Anti-Concretism and Architectural Atheism: In Defence of Brutalism – Tom Jones

Image by Pavel Nekoranec, via Unsplash

The pro- and anti-Brutalist building camps can be defined in two words apiece. There are those who believe such buildings are ‘concrete poetry’, and there are those who believe that each one is a ‘concrete monstrosity’. Like the battlefields of WW1, there is nothing living in between.

Brutalism’s tenure at the forefront of architecture was brief but impactful. The name was the result of a not unhappy coincidence, deriving from the French phrase for its prime construction material, béton brut. This literally means ‘raw concrete’, but also indicates the heavy, unashamed use of exposed building materials, lack of conventional architectural detailing and huge, angular geometric shapes.

The pro-Brutalist camp is slowly, slowly growing in strength. It has a coterie of dedicated defenders, architectural nerds who are prepared to put their professional reputations on the line to defend Brutalist car parks, shopping centres and bus stations in forgotten places like Preston, Gateshead and Plymouth. Architectural criticism is, truly, a glamorous life.

But the other side has been on top for so long that it has already destroyed much of Britain’s stock of less notable, provincial buildings. What characterises this movement is an abject repudiation of everything cast in concrete. It has no advocacy for great buildings to actually replace the ones which are lost. Since its sole ideological foundation boils down to not liking concrete buildings, the anti-Brutalist camp can be better defined as being ‘anti-concretist’.

Anti-concretism – and the resulting, unchallenged cliché of the ‘concrete monstrosity’ – has come to dominate the public understanding of post-war architecture. The movement is as loud as it has ever been, but with the loss of so many Brutalist buildings – Gateshead’s Trinity Square Car Park, Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre, Birmingham Central Library, Virginia Water’s Greenside – it is inching ever closer to its goal of eradicating Brutalism. It is vociferous, unabashed, unforgiving. Anti-concretism carries with it the instructions given to Tsarist troops reoccupying St Petersburg in 1905: ‘Show no mercy. Make no arrests.’

Anti-concretism is a school of architectural thought that is, in essence, a school of anti-thought. It doesn’t concern itself with what kind of buildings should exist, but rather what kind shouldn’t. Rather than laying down rigorous aesthetic principles to guide new construction, anti-concretism is built on opposition and defined by a reflexive, reactive desire to tear down anything cast in concrete. The material alone is proof enough of guilt. 

Anti-concretism is an end unto itself. It is technically separate to, but often tied up with, the desire to see traditional architectural styles revived, and many anti-concretists are Scrutonites who espouse the philosopher Roger Scruton’s fundamental argument that Britain has become indifferent to beauty. Britain, they say, builds too carelessly and without enough concern for aesthetics. Thus the provinces are cursed with Barrat Boxes and the cities with Chicago skyscrapers. The artist formerly known as Prince Charles is this movement’s highest profile proponent and his anti-concretism is similarly bound in a larger package of anti-modernism and pro-traditionalism. It has since trickled down from such dizzying intellectual heights. The crossover is most readily available on Twitter, where the foot soldiers of the movement do their spade-work; anti-concretism is #tradarchitecture-adjacent. The Venn diagram of anti-concretists and people who follow accounts that post second rate watercolours of women in traditional European dresses working in fields of wheat is not quite an exact circle, but only just. 

Anti-concretism is literally reactionary, a reaction against the urban environment that post-war architecture created. For anti-concretists, Brutalism is innately tied to – indeed, bears responsibility for – the loss of a great number of important and beautiful buildings at the hands of city planners. The demolition of swathes of pre-war buildings (for instance Gloucester or Newcastle) at the hands of planners enjoying a startlingly efficacious combination of opportunity and power after the Second World War was a monstrous impoverishment of our architectural inheritance. It was into this lacuna that Brutalism first arrived, stumbling and unheroic.

It is not just the loss of those older buildings, however, that has fostered the unabashed vitriol of anti-concretism. The huge wave of post-war modernist buildings saw not just a physical replacement of traditionalist architecture, but an intellectual one. The movement against this trend is better defined as anti-concretist than anti-Brutalist because it is in opposition to any radical post-war modern building in concrete, although they undoubtedly reserve their most unabashed vitriol for Brutalism.

 At the centre of anti-concretism is the desire to return to an architectural line of continuity that radical modernism has been responsible for severing – this is why continuity classicism so often accompanies anti-concretism. Both represent a rejection of the post-war architectural consensus. Anti-concretists believe that the destruction of these buildings is necessary in order to resume that architectural line of continuity. Believing that Brutalist architects wilfully destroyed traditional buildings to create a new architectural consensus, a physical assertion of a new world build atop the ruins of the old, anti-concretism engages in the same process of creative destruction. Continuity classicism is the longing for a Britain that could have been; anti-concretism is an abdication of the Britain that was. 

