Brutalist Greenhorns


23 August 2016

One of the unpleasant aspects of fandom is the jealousy that accompanies a beloved subject becoming popular. You’ve all seen (or been) the kid who resents all the newbies jumping aboard after “their” band’s new album goes stratospheric: “They don’t get it!” If I’m honest, this feeling has been creeping up on me recently and it’s all because of brutalism.

It’s not as if nobody had heard of brutalism before, but until very recently it was a niche kind of architecture. The public despised it, the establishment wanted rid of it, and only a few cranks and loons had any interest in it whatsoever.

Now, however, it’s everywhere. Films, coffee-table books, merchandise, walking tours, not to mention websites with hundreds of thousands of fans. Brutalism is so hot right now: it’s the concrete connoisseur’s style of choice.

So what’s the problem? The attention is welcome. Brutalist buildings are often still at risk, so hopefully from now on they’ll be easier to preserve. And if you’ve been arguing for years for the greatness of something, it’s excellent to see people coming round to it.

But like anything that rapidly becomes fashionable, there’s a shallowness of engagement that often dangerously misses the point. Many of the new fans of brutalism love the very things that discredited the buildings in the first place – “Wow, another dark underpass!” “Rotten concrete, amazing!” “Another pissy lift, wonderful!”

A more serious point is that it’s wrong to engage with brutalism uncritically as just a look, rather than a particular way of building cities. When the new interest in brutalist living has seen whole estates cleared of their tenants, it’s basically lost its original purpose.

But then, who really wants to be that disgruntled fan? In a few months everyone will be into postmodernism anyway...