With the Balfron Tower getting a major revamp it is no secret that brutalism has come back into favour. Let’s face it, brutalism is not for everyone. In fact, it has acquired a bad reputation often being dismissed as ugly and intimidating. Although highly criticised and controversial, the origins of the brutalist philosophy come from communist countries, where there was a strong desire to create a socialist utopia, a sense of togetherness.
Brutalism emerged in the 1950s post-war era to satisfy the need for a new type of low-cost social housing. Characterised by minimalist geometric shapes, bare materials mostly devoid of colour it is hard not to be transported into some futuristic utopia (or dystopia, if you will) when looking at these buildings. The name originated from the French term ’Béton brut’ meaning raw concrete, however, far from being bare concrete blocks, the intention behind this style was to evoke feelings and give the viewer and aesthetic experience.
Whether they make you feel unsettled or you revel in the playfulness of brutalist shapes here are some of the most revered buildings to see in London.
Southbank Centre is a brutalist icon overlooking the river Thames and comprises modernist marvels including Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery. Designed by London County Council architects and built during the 50s and 60s post-war period to showcase the best of British arts, technology and design, it is now the considered the largest European arts and culture centre. With all its walkways, terraces and extensions the structure resembles a miniature self-contained city. Visit the Queen Elizabeth Hall Roof Garden Bar & Cafe for great views of London and a community feel. You can also sign up for one of the Southbank Centre Architecture Tours.
Address: Belvedere Road, London, UK
National Theatre is the next door neighbour of the Southbank Centre and its brutalist status has been much debated. Designed by famous British architect Denys Lasdun in the 1960s, the building’s structure was intended to seamlessly incorporate itself into the fabric of the city. It is the epitome of Lesdun’s idea of ‘architecture as an urban landscape’, where everything is connected to create a sense of community and belonging. Cascading terraces and open foyers encourage the public to interact with the building. An especially interesting feature of the building are the imprints of wooden planks in the concrete that give the building its unique texture. Catch a 90 minute tour of the building to learn more about it, bookable via National Theatre website.
One of London’s first skyscrapers, this tower is a prominent beacon marking the very centre of London. Initially completed as an office space in 1966 it was the tallest building at the time and is now the 27th tallest. Created in collaboration between architects George Marsh and Richard Seifert and property tycoon Harry Hyams, Centre Point did not have a great start. For the first decade it remained unoccupied, because Hyams wanted to find a single occupant for the tower. Built from precast concrete segments, the crisp facade is often likened to a honeycomb structure. The deep-set windows create a bold sense of three-dimentionality. In 2015 Centre Point received a facelift and the interiors have been converted into luxury flats. When you’re in the neighbourhood take a look at another brutalist hidden gem – St Giles Hotel.
As opposed to most brutalist estates the Barbican was intended as an upscale development designed for affluent professionals and families. Built on a site previously bombed during World War II, its creation took over a decade with the last building, Shakespeare Tower, finished in 1976. A unique feature of the Barbican is the separation of foot and car traffic, which provides respite from hectic city life. Pedestrians can use spacious, elevated walkways, while traffic is confined to lower street levels. At the heart of the estate and its community is the Barbican Centre hosting a myriad of art performances, concerts and exhibitions, a perfect place to sit down with your laptop, do some work and enjoy views of ponds and fountains. When you’re here visit the exotic conservatory, which houses over 1500 plant species, some of which are endangered. You need to book your visit in advance.
Address: Silk St, Barbican, London EC2Y 8DS
The Balfron Tower arrived as a solution for maximising density in an urban space and providing efficient social housing for the poorer residents of East London. This concrete skyscraper was designed by iconic modernist architect Ernő Goldfinger and its separate service tower, housing lift shafts, laundry rooms and rubbish chutes, connected to the main building by walkways create an instantly recognisable silhouette. Goldfinger briefly moved into a flat on the 26th floor after the tower’s completion, which served as an inspiration for the 2015 Ben Wheatley film High-Rise. All the way across the city in West London you can find the 1970s sister building – Trellick Tower. When you’re here it’s worth having a look around the whole Brownfield Estate for lesser known brutalist gems such as the Carradale House and Glenkerry House.
