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From Brutalism to Blair: How Britain rebuilt after war

Trellick Tower. (Photo by Chris Morphet/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

From the ruins left by the Luftwaffe Britain had to rebuild. IAN WALKER charts the process from high rise living to the out-of-town cineplex

Since the Second World War, two dominant ideologies have shaped the western world.

The first was statist; it was Keynesian fiscal policy, planned economies, welfare, greater social equality and planned urban space. Its origins lay in the economic and political chaos of the inter-war years, but it grew out of how the state had to operate under war conditions, and it thrived once the Nazis were defeated. It would dominate vast swathes of the western world including the UK – especially the UK – up until the 1970s.

The second dominant ideology was neo-liberalism and was a reaction to what had come before. It was about Hayek and the market and freedom from the state. Leisure and shopping replaced welfare and planning, off-shore capital flows replaced fiscal management.

And these two ideologies have physically shaped almost every town and city in the UK. You can see the architectural legacy of both everywhere, and it is a legacy that can be read like a book, a book which tells the story of the last 70 or so years of British history. From Attlee to Thatcher, from Bevin to Blair, from the NHS to the retail park, Britain’s history is told in it townscapes.

And if you are going to read the story of Britain’s post-war history in its town and cityscapes, then Brutalism is a good place to start.

Over the last few years a number of books have been written in defence of Brutalist architecture, that high modernist style of brick and concrete (and occasionally steel and glass) buildings that were epic in scale and uncompromising in spirit and which became fashionable throughout the world, but especially so in the UK, in the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

These books include Owen Hatherley’s politically strident and provocative Militant Modernism and John Grindrod’s Concretopia, which does a fantastic job of placing Brutalism within the context of how Britain rebuilt itself after the Second World War (Grindrod also made a very good case for Brutalism in this paper). There is Barnabas Calder’s Raw Concrete, which argues for Brutalism through eight case studies, and there is Elain Harwood’s Space, Hope and Brutalism which is itself a giant slab of a book that is epic in scale and uncompromising in spirit.

And now there is a new book, Brutalism by Billy Reading which is part of Amberley Publishing’s series Britain’s Heritage, and which is an excellent introduction or primer to the history of Brutalist architecture in the UK.

The book runs through the history of Brutalism, charting its triumphs and its excesses. As the author puts it Brutalism was first ‘lauded, then mistrusted, then hated, neglected, run-down, then reassessed, celebrated and in many cases rehabilitated’.

Reading’s book traces Brutalism’s origins in pre-war modernist architecture, a style built around rectilinear design and the careful management of light and space. This style – The International Style – was solid, geometrical and it was about the human and the man-made. It was an architectural style that tended to impose itself on in nature and it was shaped by the German Bauhaus school the De Stijl Movement and was dominated by the French architect Le Corbusier.

When it came to architecture and town planning there was a degree of resistance in Britain in the 1930s to modernism and Le Corbusier and the International Style. Le Corbusier had a few British acolytes, and refugees from Europe brought his ideas with them: the Isokon building in London by Wells Coates and Berthold Lubetkin’s penguin pool at London Zoo are two of the more famous modernist pieces of British architecture from the inter-war years that were in the International Style.

But much of the 1920 and 30s architecture built in the UK that was modernist in sentiment still has one eye on the past. You would still see the occasional column, the occasional portico, the occasional sculptured relief. Charles Holden’s work for London Transport is typical of this style. It is modernist (you can’t get more ‘modernist’ than a metropolitan transport system and the way it re-orders geography and reshapes the experience of being in a city), and some of his later work looks almost space-age, but in the 1920s and 30s his use of Portland stone, and the occasional column and the engravings used to decorate the exterior of his buildings – such as the London Transport headquarters at 55 Broadway – marks this as architecture with half a glance backwards.

But if in the inter-war years, the International Style never took hold in the UK, what was becoming clear was that something needed to happen, not so much in the style of architecture, but in its functions and applications. The economic crisis put social inequality, slum housing, insufficient welfare provision and poor health right at the centre of political debate. Plans were drawn up for the redesign of cities and towns, the idea of new towns, which developed out of the garden suburb developments, began to be taken seriously.

