In his latest book, How to Love Brutalism, the author John Grindrod shares his fascination for this strange and beguiling style of 20th century architecture and explores what it is that makes brutalism worthy of such contemporary passions.
In conversation with our own Craig Austin, whose hometown of Cwmbran is the subject of an entire chapter of Grindrod’s much-lauded Concretopia, the author shares his own thoughts on brutalism’s 21st century renaissance, its vivid cultural connections, and the heart that beats beneath that raw concrete shell.
The National Theatre, a startling concrete landscape that Prince Charles once derided as looking like ‘a nuclear power station’, remains London’s best known and most divisive brutalist building. On a school trip to London to see King Lear an especially neurotic teacher publicly reprimanded me in the building’s foyer for having the temerity to admire its visceral sense of shock. Yet decades later, I find myself sat in its welcoming and lively bar with the author of a much-anticipated book devoted to the people behind these buildings and the once-unthinkable contemporary fetishization of concrete.
John Grindrod has quietly, yet assuredly, established himself as an important voice on matters pertaining to the building(s) of post-war Britain, its key players, and the emotional relationship that exists between people and their built environment. Grindrod brings humour, honesty and insight to the subject, and though I’ve read a number of books about brutalism this is the first that has succeeded in making me laugh. It’s not a ‘funny’ book, but it’s one with a personality all of its own.
‘It was a deliberate thing’ the author tells me, ‘and I’m really glad that it made you laugh. This book was commissioned by a publishing house called Batsford who’ve been doing these “How to Look at…” architecture books since the 1930s. I was really thrilled to be asked to do a book in that series but it I did find it quite funny; this idea that I was charged with persuading people to love something, especially given that brutalism itself is a funny old thing’.
At times, Grindrod talks about the subject matter in terms of camp and excess. There’s a reference in the book to brutalism’s “collision with luxury”, and both Diana Ross and Dolly “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap” Parton are referenced within its pages. ‘There is an element of brutalism’, he explains, ‘the over-exaggeration, that plays to the idea of camp being “the failure of seriousness”. It’s important to approach a subject like this with a bit of personality, and having been asked to write this book I was keen to ensure that there was a lot of human interest within it, the element that often gets missed. People tend to fetishize the details of the buildings, and this sometimes comes at the expense of any connection with people. It can be a bit “boys club”, and that’s something that has to be punctured at every turn’.
Upon sharing my own anecdote about the scolding that I took from my teacher at the arse-end of the 80s, Grindrod recalls the period as being ‘brutalism’s lowest ebb’. ‘It had hit a new low in the public perception, Prince Charles was hugely critical of the style and perhaps most importantly of all, all of the money had run out. From a London perspective the divide between the pre and post-docklands periods is very stark, with the intervening period being populated by stasis. For the first time ever, brutalism started to look old, and it had never looked old before. Some of the buildings had begun to wear out, a failure of upkeep that people would quite unfairly attribute to the architecture itself. And yet in the space of a couple of decades it’s gone from that perception to what I’d characterise as the fetishization of brutalism, where through its depiction on pillow cases, mugs and t-shirts it feels like it’s become an industry in itself’
Grindrod cites the internet, and the popularity of social media, as the reason why some many ‘shy brutalists’ have recently popped their heads above the concrete parapet: ‘When I was growing up the idea that you could have this really niche interest and that you could magically connect to other people around the would who also shared that niche interest was incredible, the stuff of magic, like something from an E. Nesbitt novel. But now, we live in an age where you are able to do that, and for people like me’, he smiles, ‘who have a lot of niche interests, it’s a lovely thing to be able to interact with people who have those shared passions. I think it’s one of the reasons that there has been such an increase in the interest in modernist and brutalist architecture. The over-riding narrative you used to get from the press, from popular culture, that everybody hates brutalism and that it’s shit, has increasingly been challenged, and the connections that people are now making with these buildings have driven this new and exciting movement’.
So with this in mind, I ask the author whether we’re approaching the point of ‘peak brutalism’: ‘Yes, I really do, if only because fashion constantly changes and moves on. I’ve met a lot of people for whom their fleeting interest in it has already been and gone. They’ve moved on, and they only like post-modernism now, or they’re just over architecture completely. But at the same time there are people a lot younger than me who are experiencing it for the first time, finding something new in it, and falling in love with it. Peak brutalism has certainly been reached though’.