Address: St Leonards Road, E14 0QT London, UK
Like with the Balfron Tower, the Trellick Tower was designed by Ernő Goldfinger to save space by building upwards, like a self-contained city in the sky, leaving more space for parks and pedestrians on ground level. These two towers have an almost identical design, with Trellick’s service tower also detached from the apartment building and connected with bridges on every 3rd floor. At the very top is a protruding futuristic room that you might think is a penthouse, but it’s in fact the boiler room with spectacular views over London. Looming and assertive, it fits in perfectly within the urban fabric of a big city. Quickly after completion in 1972 Trellick sank into crime, vandalism and prostitution and acquired the unfortunate nickname ‘Tower of Terror’. It has since undergone some upgrades and today it’s again a trendy and desirable place to live.
Address: 5 Golbourne Road, W10 5PL London, UK
Architect Patrick Hodgkinson designed Brunswick Centre in the 60s to replace Georgian terraces, which it mimics in its own unique brutalist way. The aim of this project was to introduce low-cost high-density buildings, but also to create a mixed use development with commercial units on the ground level and apartments on top. Eight large ventilation shafts are the epitome of brutalism, which typically calls attention to the practical features of a building. Another notable feature is rows of angled greenhouse-style windows, which provide ample amounts of daylight for the interiors. After completion in 1972 the building remained unpopular with a lot of units left empty. In recent times the centre has been revived with a new cinema, shops and restaurants and it is now called The Brunswick. When you’re here vitist the Fuwa Fuwa Cafe for some fantastic Japanese souffle pancakes.
Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Centre Point, no surprises there, as Space House is designed by the same architect, George Marsh, for the same developer – Harry Hyams. The building comprises two parts, a cylindrical tower now known as One Kemble Street and a rectangular 8-storey Civil Aviation Authority House (CAA House) office block joined by a walkway. The facade is made of precast cruciform blocks which allowed for low-cost construction without scaffolding, a novelty at the time of construction in the mid-60s. Looking up gives a strong sense of symmetry in its design. The curve and Y shaped columns at the base add softness and lightness that contrast the deep-set windows well, yet the building displays humble persistence and strength. The tower was initially planned to be double the height, however the council said no. Visit the nearby Radio Rooftop for some good views of the area.
Address: 1 Kemble St, WC2B 4AN London, UK
102 Petty France
Currently housing the Ministry of Justice, the 1970s 102 Petty France was an undertaking on a massive scale and for that reason it was not well received. It didn’t agree with the surrounding, much smaller Victorian and Geogrian architecture. Lord Reigate, when speaking at the House of Lords, called it a ‘lump’ that will be ‘looming’ over the city for years to come. On the other hand the robust structure commands authority and assertiveness, while dominating the skyline around St James’s Park. The tallest part of the building is somewhat reminiscent of an airport control tower with its angular design and protruding elements. On a side note, Petty France is not an insult to the French – the name originates from the high concentration of French wool merchants living on the street in the 15th century. Only a few steps away from Westminster Abbey, one of London’s prime tourist destinations, you can kill two birds with one stone.
Royal College of Physicians
The Royal College of Physicians building is another masterpiece by Sir Denys Lasdun, which he considered his favourite project. Built on a site previously occupied by John Nash’s Someries House damaged by a bomb in WWII, the RCP opened its doors in 1964. Lasdun took great care to analyse the activities of members in order to adapt the design accordingly. Unlike most brutalist buildings with their forceful appearance, the RCP has a lightness to it – the large suspended blocks supported by thin pillars and straight, elegant lines add a touch of subtlety to the bold design. Although at the core it’s made from pre-stressed concrete the facade is covered with pale grey porcelain mosaic which adds interest to the minimalism and simplicity.
Address: 11 St Andrews Pl, NW1 4LE London, UK