Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



The Art of Brutalism

Rescuing Hope from Catastrophe in 1950s Britain


Ben Highmore


Yale University Press, 2017

Hardcover. x+298 p. ISBN 978-0300222746. £35


Reviewed by Elain Harwood

Historic England, London




Brutalism has dominated writing on modern British architecture – perhaps British architecture in general – in the last decade. It has been revived, redefined and relished at the very moment when the great concrete behemoths of the 1960s were being bulldozed into hardcore. Yet it has also become increasingly difficult to say what brutalism really is.

From the moment in 2011 when Alexander Clement self-published his crazily immature book, Brutalism, Post-war British Architecture, featuring sleek, commercial Centre Point on the cover, all of British architecture between 1950 and the late 1970s has been swept up under the term. More discerning critics have seen the heavy concrete structures of these years as embodying the ideals of post-war optimism, opportunity and the welfare state, showing that towns were able to think imaginatively and spend big in a way unimaginable now – as public services disappear even faster than the buildings, their valedictions for the architecture also acknowledge the socio-political climate that produced them. Tributes to the Tricorn Centre, a high-profile demolition in 2004 following a local radio campaign, are typical in lamenting the era as well as the architecture, while the building was more widely loved in death than it had been in its lifetime.

This embracing ‘brutalism’ is different from the use of the term when it was first coined in 1953, but does that matter? It is unusual amongst architectural ‘isms’ in that it was invented at the time. ‘Alison coined it on the “john”’, sardonically claimed her husband, Peter Smithson, much later, and its origins in Peter’s student nickname, an antidote to ‘new-empiricism’ first heard in Sweden or a Times review of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation have been endlessly disputed since Reyner Banham produced a first history of the movement in 1966, The New Brutalism. Most architects were unwilling to adopt the label.

The Smithsons originally defined brutalism as a building using natural materials, including brick and timber as well as concrete, honestly displayed. The austerity of such architecture reflects its origin in 1952-3 just as hopes of a brighter Britain had been dashed with the election of a penny-pinching Conservative Government caught up in the Korean War; rationing remained in force until November 1954 and the Cold War offered a constant background threat of Armageddon. All the optimistic pledges made in the Second World War and its aftermath had brought us little save penicillin (the National Health Service was already haemorrhaging on its drugs bills) and London and many major cities remained bedraggled bomb sites of buddleia and open basements.

It was in this milieu that a group of young artists and architects began to organise lectures and exhibitions in London at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. An idea first conceived in the late 1930s, the ICA founded in 1946 was itself a fruit of that brief post-war burst of can-do idealism. By the early 1950s the progressive mantle had passed to a younger generation who had studied at the Slade School of Art, including Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull, Richard Hamilton and Nigel Henderson; they went on to teach together at the Central School of Art along with Peter Smithson, Victor Pasmore and others. The combination of disciplines has ensured that at least as much has been written on this group, over a far longer period, as on brutalism, and Anne Massey’s study, The Independent Group, Modernism and Mass Culture in Britain, 1945-59 (1995), remains definitive. Ben Highmore’s book adds colour and detail to those uncertain times.

Nigel Henderson was closely connected to the artistic aristocracy through his mother Wyn, who had worked for Peggy Guggenheim, and to the Bloomsbury Group through his friendship with Vanessa Bell’s extended family and subsequent marriage to her niece Judith Stephen. While all the young artists continued to visit Paris, where they became aware of Jean Dubuffet and his Art Brut movement, they also began to explore the shabby streets of Bethnal Green with their bedraggled and overcrowded little houses. Judith Henderson was working as a sociologist there, where her husband – recovering from a wartime breakdown – took photographs. The old idea of surrealism seemed of little value, surpassed by the realities of war, and Henderson’s pictures have the honest realism of those taken for Mass Observation in the 1930s. In Bethnal Green, children found their only space and freedom in the streets – still (just) sufficiently free of cars for games of hopscotch and skipping. Here in the shops and amongst the grime and rubble was a rough and ready environment of colour, texture and pattern ‘as found’ that offered an alternative to the sleek elegance of modern functionalism or the neat patterns and dainty scantlings of its Swedish and Danish variants.

Eduardo Paolozzi had become friendly with Henderson, who in turn introduced him to Alison and Peter Smithson, and the four became a collective within the larger social group and debating forum. Their exhibition, A Parallel of Life and Art, grew out of an earlier exhibition by Richard Hamilton similarly based on D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form. A collage of very varied and unusual images was strung up over the foyer of the ICA for five weeks in 1953 and then briefly shown at the Architectural Association. Its interest is in the involvement of architects as well as artists, and in the debate it provoked when students at the AA joined visitors to the ICA in complaining of the flouting of traditional images and formal display techniques. Its interest to architectural historians is that it captured the Smithsons’ departure from the functionalism of their first works, a marriage of influences from Mies van der Rohe and the classical Renaissance as expounded in Rudolf Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, published in 1949. A series of unplaced competition entries in 1952-3 had seen them engage with a new materiality, and in a presentation for the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) in 1953 they compared Henderson’s images of Bethnal Green with their own ‘streets-in-the-sky’, an unplaced competition entry for flats at Golden Lane.

