Utopia or Dystopia? London’s Brutalist Council Estates

Severe, aloof and unpretentiously honest; the architectural movement of Brutalism flourished during the 1950’s. The term was coined by the Swedish architect, Hans Asplund, to describe Villa Göth, in Uppsala. It developed currency after being featured in Reyner Banham’s book: “The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic.” Banham was a British architectural critic who used the term to describe a set of new architectural trends: simplicity and functionality. The intention of the movement was to produce architecture that didn’t instill an emotional response – a direct attempt to challenge the lavish architecture of the 1940’s, “much of which was characterized by retrospective nostalgia.” (1)

Often, Brutalist buildings are created with “repeated modular elements… representing specific functional zones, distinctly articulated and grouped together into a unified whole.” (2) In addition, “Surfaces of cast concrete are made to reveal the basic nature of its construction, revealing the texture of the wooden planks used for the in-situ casting forms. Brutalist building materials also include brick, glass, steel, rough-hewn stone, and gabions.” (2) A signature characteristic of Brutalist architecture is the exposure of the buildings functions, be it their structural intricacies or “the services to their human use,” like placing a “facility’s water tank, normally a hidden service feature, in a prominent, visible tower.” (2) This outright, honest and even highlighted display of functionality is what places Brutalist architecture on a pedestal for originality.

Thus, built to be a statement against statements, the style had a strong influence in European communist countries, particularly Czechoslovakia, where “brutalism was presented as an attempt to create a national but also modern socialist” style. (2)

In London, Brutalist buildings are easy to come by. The National Theatre, the Trellick Tower and the Barbican are just a few examples of the style’s prominence. The latter was in fact voted the ugliest building in London in 2003. (3) However, some critics note that, as its being framed by a “tranquil waterside setting, complete with fountains and swaying reeds,” it is “positively romantic.” (3)

Some of the most iconic council estates in London are Brutalist structures, like the Alexandra Road estate, which is located in the borough and Camden. Designed by Neave Brown for Camden Council in 1968, the buildings have been constructed from unpainted, reinforced concrete. (4)

Threats to bulldoze brutalist council estates hung heavy in David Cameron’s article for the Sunday Times in January 2023. He wrote that some of our housing estates, particularly those built directly after WW2, like the Barbican, “are actually entrenching poverty in Britain – isolating and entrapping many of our families and communities.” (5) He continued, “Step outside in the worst estates, and you’re confronted by concrete slabs… brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals and drug dealers. The police often talk about the importance of designing out crime, but these estates actually designed it in.” (5)

It’s an interesting perspective to consider that architecture can shape behavior in such a dramatic way, but it isn’t a revolutionary thought. There are certain “design principles” (6) which subtly influence “the paths by which we live and think.” (6) Fast food chains use hard chairs so that customers grow uncomfortable quickly and leave sooner. Supermarkets create narrow aisles so that customers focus on the products as opposed to surrounding shoppers. Elevator designers place the floor indicator lights above people’s heads, so that eye contact is avoided and users feel less crowded. (6) In addition, concepts like natural surveillance have been developed to limit crime through the basic principle of “diversity of use,” (6) which ensures a space is kept busy by being multi-purposed.

And so perhaps bulldozing entire structures would do more damage than re-designing and building upon existing structures would.

In true Brutalist fashion, the insides of the Barbican have recently been laid bare. As part of the VSCO Artist Innovation project, London based photographer Anton Rodriguez has documented a fascinating mix of Barbican residents within “the intimate settings of their homes.” (7)

Sophy Twohig, for example, has lived in the complex for 2 years now. She notes, “I first visited the Barbican when I was 12 years old on a school field trip, it fascinated me, I’d never seen anything like it coming from ‘classical’ Bath. I’ve wanted to live here as long as I can remember…It’s beautiful, bold and incredibly detailed.” (8)

So it seems the magic persists beyond the 1950’s. The brutalist architecture is exactly what draws its residents in. I highly recommend reading some of the interviews.

With every form of art, perspective shapes appeal. Depending on where you’re standing, be it confronted by “concrete slabs” (5) or in the bold and beautiful detail, the labels of dystopia or utopia are entirely your call.

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa_G%C3%B6th
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brutalist_architecture
  3. http://londonist.com/2012/05/londons-top-brutalist-buildings
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandra_Road_Estate
  5. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/estate-regeneration-article-by-david-cameron
  6. http://architectures.danlockton.co.uk/2007/10/18/review-architecture-as-crime-control-by-neal-katyal/
  7. https://barbicanresidents.co.uk/about/
  8. https://barbicanresidents.co.uk/residents/sophy-twohig