In spite of many devotees it’s been hard for brutalism to shake a notorious reputation entrenched in urban decay, the disconnection between what might look magnificent on a draughtsman’s board in Marseille, and the harsh reality of a dimly lit South Wales walkway at 2am on a Saturday morning. Brutalism’s more affluent acolytes are forever at the mercy of charges rooted in the Sex Pistols’ righteously sneering ethos of ‘a cheap holiday in other people’s misery’. ‘There is a lot of truth in that’ Grindrod acknowledges, ‘but brutalism is also tied up with so many of those post-war welfare state ideas that we’re now so readily abandoning as a nation. They still represent a sense of opportunity and grand planning, and the idea that you can make life better for everyone and bring them up to a certain standard and create a more equal world. We live in an age where we’re increasingly crushed by a selfish elite at the top and for many people the appeal of brutalism is that it represents something noble, something better, certainly better than the kind of politics that we have at the moment’.
One of my favourite passages within the book is titled Ruined Brutes: When Rough Concrete Returns to Nature, Grindrod’s assertion that “there is something about a ruin that sets the pulse racing”, and a focus on the manner in which all man-made creations ultimately genuflect to the magnificent power of nature. It’s a theme that has parallels with the author’s 2017 book, Outskirts, a deeply touching memoir about growing up on the edge of the green belt: ‘I feel like I am quite obsessed with the tension between our built environment and the natural world, and the way in which they co-exist, and I think that when people think of brutalist architecture they think of it as quite remote, quite removed form the natural world, and yet unlike a lot of contemporary architecture it’s not about a lot of plastic-coated surfaces. It is actually something made out of sand and rock, these natural materials, and when you do see it ultimately decaying it has that same feeling as watching a cliff-face erode. You gave the same sense of feeling that you get at Whitby Abbey, one of those old buildings that started to fall to pieces a long time ago. When brutalism does fall to bits it has that feel about it that you don’t really get with primarily brick-based buildings’.
‘Landscape and buildings have a very similar affect on your psyche as music does’, the author elaborates. ‘It can give you a feeling of drowning in something you’ve experienced. You are surrounded by these things, they can be very familiar or very new, but these things do have a profound impact on the way we feel and the way that we relate to other people and the world around us. For me, brutalism and post-war architecture represents a lot of things from my childhood and from my youth that felt quit aspirational and there is that slightly grand sadness of watching those big ideas disappearing into the past and being viewed as historical artefacts. In the same way, if I revisit songs from my youth they often take on a more profound personal meaning than perhaps “Vienna” by Ultravox ever meant to at the time. Those things feel very tied up together. In the same way, you can go for a walk – which at the time might feel like a fairly routine thing to do – but a few months later something from that walk might have lodged itself in your head and impacted on your psyche in some way’.
For this writer, brutalism evokes a wide range of cultural influences; the novels of J.G Ballard, the brooding music of Joy Division, and Wendy Carlos’s electronic A Clockwork Orange score. ‘There is a lot of dystopia connected to brutalism’, Grindrod reflects. You read a book like Concrete Island where the guy is stuck under a flyover in this world of abandoned people. It’s an incredibly oppressive and bleak picture that he paints, but you also get the sense that Ballard’s made an incredibly strong connection with these places. He’s not writing about them in a sneery way, there’s a huge sense of something heroic going on, something extremely positive’. ‘I had lunch with Ballard once’, he adds, to my startled delight. ‘I used to work for his publisher, there was a group of us, but I kind of sat in the background and observed because being such a big fan I felt a little bit over-awed. He was very angry when talking about the press and the way in which they deliberately misrepresented his personal life and his work. He felt really scarred by that stuff’.
‘Ballard understood that nowhere is perfect, and there are certainly downsides to brutalism as much as there are upsides. You’re not allowed to talk about that stuff in a way, and it’s often assumed that if you’ve written anything about brutalism that you’re going to be some kind of tourist idiot, the idea that it might never have crossed your mind that not everyone might enjoy living in brutalist buildings. The kind of knee-jerk argument that says “well if you like it so much, why don’t you live there?” It’s a complicated matter, but the things that really draws me to 20th century architecture is less the architecture, and more the fact that there was once a genuine desire to build fantastic homes and arts centres for millions of people to enjoy, I ultimately don’t really care what style of building they were, it was just brilliant that they worked, and that is the most important thing. We sometimes get so wrapped up in the style of these buildings that we lose sense of the substance, and there was always a lot of substance. That was the whole point of them, and I’d like nothing more that to turn that whole way of thinking on its head’.
This utopian notion is perhaps best captured by one of the book’s final sentences, one that seeks to capture a valiant attempt to improve all of our lives: Today, brutalism preserves the memory of an inspired municipal moment – optimism captured in amber.
And in 2018, optimism is a currency that we should all be looking to invest in.
How To Love Brutalism is out now and published by Batsford.
John Grindrod runs the popular website dirtymodernscoundrel.com and can be found in the Twitter-sphere at @Grindrod