The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Raw Concrete: the Beauty of Brutalism

Barnabas Calder (William Heinemann, 416pp, £25)

Reviewed by Elain Harwood

Brutalism is big business in the media, with TV programmes, books and blogs of varying quality. The pioneer of the genre was perhaps Owen Hatherley, who in 2007 called for a reaction against the cosy humanism of an Alvar Aalto exhibition in favour of ‘the sculptural masses of glinting concrete’ of its Barbican location. An avalanche of books has followed in which personal exploration has come before academic formality, with no less than six by Hatherley alone. Sometimes it’s an embarrassingly bad joke: if you see a copy of Alexander Clement’s Brutalism (2011), burn it. A craze for coffee-table brutalist porn, and its naïve sibling Soviet concrete porn, has been followed by books on brutalism around the world and guides to specific cities such as Concrete Toronto (2008) – armchair travel combined with conservation. The growing passion on the page has not seen results in the saving of buildings, but destruction has spawned its own literature – Celia Clark’s 2009 book on the Tricorn Centre prompted an outburst of affection never experienced by the building in its lifetime, while Isi Metzstein’s Rubble Club website has an ever-increasing stream of posts as oblivion strikes post-modernism, too. Books may not save buildings, but they have spawned the gentrification of Balfron Tower – why not Robin Hood Gardens?

At last there is a book that combines the personal and the academic, and it is brilliant. It is hard to be both knowledgeable and personable writing in the first person, but Barnabas Calder has a way of telling it from the heart that is still based on rigorous research. He has a felicitous understanding of concrete that makes you look anew at the material. He shows you the lines where a day’s lift of concrete ends, drifts of exposed aggregate where air bubbles have led to ‘honeycombing’, and the superb quality of Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre, where the roughed-up boarding was used only twice so its wood graining remained crisp. He describes how the concrete at the Barbican Centre was carefully cast with exquisitely finished holes for lights, ventilators and fire extinguishers. Where other authors make easy comparisons with popular culture, he explores the changing attitudes to electricity (so cheap in the 1960s) and the rigours of bus travel and staying in youth hostels asa way of seeing the buildings he loves.

Each chapter is based around an episode of Calder’s life, defined by a building, from first visiting Trellick Tower aged 20 to a Damascene year living in Lasdun’s New Court at Christ’s College, Cambridge. At Glasgow, he found his best way of teaching was to use the buildings around him, enticing students to Richard Seifert’s forgotten Anderston Centre and teaching them to relish their own Strathclyde school of architecture building by Frank Fielden – listed, yet abandoned by the university – as well as the wantonly demolished Newbery Building at the Glasgow School of Art. Best of all is the first chapter, where Calder recounts a pilgrimage to Hermit’s Castle, Achmelvich near Cape Wrath, no epic megastructure but a tiny 1955 hut by David Scott, a summer lodging using pebbles from the beach below. Traditionally the first project given students arriving at the AA was a primitive hut, and this bunker evokes Skara Brae while offering greater comfort than the youth hostel. It sleeps just one.

The book’s production is modest but effective, with Calder’s own carefully composed photographs in velvety black and white, evoking the many rich textures of concrete. They include the last surviving fragment of Paisley Civic Centre, salvaged by Calder from the demolition site in 2010. When he finally left Glasgow, he got the removal man to wrap it carefully and label it ‘precious relic’.