LONDON — Brutalism gets a bit of a bad rap. The architectural movement which began in the 1950s and ’60s, follows early 20th century modernist principles. Buildings have been described as ugly and boxy. Prince Charles, in a 1984 interview, described one building proposal as a “monstrous carbuncle”, adding that Brutalist buildings look like “piles of concrete.”
The concrete comment actually has some validity — not because the buildings look “brutal” as some would have you believe — but because the movement stems from the architect Le Corbusier’s use of “betón brut,” meaning exposed concrete. The style fell out of fashion in the 1980s in favor of post-modernism (a style Prince Charles also dismissed. He is something of an old fuddy-duddy, as one would expect, about anything modern). However, there is a renewed appreciation for the style and while many of the buildings have been demolished, there is a push to protect the best exponents of the movement.
A favorite is the Barbican Estate in London. Aside from housing, the Barbican Centre includes an art gallery, a concert hall (home of the London Symphony Orchestra), a music school and a YMCA, making it the largest arts complex in Europe.
The Barbican Estate was built between 1965 and 1976 near the site of the original Roman fort which was built between AD 90 and 120. In 200, a wall was built around the fort with a large entrance called the Cripplegate. The word Barbican stems from the Latin barbecana, meaning fortified outpost or gateway.
During World War II, the Cripplegate Ward was demolished by German bombing with great loss of life. As a result of post-war austerity, plans to rebuild the area did not take shape until 1957. Designed by the firm of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon and was officially opened in 1969.
The estate complex is quite charming. While many of the Brutalist buildings can be stark and grey, the Barbican has a charm, with the flats (apartments) in the 13 terrace blocks featuring railings adorned with greenery and flowers. The central court has a pond with flowers greenery. The estate also includes three tower blocks. It is home to 4,000 people in 2,014 flats.
The concrete façade is interesting, and all the buildings have, ironically, an organic flow, with walkways connecting the various complexes.
The Barbican gallery is a wonderful exhibition space. The Lee Krasner retrospective which I saw in June was beautifully laid out. A large open area downstairs is encircled by an upper level that featured smaller works.
The Barbican is now Grade II listed, which means it is a U.K. building that is “of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve it.”
London is full of classical, “beautiful” buildings. Of course, one wants to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral and revel in its English Baroque splendor. But the “Brutal” beauty of the Barbican is part of the eclectic tapestry of London and deserves to be celebrated as well.