In December 1953 the Smithsons published an unrealised project for a house and studio for themselves in Colville Place, near Tottenham Court Road, where the walls were unplastered, the ceiling joists exposed and the woodwork left unpainted. ‘Had it been built it would have been the first example of the New Brutalism’, concluded the article, much later attributed to Alison. Instead they moved to Limerston Street, Chelsea, where they decorated the lavatory with wallpaper by Paolozzi and Henderson, patterns which inspired Alison’s diagrams extending their Golden Lane slab into clusters across the city.

Ben Highmore’s achievement is to define the ‘both/and’ of brutalism. It at once acknowledged a debt to European modernism, but also to the shiny American consumerism beginning to appear via imported magazines. ‘Brutalism – the word – was meant to have a whiff of Gauloises and existentialism, but it was also meant to echo with jive talk and jukeboxes’, he explains. Its enthusiasm for collages and cut-outs featuring this imagery gave the Independent Group a position in art history as a precursor of pop art, yet in the beat-up city photographed by Henderson and the detritus collected by Paolozzi for his sculpture there is a reminder not only of the war just passed but future nuclear destruction. A Parallel of Life and Art demonstrated the imagery made possible by new photographic techniques, the links it could make – for instance by comparing the patterns of a guillemot’s egg with those of Jackson Pollock, but also the inherent dangers of believing an art form if its literal interpretations of nature are pushed to extremes. The Smithsons saw the work of Pollock and Paolozzi as together providing ‘a complete image system’, so close did art and architecture seem to them at this time.

The crises of Suez and Hungary hung over the second collaboration by the Smithsons, Henderson and Paolozzi. This was variously seen as a garden shed or nuclear bunker, hung with the necessities and detritus of life from a bicycle wheel to a pistol, installed as part of the This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956. The two shows share a common theme of chaos, just as the Smithsons’ scheme for Golden Lane looked outwards and embraced the surrounding bomb sites, unlike the built scheme by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon which deliberately turned inwards.

Highmore reveals that the Smithsons produced the frame of the This is Tomorrow shed, then left Henderson and Paolozzi to fill it while they attended a CIAM conference in Dubrovnik. Here lay the future of the Smithsons’ subsequent work, in which their buildings’ imagery became secondary to the way it was used, evolving into a more neutral framework for the occupants’ own possessions or what they termed ‘the art of inhabitation’. Reyner Banham felt that this neutrality had condemned the brutalist movement to history when in 1966 he wrote its biography, The New Brutalism, even though the era of giant, multi-functional structures in reinforced concrete celebrated in the 2010s was just hitting its stride. Yet Paolozzi’s influence remained even in the Smithsons’ last works, understated additions in mundane materials at the University of Bath which they described using his words of ‘conglomerate ordering’. Did Henderson’s sketchy, notational style of writing inspire the Smithsons’ own Joycean ruminations? The link between art and architecture in the Smithsons’ work and debts to their friends was larger than is often supposed.

That ‘both/and’ is never better felt than in the Smithsons’ other temporary building from 1956, the House of the Future created for the Ideal Home exhibition. A dream home for the year 1980, it begat a series of futuristic designs for ‘appliance houses’ based around the growing number of services needed to support modern living, which culminated in an article by Alison on caravans. The future lay in shiny plastics and technology, in the consumerism celebrated in the glossy adverts cut from American magazines and pasted into A Parallel of Life and Art. Yet the bunker quality remained in such an inward-looking house, lit only from above and from an inner courtyard.  

Highmore gets off to a cracking start, using the rest of the book only to expand his arguments, but the whole is a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating read. By concentrating on the artists he provides insights for those of us only used to reading about architecture and a sound basis to the movement. Yet while the artists’ careers blossomed, the Smithsons got little more work and had to turn increasingly to writing and teaching. Their one major building from the golden age of brutalism in the late 1960s, Robin Hood Gardens, was substantially demolished in 2017-18, the victim of changing housing policies just as conditions seemed right for living in streets-in-the-sky and prompting a wholesale debate about brutalism’s imagery and sustainability. The preservation of a section by the Victoria and Albert Museum seems futile both as art and as a social document, showing that there is no room for ‘both/and’ for architecture in the gallery, just as stylistic labels for art and architecture have their limitations.


Cercles © 2019

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.