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Adam Steiner reviews Peter Chadwick’s book on Brutalism which brings the artistic architectural form together with pop culture, film and philosophy.

Peter Chadwick, This Brutal World (Phaidon, 2016) 224pp.

Visions of the future, through the past, don’t come along every day, Peter Chadwick’s new book, This Brutal World, encourages us to look a long, hot look (again) and explore the Brutalist movement for what it is – an ongoing revolution in how we see and shape our world.

Raised in 70s Middlesbrough and travelling with his Dad across the North-East, Peter recalls his first visions of the nearby steelworks and ICI chemical plant, before moving to London in the late 80s, his interest in Brutalism following him there. In the introduction to his book, This Brutal World, he explains how the powerful first sight of these structures had an enduring hold on him that has continued ever since.

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The TBW project began with Peter’s twitter feed, This Brutal House (@BrutalHouse), named after a late 80s acid house track, as a way of connecting to the wealth of online Brutalist material available, and as a platform to share his own photography that only grew after moving to London, expecting limited interest his feed has since grown to almost 30k followers.

The book’s selection is inspired in portraying the wildly experimental range of Brutalist constructions, including memorials (such as the haunting Berlin memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), official buildings (the intensely abstract, and non-statutory, Ministry of Highways in Tbilisi, Georgia) and the residential (London’s Barbican, of course). The overriding difficulty being how to portray an amorphous and highly individualistic style which perhaps, like the philosopher Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblances, stand as unwitting members of a club without clear and exacting entrance criteria.

This depth and breadth portrays Brutalism at its most ecstatic, a sea-change that sneered in the face of convention, it’s perhaps about as (post-) punk as architecture gets. That being said, it is very much an accessible objet d’art in that it gives a brilliant overview; and as Peter has said, should encourage a reappraisal of what there is still to lose under the wrecking ball of social cleansing, gentrification and lazy, mindless developers.

In contrast to decades of attack, TBW is a staunch defence, and celebration, of Brutalism as spiralling creativity, extending the idea of what a building can be. A tower is rarely just a tower, like the evolution of insects shaping their bodies into fantastical tools (wing-cases, antlers, balancing struts) TBW shows Brutalist buildings as rare, full-blooded creatures where their design extends deeper beyond a fancy shell, in stark contrast to many of the current anaemic and played-safe featureless constructs that reduce all cities to genericism, a flattening of the species.

The term Brutalism, is itself is widely misconstrued, perhaps rightly, to mean literally, Brutishness (crude/raw/unenlightened), which when applied to design makes the architects sound like unimaginative cavemen with pencils – when in fact they were anything but. The label, however, stuck.

The term actually comes from the French, beton brut, referring to the coarse or rough-looking concrete finish that appeared on many of the earliest buildings, although the adaptability of concrete as art material, later gave way to new methods of applying interesting contrasts of surface and texture, engaging the eye as well as being a tactile invitation to touch and connect. This goes some way to highlighting the expressive aspect of Brutalism, as in nature, which is often overlooked, before going too far in J. G. Ballard’s novel, High Rise, where “the building” is addressed in the manner of Stockholm Syndrome-esque symbiosis. This less acknowledged interpretation of Brutalism, rather than the surface reading of the term, often passes critics by but it strikes me a one of the most humanising aspects of Brutalism that few other styles of building can lay claim to.

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The mass-cliche accusation levelled by Prince Charles’ of the “concrete monstrosity” seems aimed more at the material, when you look through the book at the flexibility of the imagination that it allows and that Brutalist designers have made of it. Even the book’s stark aesthetic of thick cardboard, sharp flashes of red contrast and heavy, tome-like mass evoke their subject.

Images in the book are intercut with lines from the likes of Pulp, David Bowie and the recent film Locke; contrasted with learned  quotes from some of the movement’s most well-known architects and critical supporters, offering a perspectives from both the pop-culture and industrial spheres. For me, this has mixed results, some quotes seem slightly incongruous, reference-bait, rather than seeking to define or distil what brutalism is, and why it works. Peter has mentioned that one of his favourite quotes in the book comes from the construction road-movie, Locke, in which the protagonist warns his colleague that the pouring process of their monumental concrete is “delicate as blood” – this speaks to the human aspect behind Brutalism, which is all too easily over-looked. This and the range of other quotes in the book show the depth to which Brutalism has captured the popular imagination more than any other style of building or school of design, creating a long-lasting shockwave, not mere ripples – which is still being felt today – so Brutalism endures as magnificently bravura, bold and defiantly monolithic.

 


Adam Steiner‘s poetry and fiction appear in Proletarian Poetry, The Next Review, Fractured Nuance zine, BoscRev: 4 – and other publications. Adam was selected for the 2014 Ó Bhéal Coventry-Cork Twin Cities Poetry Exchange and was part of the Coventry SHOOT Festival. He is former Co-Editor of Here Comes Everyone magazine and his current project iswww.disappear-here.org. His novel about the NHS, Politics of the Asylum, is forthcoming.

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