Brutalism is arguably one of the most divisive architectural motifs, championing staunch supporters and determined defectors. For anti-modernists, it is the argument and the conclusion, the massive concrete structures indisputably opposite to their classical counterparts – if you can even really call them that. But where they sit on the architectural scales stands in stark contrast with the ideology behind them and what they were meant to help foster – a sense of community.
In England, Brutalism was heavily employed during the post-war reconstruction era, particularly in the development of social housing. Areas like Thamesmead are peppered with monolithic concrete that ambitiously tried to embody utopian principals and aesthetics. With outdoor corridors, large windows and minimal exteriors, they’re transparent, designed to expose the inner-workings and use of the building in question. Artist Jo Peel spends a lot of time thinking about buildings, and was struck by their character upon first visiting the South-East area of London. Peel’s large-scale murals capture the environments in which she’s working, documenting the structures that shape the lives of those living in them. Her recent work along the Thamesmead canal is no exception, capturing important landmarks identified by the students at Hawksmoor Primary, incorporating them into her contribution to the Moniker Project backed commission. “For me, Brutalism is interesting because it’s so divisive, and I think a lot of people that love it the most don’t live in it. But it was built out of true utopian dreams,” Peel says. “It was built for the people, for a community.”
The use of outdoor space is a defining characteristic of the movement, utilising balconies and areas for community gathering in either plazas or through sizeable walkways. But their harsh exteriors, susceptibility to water damage and eventually an association with totalitarianism complicated their reception, and their ambitions. The well known Trellick Tower designed by Ernö Goldfinger has been used to develop a causal argument for the influence of architectural design on community, a social housing project that in the 1970s had widely publicised instances of anti-social behaviour and crime. Critics often don’t spend much time noting that every apartment has a balcony, the emphasis on natural light, the communal areas and designated retail space for local shops and amenities.
It’s well documented that design does affect the lives of those living in it, though it’s not always easy to measure. Even so, many Brutalist buildings in the UK have come to achieve landmark status serving as sites of essential cultural exchange, with places like the The Barbican, The Hayward Gallery and The National Theatre marking just a few examples. You’ll find them across the country in the form of housing, worship and education, be that at Leeds University, Clifton Cathedral in Bristol, or in Thamesmead – a divisive architectural approach to what have become very real communal spaces.