And then the Second World War started. In the short term this meant that all those problems that Britain needed to resolve in the 1930s were put to one side because of the war effort – but what the war effort did was create within this country a can-do attitude and a centralised state that was geared up to get things done, and these two spilt over into the immediate post-war period.

If Britain had been one of the European countries least in thrall to the International Style of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus before the war, after the war that began to change. A new spirit swept the nation, and a purer form of modernism – a modernism that broke with the past became fashionable. This was not surprising; these days the Second World War is usually presented as something we should never forget (and increasingly by a generation of people who were born after the war and never experienced it first hand) but after the war, the people who lived through it were desperate to put it behind them. Churchill may have been the nation’s saviour, but the nation dumped him in the 1945 election in a landslide victory that swept Attlee’s Labour to power.

And what followed was one of the great expansions of social justice – there was the NHS, the welfare state, the clearing of the slums, education reforms, the building of the new towns, the rebuilding of the bombed towns and cities. Britain emerged from the war in debt, with its Empire in decline, and with serious shortages – but it also emerged with a forward-thinking government who had a desire to build things anew. And in this post-war climate, the style of architecture associated with European modernism suddenly took hold in the UK.

Plymouth was first. The city had been devastated by the Luftwaffe during the war – the city was bombed 59 times, more than 1,000 people were killed, almost every civic building and the two main shopping areas were destroyed, as were nearly 4,000 houses, another 18,000 were damaged.

Out of the rubble of Plymouth a new city centre was built. It was planned and modern and modernist, it has big wide streets (weirdly wide, now the main shopping street is pedestrianised it feels more like a giant Portland stone and concrete piazza than it does a provincial high street). The slums were cleared, people were putting the war behind them the best they could and they were trying to embrace a more optimistic future.

However this redevelopment of Plymouth’s city centre did still have the slight traces of earlier architectural styles; there was still that heavy use of Portland stone, there were the engraved friezes, there were the slight hints of something Art Deco – something ever so slightly ‘Beaux Arts’ about it all.

It was really the building of the new towns, starting with Stevenage, Harlow, Crawley and Hemel, where modernist ideas really took hold in town planning, though it was a modernist style associated with Sweden rather than the French style of Le Corbusier.

This Scandinavian modernism was gentler and more socially conscious than the ‘white box’ modernism of Le Corbusier. In 1942, in the Stockholm district of Danviksklippan, a series of ‘point block’ tower blocks were built and these were the inspiration for the tower blocks that would spring up in the new towns. The idea was that these housing units would be integrated with road lay out, shopping centres, parks and public spaces. It was an integrated urban design that was egalitarian and optimistic. People no longer lived in slums, they got to live in new-build apartments with central heating and with clear space around them.

This influence of Scandinavian modernism reached its height in post-war Britain in the Festival of Britain. The Festival of Britain was a celebration of the future and future technology. Throughout the summer of 1951, there were events throughout the country but the focus was on London’s South Bank where slums and docks were cleared and a series of buildings and exhibition spaces were created.

The whole feel of the Festival of Britain was clean, sleek and forward looking and you can still get the sense of that if you visit the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, which was built specifically for the event. A lifetime after it was built, it still oozes that forward-looking confidence.

And then the Brutalists turned up – and did so in Hunstanton on the north Norfolk coast of all places.

In 1954 Hunstanton School was opened. The building was designed by the architects Peter and Alison Smithson in a high modernist style. It was a long steel and glass building devoid of any embellishment that wasn’t necessary in service of its function. This wasn’t the soft modernity of the Swedish school. This was sterner stuff and it was dubbed the New Brutalism.

This New Brutalism became the defining architectural style of the age. It became a huge part of what shaped town and city centres; in its office blocks, car parks, bus stations, shopping centres, schools, hospitals, universities and housing. Brutalism became part of the lives of people from Thamesmead to Tyneside, from Portsmouth to Preston. Great industrial cities like Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester all saw their skylines transformed as the fabric of these cities was torn to pieces and put together anew.

