Brutalism is the Marmite of architecture, but photographer Simon Phipps captures the beauty of this bold form in his new book, Brutal London
For many people, Brutalist architecture is downright ugly, but there are those who appreciate the frank, unapologetic, fortress-like appearance of Brutalist builds. Take the National Theatre, for example. With its illustrious history and all the wonders it contains, how could you not love the iconic South Bank building?
Growing up in Milton Keynes in the 70s alongside architect parents proved somewhat underwhelming for photographer Simon Phipps. As he says in his new book, Brutal London, there was not very much of the promised utopia of the new town everyone talked of, just countryside, some existing villages and a few housing estates.
But, he tells us, among the fields and hedgerows, he began to be intrigued by the rationalist geometries of the early modernist estates appearing amid the ever increasing grid of roads.
‘Each of these new areas of housing was contained within a grid square of dual carriageway, meaning that entry as a pedestrian or cyclist was through an underpass,’ explains Phipps.
‘The ubiquitous Milton Keynes underpass, composed of cast concrete, was minimalist and forcefully detailed, with walls of ribbed fins creating contrast and texture. These portals were to provide an auspicious frame to the architecture that lay beyond – a threshold of concrete and expressed form that I came to know as Brutalism.’
It was this that led to a fascination with the architectural form of brutality in buildings. Now, Phipps has compiled a photographic collection into the book Brutal London, which looks at a side of the capital that has been ignored for too long.
‘The raw concrete and imposing mass of Brutalist architecture is undeniably part of the fabric of London’s landscape – both visual and social – and part of our urban history,’ he says.
Momentum is now growing to celebrate, reclaim and preserve buildings which were once allowed to decay. This collection of evocative photography by Phipps casts the city in a new light. Arranged by London Borough, the book takes in famous examples such as the Trellick Tower, the Brunswick Centre and the Alexandra Road Estate.
The raw concrete and imposing mass of Brutalist architecture is undeniably part of the fabric of London’s landscape
‘The image provided by Brutalism, architecture of sensual extremes, is often an extraordinary and unfamiliar experience for the city explorer,’ says Phipps. ‘There can be something thrilling about the aggressive and brash vocabulary of concrete, exposed aggregate, hard-edged brick and heavy sectioned timber.’
Phipps wants to show how the potential for artistic and social change is embodied in the uncompromising realisations of Brutalism. ‘My hope is that some of the architectural vision that drove the modernist architecture of London shines through the photographs in this book,’ he says.
Through extracts from the book, Phipps talks us through the beauty and not the barbarity of Brutalist architecture in west London.
Standing at 31 storeys, with a 35-storey service tower, Trellick Tower is the standout image of Brutalism. Situated within the otherwise low-rise Cheltenham Estate, the tower is a continuation of Erno Goldfinger’s experiments in deck access.
The plan incorporated his famous ‘streets in the sky’, where walkways allowed inhabitants access to their own front doors. Following Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, access corridors serve every three floors. Unlike the Unité, the corridors are on the outside, linked by enclosed sky bridges to the separate lift tower.
The raw concrete frame has the unique hardness and uncompromising materiality that characterises Goldfinger’s buildings. Deep shadows created by the recesses and projections of the expressed architecture move hypnotically across the south elevation, modulated by sun and cloud.
Soon after completion in the early 1970s, lack of management and maintenance, a rise in grossly antisocial behaviour, and an antagonism toward high-rise living led to years of neglect and antipathy. Trellick’s reputation plummeted, tabloids dubbed it the ‘tower of terror’ and it became a possible inspiration for the alienating and dehumanising concrete architecture of JG Ballard’s dystopian High Rise.
Thankfully, those times have passed and Trellick Tower is now recognised as a masterpiece of Brutalist architecture.
This house designed for photographer Christopher Bailey and his opera singer wife Angela Hickey stands on a corner site in Kensington Place, with its main entrance and frontage on Hillgate Street.
The eye-catching tower extruded from the elevation houses an internal spiral staircase that was pushed out from the house to create more space.
Heavily dark Staffordshire blue engineering bricks with black mortar joints comprise the building’s brickwork, bringing into sharp focus the bold, unadorned and dramatic constituent forms of this remarkable house.
Extracted from Brutal London by Simon Phipps, which is published by September Publishing (£14.99)