Last week, the Chief Executive of English Heritage, Dr Simon Thurley, gave a lecture at Durham University entitled The Pendulum of Taste: Architecture and the Rise of a State Aesthetic. In it, he put forward the idea that we still do not have an adequate framework for discussing architectural quality. Experts have particular types of analytical discourse that they can use, he suggested, but the public are often left wondering why certain buildings are revered or reviled. George Square’s David Hume Tower, for example, was listed in 2006 and many people wonder why: few people would call it beautiful. Likewise, Sheffield’s Park Hill – a grade two listed building – which is, visually, popularly accepted as being something of a monstrosity.
Both of these buildings were designed and erected in the aftermath of WW2 and are prime examples of the Brutalist movement. Its name needs little explanation, but, perhaps because of it, the movement’s structures have been misrepresented and unfairly vilified. The buildings look brutal, yes, but in naming them for how they appear, we reinforce the idea that the visual facets of architecture are the most important. The value of buildings is all too often based, in the popular conscience, on their aesthetic appeal – or lack thereof.
In the case of Brutalism, there is a lot to love beyond the stark grey walls. Dr Thurley suggests that establishing value requires a more complex classification system than currently exists in the public sphere. He presented a condensed version of the criteria English Heritage use when deciding which buildings are listed, or, in some cases, unlisted. This includes considerations such as whether a building is a particularly striking or early example of a movement’s architecture, and, tellingly, how socially important the building is.
This is where the beauty of Brutalism becomes obvious: it is fundamentally functional. A building’s aesthetic qualities were hardly going to be important in a landscape of bombed out ruins. What Britain needed was buildings that provided public services: housing blocks, libraries, council buildings, and so on. They did not need to be visually pleasing, they needed to help the country get back on its feet as quickly as possible. Brutalism achieves every one of its aims and, in doing so, is part of our social and cultural heritage. Its value is in what it represents: stability, survival and strength.
Originally published in The Student, 8 November