One of the strengths of Reading’s guide to Brutalism is that its pictures show how pervasive and everyday Brutalism became in the UK, but how it somehow managed to be simultaneously quotidian and extraordinary. Preston bus garage, for example, with its long, low layers, like a giant concrete cake, is a mixture of everyday functionality and bonkers architectural excess.

And that was the thing about the Brutalists. It was a style of architecture rooted in that post-war spirit of social planning and managed urban space – but it was also wigged out modernism of the most extraordinary kind.

Another much-derided Brutalist monolith is Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in Kensal Town, London, with its service tower detached from the main housing block but for small, almost perilous walkways. When it opened in 1972 high-rise blocks were already beginning to fall out of favour and it became a magnet for drugs and crime. But unlike the Tricorn the Trellick Tower was to be handed a reprieve from the unlikeliest of places – a Tory manifesto. Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy scheme had an impact and today the vast majority of the flats – some which span multiple floors with beautiful views from each room – are highly sought-after. Goldfinger’s vision of modern living was flawed in the 1970s but by the 1990s and beyond as money flooded the London housing market Trellick Tower was prime location.

The architectural critic Jonathan Meades first saw Portsmouth’s Brutalist Tricorn Centre just as it was finished being built in the 1960s. He was instantly taken by its ‘sheer virtuosity’. For him, it was ‘like concrete from out of space’.

Meades’ reaction – which you can see in his documentary Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry – was that of being blown away by the imagination behind the Tricorn and by the virtuosity of the architects. This reaction is how you react to art.

For Meades, the triumph of post-war British Brutalist architecture was its scale. There is something almost geological about it; it was akin to basalt crags or limestone cliffs. And then there was its ambition – there was nothing mealy-mouthed about it, it didn’t care for sustainability, caution or having a small footprint. Brutalism was bold art; it was art that existed on its own terms. And it was great modernist art; it was about the human world, it tried to outdo nature, it imposed its own logic on time, space and experience.

Back in the last decades of the previous century, if you were driving along the M275 that takes you right into the heart of the city of Portsmouth you would have passed a landfill site followed by the rusting hulks of the Royal Navy’s decommissioned warships, then a scrapyard where the remains of a submarine sat on the mudbanks. You would have passed a giant block of flats which ran along the side of the motorway; its tiny windows the only indication that people lived there. It looked like a giant wall in a dystopian film designed to keep prisoners in or zombies out.

And then, once you had passed through the city’s bleak hinterlands with the rusting remains of its once mighty Imperial fleet and its post-apocalyptic housing projects, you found yourself on the edge of the city centre and it was here where you were confronted by the Tricorn Centre.

The Tricorn was a residential/shopping/parking complex designed by the architect Rodney Gorden for the Owen Luder Partnership and which was built in 1966. The building was a series of concrete planes and pillars, walkways and underpasses all stacked up in an asymmetrical pattern. The idea was that it would become a commercial centre, the businesses would move in and that the shop fronts would add the colour.

Within a year it was clear that the Tricorn was an economic failure. It was never used as a shopping centre. The residential apartments were all deemed uninhabitable and were soon abandoned to everyone except the pigeons. High-end commercial businesses refused to move in and the retail units became home to lower league commercial enterprises – pound shops, shops selling shell suits and knock-off T-shirts, shops selling dream catchers.

Slowly bits of the Tricorn began to crumble, the sea air and rain seemed to eat into the concrete and made it appear like living – or dying – organic matter. A fruit and veg market was held under the Tricorn’s walkways. The detritus from the stalls would rot. It was as if the rotting concrete had the stench of rotting fruit.

In the 1980s, the Tricorn Centre was voted the third most ugly building in Britain. In 2001 it was voted the most hated building in Britain by Radio 4 listeners. The architectural scholar Prince Charles described it as a ‘mildewed pile of elephant droppings’. In 2001 it was pulled down.

But as the Tricorn was being demolished another development was opening in Portsmouth.

