English Heritage celebrates landmarks from the ‘brutalist’ age

Post War Buildings.
Alexandra Road Estate, Camden, London.
General view of estate designed by Nieve

Post War Buildings. Alexandra Road Estate, Camden, London. General view of estate designed by Nieve Brown, completed in 1978. - Credit: English Heritage/James O. Davies

Exhibition looks at controversy of post-war buildings

The innovation of Camden Council architects – and the beauty of brutalism – is celebrated in an English Heritage exhibition of London’s oft-derided post-war landmarks.

Twenty-five years after the first post-war buildings were listed, Brutal and Beautiful celebrates 35 architectural treasures including the National Theatre, The Barbican and Centre Point.

The exhibition, in the Wellington Arch near Hyde Park, uses photographs, models and interviews with architects to explore why listing post-war buildings – including civic centres, homes, schools, and social housing – has been controversial and asks: what is worth saving?

As head of designation for English Heritage, Emily Gee considers fresh applications for listings and says buildings must be at least 30 years old, with 500 post-war sites so far listed.

“The exhibition starts with the post war austerity years and goes through the new Brutalism, right up to the High Tech era of the ‘80s, the important British architectural movement made famous by Norman Foster and Richard Rogers.

“Whereas before it was the listing of brutalist buildings that raised eyebrows, I think people are more comfortable with that style now and it’s the post-modernist buildings that are raising eyebrows.”

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“Concrete,” says Gee, “can be beautifully finished. Like the National Theatre which is all shadow and light, or the Barbican with its Cornish granite. It’s rough and hard.

“You don’t necessarily want to rub up against it but people can see there’s great beauty in that monumental brutalism when it’s done well.”

“Special nationally”

Hampstead-based architect Erno Goldfinger’s Grade II*-listed Trellick Tower, the Alexandra Road Estate, off Abbey Road, and the Hallfield Estate, in Paddington, are among the social housing schemes featured.

Gee emphasises that listing is highly selective and only “a tiny number of the very best buildings that have to be special nationally” achieve the rating.

Alexandra Road, known as Rowley Way, appears regularly on screen from The Sweeney and Prime Suspect to the movie Breaking and Entering. The estate was designed by Neave Brown of Camden Council’s architecture department, who was also responsible for a Grade II-listed scheme in Dunboyne Road Hampstead.

“Alexandra Road is more than special in a national context. It’s low-rise, high-density housing with a triangular profile that allows neighbours to interact with each other and incorporates a school and a community and health centre. Camden Council’s architect’s department had a pioneering period under borough architect Sydney Cook between 1965-73, who brought in young architects like Neave Brown, who still lives in Dunboyne Road.

“They were inspired by Le Corbusier and a utopian approach to urban planning and really triumphed with high quality social housing.”

Goldfinger, who lived in Willow Road, designed the now iconic Trellick Tower in 1968, which was Grade II*-listed in 1998. Gee extols the “striking verticality and extraordinary way that it made a high rise tower block with a sculptural form.”

Meanwhile 81 Swain’s Lane, Highgate, built in 1969 by John Winter as a family home, is remarkable for its glass and steel frame inspired by Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe, and its striking setting overlooking Highgate Cemetery.

Gee says the best architect of his generation was Denys Lasdun, who designed the National Theatre and the Royal College of Physicians which is “an amazing setting distinctly different on the edge of Regent’s Park, quite forbidding from the outside but particularly beautiful inside.”

“After the trauma of the war, there was a great period of change and thinking about a national identity.

“There was great reconstruction, to make good the bomb damage but a restriction on building materials that meant architects had to be creative, making beautiful things out of utilitarian materials.

“They adapted modernism from the continent for England, creating a functional modernism for public institutions that brought in a very different aesthetic to the old Victorian buildings, so schools were more accessible, light and child-centred, and houses more open-plan, offering a different way of living.”

Gee says the Royal Festival Hall was the first major cultural institution that declared the new idealism and modernism.

She accepts there was public resistance to the tougher steel and concrete architecture that emerged in the late 50s, dubbed ‘new brutalism’ by architects Alison and Peter Smithson.

“The 1960s was the highpoint of post-war optimism and British engineering was particularly innovative, but the 1970s saw the beginnings of a reaction against the extremes of modernism.

“Interestingly, (housing estate) Robin Hood Gardens designed by the Smithsons wasn’t listed recently, despite being championed by architects, because it wasn’t fit for purpose – it no longer worked as a building.

“It’s the idea of a building as object versus its utility, but often with a small amount of sensitive adaptation buildings can survive.”

Brutal and Beautiful runs until November 24.