalism, by the force of the buildings, and all the more so because their discovery goes against his earlier architectural instincts. Even for those of us who grew up with brutalism and may not need reminding of its qualities, it is nevertheless thrilling to see someone else appreciate them afresh, especially in such sparkling language.

When the critic Reyner Banham first codified brutalism in 1955, he summarised its defining features as ‘1 Memorability as an Image; 2 Clear exhibition of Structure;  and 3 Valuation of Materials “as found”.’ Calder is not particularly interested in Banham’s, or any one else’s, definitions of brutalism – for him, it is just a convenient, all-encompassing descriptive label for the architecture of the late fifties and sixties, born out of, he believes, ‘an orgiastic celebration of energy wealth’.  (We have to wait for another, forthcoming book, for him to make the case for a connection between energy costs and architectural form.)  Nonetheless, Banham’s recognition of ‘Image’ as what brutalism was about accords with what Calder so admires in these buildings – and he is able to show us something of how it was achieved, for there is good deal of behind-the-scenes research into the thinking and attitudes of the architects responsible. 

  • Hermits Castlet Achmelvich in Scotland.
    Hermits Castlet Achmelvich in Scotland. · Credit: Barnabas Calder
  • Detail of the Hermit's Castle.
    Detail of the Hermit's Castle. · Credit: Barnabas Calder
  • Strathclyde Architecture Building.
    Strathclyde Architecture Building. · Credit: Barnabas Calder

For all his self-declared preoccupation with the aesthetic impact of the buildings, he has at the same time a masterful command of the historical material. There is, for example, an informative summary of the evolution of the stepped section groundscraper. A paradox he confronts is that the best clients of brutalism tended to belong to the establishment – the City of London Corporation, Oxford and Cambridge Colleges, etc; for all its seeming radicalism and devil-may-care attitudes, somehow brutalism seemed to serve these patrons’ relatively conservative interests surprisingly well, providing them with a cover of progressivism. And there is an excellent chapter on Leslie Martin, the great string-puller, without whose influence many of the now top grade brutalist buildings of the time might not have come about. Only missing from Raw Concrete is any reflection on brutalism outside Britain. A journey abroad, to France, the USA, or Latin America, might make British brutalism look different. 

Adrian Forty is author of Concrete and Culture: A Material History 

Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism, Barnabas Calder, 416pp, HB, £17