On the February 28, 2001, Gunwharf Quays opened on Portsmouth’s waterfront. The redevelopment was a mixture of high-end housing (some of the apartments were worth more than £2million), shopping, restaurants and leisure. The development was dominated by the Spinnaker Tower – now known as the Emirates Spinnaker Tower – which looks very similar to the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai.

This development was a regeneration project. It was built on what had been HMS Vernon, which was a naval base that had been part of Portsmouth’s military past. As the navy was scaled down and as the nature of warships changed HMS Vernon became redundant.

This regeneration redevelopment is a perfect example of that millennial, Blairite, urban planning that took place though towns and cities in the UK throughout from the 1990s up until 2008 when the banks collapsed and the money run out.

This project transformed something redundant and that was rooted in the past – Britain’s naval might – into something people in the 21st century wanted: cinemas and pizza, a bowling alley and nachos. It’s a quirk of history that a place thats purpose had once been to enforce the Empire now sells peri-peri chicken and large glasses of Pinot Grigio – and while chain restaurants may not have the epic historical weight of Empire they are probably preferable.

The architectural style of these regeneration projects is difficult to sum up – or even name (neo-lib architecture? Regeneration architecture? Blairite architecture? Overdraft architecture? Neo-something-or-other architecture?). But it is instantly recognisable. Much of it, from the high-end millennial regeneration projects, to the Frankie and Benny/Cineworld/Bella Italia leisure parks that exist in almost every town in the country, have an identikit and pre-fab feel about them. With the exception of the large centrepiece buildings, such as Portsmouth’s Spinnaker, or the Blob architecture you can see in Birmingham’s regenerated city centre or the Sage in Gateshead (Blobitecture is as weird and insistent on being in the world as Brutalism), most of the architecture seems ready built and clicked together – closer to Portakabins than a piazza.

And if Brutalism was indebted to the ideological ideals of social equality and the intellectual concerns of modernism, then this neo-lib architecture is indebted to the ideological ideals of tax-free credit flows and the world of Emirates sponsorship and the intellectual concerns of Dubai’s sleek wealth.

In 2008, capital stopped flowing and the regeneration projects all stalled: on Ipswich’s waterfront you could see the line where this happened, there is a place you can stand where you can look towards the marina and the pizza restaurants and the new university building, while behind you stands the collapsing, decaying old warehousing which once served another purpose in another Britain, a purpose and a Britain that is now long gone.

Regeneration hasn’t entirely disappeared (this week it has been announced that the landfill site that heralded the entrance into Portsmouth is to become a country park) but it does feel as though the political and economic world that produced this sort of neo-lib architecture has come to end. More recently, for a myriad of reasons, the UK’s high streets have seemed to enter their death throes – before long there won’t be much left on many of them except for a Wetherspoons pub, a few charity shops and a Greggs. This change may prove as stark and dramatic as the fall from grace that Brutalism went through in the 1970s.

There is a general sense that the neo-liberal age – and its concomitant architecture – is past its sell-by date. This perhaps explains why there has been a revival of interest in Brutalism – its ambition and its ideology stands in stark contrast to the ordinariness and socially divisiveness of the neo-lib leisure parks and the windswept, tatty, empty high streets.

But this renewed interest in Brutalism avoids the awkward truth that the Tricorn, along with a lot of other Brutalist architecture, failed. It was horrible in almost every aspect apart from its modernist artistic aspirations, and while I applaud such strident modernism, I wouldn’t always want to make my way around Dublin with an A-Z written by James Joyce – or have Picasso sort out my interior decor. And when you compare the Tricorn Centre to Gunwharf there isn’t really any question as to 
which is the more popular – or which thrived.

Finally though, it is the case that in this country you can do something as mundane as to drive into almost town, park up in a Brutalist multi-storey car park, avoid the High Street, and make your way to the leisure park/shopping centre/retail park for a skinny latte before going to a multiplex cinema and as you do so you are making way through a townscape that is absolutely charged with the sweep of history – a history that is very easy to read.

The obvious and urgent question now, is what will the next chapter be?

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