Brutalism REVIEW

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HONGMIAO SHI // Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945–1975 | Elain Harwood

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Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945–1975 Elain Harwood 703pp, Yale University Press, 2015

The past two years has seen the publication of no less than five books on Brutalism and modernist concrete architecture.1 One suspects the renewed interest is directly related to the fiftieth anniversary of The New Brutalism, an Ethic or Aesthetic? by Reyner Banham, first published in 1966 and whose explanation of the ‘New Brutalism’ movement in England – its origins, examples and how it differs from the earlier Scandinavian ‘Brutalism’– still defines our understanding today. In Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945–1975, Elain Harwood does not explicitly state what ‘Brutalism’ means in the context of her book, but her focus on architecture that expresses post-war optimism, truthfulness to materiality, and the desire to create better living standards suggests that her definition matches Banham’s.

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Space, Hope and Brutalism will no doubt become an authority on both Brutalism and post-war English modernist architecture. Its 703 pages, the result of eighteen years’ worth of meticulous research and labour, offer an unprecedented overview of the new buildings in England between the end of World War Two and 1975. Much of her research is collected from her work at English Heritage and is sup­ported by a wealth of quotations from contemporaneous newspapers and magazines. Accompanying the text are beautiful new photographs and a useful reference section with biographical information on the architects mentioned.

Split into eleven chapters, the book covers government-spon­sored commissions – such as housing, transport and energy – as well as private housing, commercial, and higher education projects. Each chapter is broken down into subchapters with spotlights on individual buildings, offering both historical context and minute focus. This has allowed Harwood to highlight some lesser-known projects within familiar categories, such as Brandon Estate, Dawson’s Heights, and other obscure housing estates sponsored by London councils; these build­ings, mostly neglected by previous research, are a welcome addition to the monoliths that normally dominate our understanding of the ‘New Brutalism’ movement.

The third chapter is devoted to a rarely explored topic: how individual wealth has allowed architects to experiment with Brutalist theories on the smaller scale of private housing, particularly with refer­ence to the movement’s desire to use materials more ‘honestly’ (124). Unfortunately, Harwood rarely clarifies how the architects she selects have used their materials in accordance to Brutalism’s ethics, and assumes the reader understands as much as she does. Because of this, many of the projects mentioned in this book feel simply ‘modernist’, rather than ‘Brutalist’, and Harwood’s lack of definition frequently blurs the boundaries between the two.

Despite the size and depth of research, many topics are, surpris­ingly, not covered in depth, or at all. Although Harwood highlights post-war architecture’s desire to ‘create better living and working conditions for everyone‘, she does not explore the contemporaneous issues of mass immigration and racial tension, nor does she question whether variances in ethnicity, culture or social class would have different interpretations of what ‘better living’ meant (vi, emphasis mine).

There are references to how changes in government affected building policies on a national level, but little is discussed about the effects of international politics on English architecture, such as the Cold War or the European Economic Community. In the final paragraph of the second chapter (‘Housing’), Harwood presents an interesting con­nection between public housing and social control, suggesting it is an echo of governmental dominance during World War 2 (113). This is a rare and refreshing critique to her usually unwavering support of the idyllic welfare state dream. Harwood is excellent at acknowledging the physical failures of Brutalist architecture, but rarely questions if the buildings could have been commissioned with a self-serving agenda, such as social control. Disappointingly it is not expanded on further.

Compared to the other three books published recently on Brutalism (Brutalism Resurgent by Julia Gatley has yet to be published at the time of writing) Space, Hope and Brutalism provides the most thoroughly researched and exhaustive – if not exhausting – overview of the subject. With fifty years’ hindsight, it is the objective companion to Banham’s more theoretical introduction to Brutalism, providing histori­cal context and reliable examination of the movement’s successes and failures. Harwood’s book, however, is best approached with an existing understanding of Banham’s New Brutalism: the size and density of Space, Hope and Brutalism is overwhelming to anyone without an expert interest in post-war architecture.

The comprehensiveness of this book is both its strength and weakness. Readers looking for an overview of Brutalist post-war architecture should instead refer to Harwood’s recent chapter in the Twentieth Century Society’s 100 Buildings 100 Years.2 For those with a research-level interest in the topic, however, Space, Hope and Brutalism will be unparalleled for many years to come: one cannot imagine anyone else undertaking the mammoth task of evaluating the post-war English architectural landscape to the standard that Harwood has achieved.

HONGMIAO SHI

  1. Peter Chadwick, This Brutal World (London: Phaidon, 2016); Barnabas Calder, Raw Concrete (London: William Heinemann, 2016); Christopher Beanland and Jonathan Meades, Concrete Concept: Brutalist Buildings Around the World (London: Frances Lincoln, 2016); Julia Gatley and Stuart King eds., Brutalism Resurgent (Oxford: Routledge, 2016).
  1. Elain Harwood, ‘Post-War Architecture’, in Susannah Charlton and Elain Harwood eds., 100 Buildings 100 Years (London: Batsford, 2014), 86-91.

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