Anti-concretism does not just arise from aesthetic concerns, moreover, but in opposition to the perceived politics of Brutalism. That pro-traditional, anti-modernist architecture evangelists are often conservatives is an insight as fresh as those in Polly Toynbee’s 875th thinkpiece on why Brexit was a mistake, but political persuasion does have a bearing on how Brutalism is received. As a conservative of both cases and a former anti-concretist, I am, tragically, my own case study. 

For conservatives, anti-concretism represents a reaction against the womb-to-tomb progressive utopianism of the post-war years. One of the underpinnings of Brutalism was its insistence on scale; this gave rise to the venerable anti-concretist line that the monolithic forms are on an ‘inhuman’ scale. This is, of course, nonsense. Brutalism is no more inhuman in size than the more widely beloved neogothic, for instance, but anti-concretist perceptions of the scale of Brutalism are amplified, looming as if captured in a B-film dolly zoom, by their sense that it mirrors the ever-increasing power of the post-war state (until reversed by Mrs Thatcher).

Anti-concretism is a small-c conservative reaction against a style of architecture that serves to reify the leftist ideals of post-war government expansion of power at the expense of that of the individual. Most children shed light on the true nature of their parents; Brutalism’s determination to use weight, heft and sheer mass to occupy, at times to menace, a space with a slabular, dense, unapologetic confidence reflects the amassing power of the state, which wielded Brutalism top-down like a sledgehammer.

It is easy (and, in the case of deliberately run-down Brutalist estates, entirely right) to decry this paternalistic ghettoisation. However, it is also important to remember that while the vigour with which town planners tore down worthy buildings is largely decried, the vigour with which town planners similarly tore down slums is largely forgotten. The attitudes of post-Victorian planners were shaped by the appalling slums which everyone below the middle class lived in: perhaps the closest to residential hell that man has managed to create. Our own attitudes are shaped by the fact that these slums have already been cleared away. We have a substantially higher baseline to judge new developments against. The tower blocks that replaced the slums may have been built in futuristic, unapologetic, functional raw concrete, but at least they had running water. Brutalist housing projects were created for the sole reason of improving the quality and increasing the quantity of housing, and few replaced grand buildings – yet anti-concretists welcome their demolition too.

Anti-concretists are at once enemies, judges and executioners. Public perception has been so shaped by anti-concretism that those who work to save examples of Brutalism avoid using the term for fear of alerting the Architectural Okhrana. The architect Robert Evans launched a petition to save Derby’s Assembly Rooms, but tries ‘not to use the label ‘Brutalist’ because it sets alarm bells ringing for people who want to demolish it.’ Talk about the Assembly Room’s use of cantilevering to create arcades that evoke medieval shopping streets, and people are all for saving it. Mention, however, that it is Brutalist, and suddenly it must be torn down. The outrage is invoked by the moniker and the material, not the form or function.

Anti-concretism is unthinking, uncritical, the cultural groupthink of boomer architectural ideology. But the accompanying abject refusal to engage with the benefits and successes of building with concrete runs down the choice architecture of architecture. Brutalism allowed functional infrastructure to have architectural value; the post war world needed entirely new kinds of building which, undreamt of by prior generations, required entirely new styles. Just as the Victorians created a new, identifiable style of functional architecture for train stations, Brutalism allowed car parks, bus stations and motorway services to have both longevity and architectural presence.

Brutalism alone could allow this because buildings in that style were not built to be, necessarily, beautiful. They have other qualities. They are raw, uncouth, virile, ‘an atavistic grunt frozen in concrete’ in the words of evangelist Barnabas Calder. The anti-concretists are so opposed because Brutalism places an emphasis on substance, not style – on Mussolini, not tea. They are unapologetically functional, and all the better for it. No-one has ever shown me what a Palladian multi-story car park might look like.

It is telling that those seeking to return to a time when boats were made of wood, men were made of steel and buildings were made of Portland stone invariably suggest private homes as a replacement for Brutalist buildings. The inability of continuity classicism to adapt to functional buildings – a virtue of its difficulty in dealing with verticality – means that this school can never be used to provide those functional buildings. What actually replaces the ‘concrete monstrosities’ is much, much worse. Brutalism gave British towns an added architectural texture, a richness of both style and function. A society that is prepared to tear these buildings down for nothing but the gilded image of memory is ready to become the land of soulless corporate architecture, and deserves to be.

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Tom Jones is a writer and a local politician in rural North Yorkshire, England. He’s written about politics, ideas and architecture for The Critic, The Mallard, Bournbrook and Front Porch Republic, amongst others. He tweets, infrequently and poorly, at @93vintagejones.

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