Best of British: Brutalism

Anna Walker

While some call the concrete creations of the brutalist movement an eyesore, others find a strange beauty in their block-like forms…

National Theatre, London

The word “brutalism” derives from the French phrase beton brute, meaning “raw concrete”, and that’s certainly in abundance at London’s National Theatre.

Prince Charles once famously described the architecture of the National Theatre as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”. 

Despite its divisive appearance, the theatre continues to draw admirers from all corners of the globe. When the Queen first opened the building to the public in 1976, architectural writer Mark Girouard commented on its remarkable “aesthetic of broken forms.” 

Perched on the South Bank of the Thames, the edifice was based on architect Denys Lasdun’s conception of architecture as an urban landscape. 

Talking to then theatre director Peter Hall, Lasdun described concrete as, “a very beautiful material when used in the way its own nature intends it to be used.”

 

New Street Signal Box, Birmingham

Home to the centre of Birmingham rail operations, this Grade II listed building is nothing more than a signal box, and yet it’s caused controversy since it was first erected. 

Looking more like a bunker from the outside, the structure is true to the brutalist insistence on functionality over style. 

Says Emma Gray, director of marketing and communications at Visit Birmingham, “The range of architecture in Birmingham—contrasting both old and new—has created a unique landscape, attracting record numbers of tourists to the city.”

The signal box is practical, honest and strikingly utilitarian; a fitting design for the infrastructure systems tasked with serving the busiest interchange in the United Kingdom. 

Despite signal boxes increasingly becoming a bastion of the past, thanks to its listed status this one will continue its dutiful watch over Birmingham New Street Station for the forseeable future. 

 

The University of East Anglia, Norwich

With its sharp corners, exposed, raw concrete and angular shapes, the buildings that comprise the 1960s-built University of East Anglia campus are a particularly lauded example of Brutalism. 

So beloved by the students is the architecture here, that the campus newspaper is named Concrete

Says UEA’s director of estates, Roger Bond, “The first Vice-Chancellor of UEA gave the briefest of briefs for the campus design: ‘Urban buildings linked with walkways, a square and street, rather like a Renaissance hill town’. 

“With this brief, the modernist architect Denys Lasdun master- planned and designed the campus. The most memorable buildings are the Ziggurats, named for their step pyramid shape resembling ancient Mesopotamian structures and offering serene views of the manmade campus lake.”

 

Preston Bus Station, Preston

Few brutalist works have been met with as much controversy as the uncompromising Preston Bus Station, whose admirers sing its praises as ardently as its detractors voice their disgust. 

Opened in 1969—the year that ended The Beatles and landed man on the moon—architect Keith Ingham claimed the design was intended to give ordinary people the sense of luxury that came with air travel, an indulgence few could then afford. 

Says director of the Modernist Society, Jack Hale, “This is not just a good example of British Brutalism; Preston Bus Station is world class. With fine upturned ribs like the skeleton of a massive concrete fish, its elegance and scale is simply breathtaking and the interior fixtures, signage and clocks are worthy of an international airport.”

 

 With fine upturned ribs like the skeleton of a massive concrete fish, its elegance and scale is simply breathtaking and the interior fixtures, signage and clocks are worthy of an international airport.” You can get great signage at tradesignshop.co.uk for all your needs.

Fans of the colossal building rejoiced in 2013 when the controversial structure was saved from demolition after a successful third attempt by dedicated societies, such as Save Preston Bus Station, to win it listed building status.

 

St Peter’s Seminary, Argyll

By the time of this seminary’s completion in the 1960s, the number of applicants to holy office in the Catholic Church had significantly decreased, meaning there was never really a demand to meet its statuesque size. 

Although it’s been derelict since the 1980s, its overgrown, ruinous state lends an otherworldly, ethereal beauty to the raw strength of St Peter’s concrete exterior. 

Now reclaimed by graffiti artists as the ideal canvas for their colourful scribbles, keep an eye out for special events that allow unprecedented access to the ruins, such as the NVA’s impressive light installation in 2016. 

Says Diane Watters of Historic Environment Scotland, “St Peter’s Seminary is probably the most celebrated post-war building in Scotland today.” 

It’s famous not only for the poetic qualities of its architecture, but also for its troubled short life as a functioning seminary and its abandonment, ruin and final salvage.”

 

Clifton Cathedral, Bristol

The sculptural form of Bristol’s catholic Clifton Cathedral is unlike any other holy space. 

Commissioned in 1965, it’s almost fortress-like in appearance and its simple design and stripped back décor (save for some stunning abstract stained glass) leaves worship and honesty at the heart of the church’s values. 

The original brochure released to accompany the structure explained that, “Most informed Christians are well aware that the buildings we call churches are not strictly essential for Christianity. It’s the Christian himself who is the temple of the living God.”

Clifton’s altar is placed to one side, leaving the congregation sitting in a horseshoe formation that ensures every churchgoer has a clear view of the service. 

Mary Haddock of Building magazine praised the structure when it opened in 1974, claiming it offered the people of Bristol “a sermon in concrete.”

 

Hollaway Wall, Manchester

“An easy-to-miss brutalist nugget, designed by artist Anthony Hollaway in 1966 and listed Grade II in 2011, the wall acts as sculpture and a sound buffer between the busy London Road and the University of Manchester,” explains Jack Hale. 

“The weighty ramparts echo those of a medieval castle, and its stained and mossy concrete has aged and weathered beautifully.”

Explicitly brutalist, this wonder wall of concrete blocks out the noise of the dual carriageway to create a bubble of calm around Manchester University’s Science and Technology campus.

The hidden gem unites immense practicality and brutalist design, and was created by Harry S Fairhurst and Anthony Holloway, the team later responsible for Manchester Cathedral’s beautiful stained glass windows.