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Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, a classic example of late-1960s brutalism. (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)
Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, a classic example of late-1960s brutalism. (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)

Russell Smith

Hooray for brutalist architecture and its refreshing lack of irony Add to ...

Affection for brutalist architecture – the blocky postwar style made out of rough concrete in geometric shapes that we know from our university campuses and municipal buildings – seems to be reaching a pitch. There are initiatives for preserving our ugliest, greyest architecture all over the world – especially Europe – and retrospectives in art books and galleries are all over the place.

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English Heritage, for example, the government agency charged with protecting significant buildings in that country, is behind an exhibition at its gallery in London called Brutal and Beautiful: Saving the 20th Century, on until Nov. 24. A comprehensive guide to the British manifestations of the school, Brutalism: Post-War British Architecture, by Alexander Clement, was published in 2011; it has some readable history, explanation of technical terms and photographs.

There are other coffee-table books from the past 10 years that reflect a similar interest in other regions: notable is Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, by Frédéric Chaubin (Taschen, 2010), a collection of the weirdest space-age complexes and monuments from the former Soviet republics. The Soviets seemed to take the fantastic futurist angle farther than the West did, in their utopian buildings, and the result is miles of crumbling flying-saucer sports palaces and tubular science institutes. The pictures of these dilapidated monuments to a failed system are almost uniformly depressing.

Much is made of the failure of these buildings, both aesthetic and practical. They were designed, in both the west and the east of Europe, with paternalistic social principles in mind. Le Corbusier, whose respect for béton brut (“raw concrete”) inspired the brutalist epithet, had grand visions of planned cities and apartment blocks leading to the better health of the lower classes; the notorious British brutalists Alison and Peter Smithson were also optimistic futurists. But the reality of concrete high-rise public housing turned out quite differently, with alienation, isolation and non-functioning elevators.

In Britain, the nadir of the reputation of concrete high-rises came in May, 1968, when the Ronan Point council estate in East London suffered a small gas explosion and several floors came tumbling down. It turned out in the subsequent investigation that some of the joints between walls and floors had been filled with newspaper instead of concrete, the result of poor supervision. And then there was the notorious Hulme Crescents concrete public-housing complex, in Manchester, that was declared unfit for families to live in shortly after it opened.

Why were so many schools and universities built in this techno-medieval style? And why in particular are university libraries built in the sixties so frequently giant, windowless bunkers that look like military installations? There have been all kinds of urban legends around these shapes. Growing up, I heard that postwar universities were designed this way so as to serve as shelters in case of nuclear attack, or to prevent barricading in case of student revolt. Both are myths: The dull truth is that the aesthetic was simply fashionable. It was just cool, at the time – even countercultural. I remember the damp concrete smell of new university buildings as a boy in the 1960s and it is a pleasant and comforting memory.

So, is that all this revisionist appreciation is – mere nostalgia? Is it the province of the middle-aged who actually grew up around these things and are sad to see their childhoods erased? I think it’s more than that – just as many young people are into these angular and hulking designs. What is it about this period that is so intriguing?

I admit I am one of its fans – I even subscribe to a Facebook group called the Brutalism Appreciation Society that sends me daily pictures of crazy, ugly-beautiful concrete buildings around the world. In them, I see a refreshing lack of irony. Their geometric shapes were not beautiful but they were heroic, in a naive way; their scale, their assault on the sky, their defiance of any surrounding architecture, reflected a belief in progress and the future that is not respected now. Even their sternness, their menacing blank walls and rough textures, their associations with totalitarianism, are thrilling, the way stealth bombers and stormtroopers are cool.

Interestingly, that famously terrible Manchester complex, the Hulme Crescents, became a hub for artists and bohemians after the families moved out in the early eighties – it had total angst cred, like Berlin before the Wall came down. An art cinema opened there, and an illegal nightclub. It was a perfect place to revel in your urban alienation and fantasies of apocalypse.

I applaud efforts to protect these unfashionable monuments to naivety. But the sad truth is, they will decay on their own – concrete does not last as long as stone. They were always, even the most giant of them, temporary structures.

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