Brutalism – love for urbanity, for the masses

Christopher Beanland, journalist and author based in London talks to RETROGRAD about his love for brutalism, Birmingham and his new book, Concrete Concept: Brutalist buildings around the world.

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RETROGRAD: You used to live in Birmingham. Has that influenced your interest in architecture?

Chris Beanland: Yes, that was definitely one of the places that influenced me. I lived there for about 5 years. It was when I had my first job in journalism after university. Living in a very concrete, very modern city was really exciting. It is also a very weird city and a weird place to live. I think the ‘weirdness’ of it appealed to me.

What is it that makes Birmingham a ‘weird’ place?

It’s eccentric, a very large city with a lot of suburbs, post-industrial areas and motorway flyovers. There’s an awful lot of space, which appeals to me as a writer. The city centre is very small and it has an incredible concentration of buildings from the sixties. It’s almost a bit of a joke now, but certainly in the sixties the city planners thought of themselves as really progressive, and wanted to think of themselves as building a working-class city for the people. Sadly, this is being slowly dismantled now. I’ve lived in London for a few years, which is really different. London is very money- and power-driven. A provincial city is different to that. Certainly, when I lived there, there were not enough interesting things happening, like art shows. I always dreamed about moving to London, but as soon as I did I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about Birmingham.

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Birmingham Central Library. Image: Birmingham City Council

The buildings covered in the book are diverse, ranging from British housing estates to grand public buildings from all over the world. What is it that unites them?

A lot of the books I’ve read focused especially on housing, which is definitely one of the things dominating architecture in the post-war years. We housed so many people in Britain, Germany, France and other European countries. I’ve written about that in the book, but it’s also interesting to look beyond the Trellick tower, Balfron tower and see that there’s this whole range of buildings. I didn’t realise that there would be so many different types until I started researching. In Germany I found a lot of brutalist churches. There are also a lot of government buildings. I think what unites brutalism is that it was mostly disseminated by states. The state, after the war, was the place where power lay and where the architects went to. So you see a lot of schools, hospitals, bus stations, post offices and so forth. Of course, there are also some corporate headquarters in the same style, so it was not entirely state-driven, but certainly a lot of it was. Today, we’re in a more privately driven world, so the councils, cities and central governments don’t build so much anymore as they did in that era.

Olympic village, Munich, courtesy of Francis Lincoln/Concrete Concept
Olympic village, Munich. Courtesy of Francis Lincoln/Concrete Concept

How did you select the buildings that are featured in the book?

At the beginning of the project, I was skewed a lot towards Britain, because I wanted to write about buildings I already knew about and seen a lot of times. But then we decided it would be a more interesting read if we made it more global. We tried spreading it out around the world, to different cities where you wouldn’t necessarily expect brutalism. Skopje is a great example of that.

Jonathan Meades, who also wrote an introductory chapter to your book, made a BBC documentary about brutalism in 2014. He traces brutalism back to the Modern Gothic style that was once hated and is now widely appreciated (according to Meades). Would you say that something similiar is happening with brutalism?

I find it interesting to look at how fashion changes as time moves on, and different periods and styles of art are appreciated in different ways. There are some young architects, especially in Latin America that are still very interested in the brutalist style. The buildings by Elemental in Chile have a lot of brutalist influence in the way they expose concrete. There are always going to be architects that want to produce buildings that are challenging and highly abstract. Almost like abstract artists are working in different ways. Public appreciation of that work is sometimes there, and sometimes not. Certainly in the past few years, it’s not been there but returning now. But who knows, in ten years time, maybe everyone will hate it again!

Geisel Library, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California, courtesy of Francis Lincoln/Concrete Concept
Geisel Library, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California, courtesy of Francis Lincoln/Concrete Concept

Have you noticed any differences across countries and regions in terms of public appreciation and preservation of their brutalist heritage? 

There are definitely differences. In cities like London, people tend to be quite open to these ideas. Birmingham is a good example of a city that wanted to knock down all of its brutalism. City leaders fail to see that there is actually a massive appetite for this kind of architecture, even though there are protests groups pressing for preservation. They can’t see that. That’s true in Skopje as well, where they’re trying to demolish all these buildings. This has also to do with a desire to erase the communist past to create a sort of idealist nationalist city. Brutalism gets a bad deal in a lot of former communist countries at the moment. This is changing as well, but in some countries the change takes longer than in others.

Former Ministry of Transport, Tbilisi/Georgia. Image: Andrea Peinhopf

The Skopje Post Office and the Bank of Georgia (formerly Ministry of Transport) are the only two buildings from post-communist countries that are featured in your book. Why did you choose those two in particular and were there others that you would have liked to include?

Since I’ve been researching for the book, I’ve read about more and more places in Eastern Europe. I’m going to go to Romania and Bulgaria in the summer, because there are lots of interesting buildings. Researching, I’m finding so many buildings in Eastern Europe that I’ve never even heard of! These buildings are almost invisible. One of the only ways they live on now is through Instagram feeds. They are not in any journal and have been forgotten about, but they’re truly amazing.

Central Post Office, Skopje. Image: Andrea Peinhopf

You are soon going to publish a novel. What role does brutalism play in the story?

I found so much inspiration from the buildings I was surrounded with in Birmingham. I decided to write a novel, which is called “The wall in the head”, derived from the German expression “die Mauer im Kopf”. That’s the idea of separating the lingering thoughts away that architecture and politics can have these kind of lasting effects on you. Brutalist buildings are perfect settings for drama to happen. A lot of them have famously been used in film-making in dystopian ways, for example by Kubrick and Truffaut. But these places can be romantic as well. People live their normal lives amongst these crazy concrete buildings in places like Birmingham, Sheffield, and even London. They are the backdrops to ordinary lives. Up in Sheffield, there’s an estate called Park Hill. On the side of the estate someone spray-painted a proposal, which I was absolutely blown away by. It says “Clair Middleton I love you will U marry me?”. It’s an amazing piece of graffiti and I love the juxtaposition of that and the concrete. That made me think it would be a great place to write a novel.

Concrete Concept: Brutalist buildings around the world by Christopher Beanland has been published by Frances Lincoln (192 pages, £20).

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