Cold, geometrical, bland. These are some of the words used to describe the aptly-named “Brutalist” style of architecture. Brutalism had its heyday from the early 1950s through the mid-1970s and is largely associated with government buildings or government-sponsored projects. In the United States, we can see examples of it in the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., Boston City Hall, and even the Walt Disney World Contemporary Resort. While not being the most aesthetically pleasing architectural style in any country, it certainly left its mark on London in the 20th Century with many important buildings that stand today.
The term was first coined by Swedish architect Hans Asplund and comes from the French “brut” or “rough”. Given its elements, it’s not hard to see why, as the style is typically characterized by modular sections, rough designs, and various geometric shapes. Many of the buildings include exposed concrete blocks, though this isn’t necessarily a requirement for a Brutalist structure. Architects showed nearly every bit of construction in the exterior with exposed features and wanted buildings that were beautiful in their practicality. While many regard Brutalist buildings as ugly, they certainly have their own faithful devotees, even achieving listed status, and indeed have survived in several of London’s most notable structures.
Perhaps some of the most obvious Brutalists structures are several housing estates throughout the city. One of the oldest of these is Crescent House, which is part of the Golden Lion Estate, and was built in 1959 by the firm of Chamberlain, Powell, and Bon. The style would take route in several notable estates in the 1960s, including the Weston Rise Estate, Balfron Tower, and Trellick Tower. Grenfell Tower, the site of a terribly tragic fire in 2017, was built in the Brutalist Style. The Rowley Way Estate is one of the more picturesque and has been used in films as recent as the Kingsman series. Another excellent example can be found in The Barbican Estate, one of the city’s first mixed-use developments following the war.
And speaking of the Barbican, the entire area sports plenty of Brutalist buildings. As they did for many other buildings in London, Chamberlain, Powell, and Bon left its Brutalist stamp all over the development. In addition to the residential flats, Barbican Hall, Barbican Theatre, and Barbican Library are all separate structures that represent one of the only Brutalist mixed-use centers in the city. Even the London School for Girls which is part of the estate includes Brutalist design techniques, and it’s not the only school that does, as evidenced by the Pimlico School and the Lecture Centre of Brunel University. The National Theater and Southbank Centre is another entertainment venue in this architectural style.
Of course, Brutalism is certainly a popular style for government buildings in London as it is in many parts of the world. The Camden Town Hall Extension, part of the structure that forms the home base for the Camden Borough Council, features the concrete, small windows, and exposed steel that are all hallmarks of the design. While the extension is now being converted partly into a hotel, it is largely keeping the Brutalist elements while adding more floors to the top that complements the existing architectural style. The Ministry of Justice building strongly mirrors the US’s own FBI headquarters from the windows to a similar color concrete finish.
Brutalism is a style that permeates all aspects of London life from residential to commercial to governmental. They are raw structures, letting you know exactly what they are and what they do. They’re not meant to be pretty, but yet have their own kind of unapologetic beauty and in the case of the estates, have been enhanced by their residents’ own aesthetics. Of course, if you’re reading this hoping they get torn down one day, you shouldn’t hold your breath. Many of the buildings have now achieved some level of protection, and most are now Grade II listed, so whether you like them or not, they’re most definitely here to stay.