ARTICLE// london brutalism tour: part 1

We embarked on BRUTALISM TOUR//part one to explore the Brutalist architecture that London has to offer. Brutalism was the term coined to describe an uncompromising modern form of architecture which appeared immediately after World War Two from 1945 to 1975. It is characterised by its bold and aggressive forms that are both exciting and aggressive. Brutalist buildings are mostly monumental structures and made predominantly from rough finished concrete. The buildings often have split opinion and are consistently chastised for being bleak, unappealing and associated with failed social housing developments. Unfortunately, many of the best examples have or are soon to be demolished such as The Pimlico Academy School and Robin Hood Gardens Housing in Poplar. So to make sure we saw the best remaining examples we needed to act quickly!

We started BRUTALISM TOUR//part one at the location of London’s most renowned Brutalist Architecture, the South Bank. The reason for starting here is the close proximity of three public spaces, all created at the same time and in similar styles by Architects who all strove for a new postwar modernist style. The Royal Festival Hall, designed by Leslie Martin, is an early Brutalist building completed in 1951 and therefore is somewhat of a crossover building retiming influences from The International Style. It also does not have the typical rough concrete of the archetypal Brutalist building. Instead an elegant stone clad exterior and large glass expanses give it a more modern feel than its peers, helped by a recent refurbishment by, Allies and Morrison Architects. The National Theatre and Hayward gallery have weathered typically of ‘beton brut’ (unpolished/treated concrete) buildings and their massing betrays their internal volumes such as the theatres fly which penetrate above the roof of the building.

The National theatre is particularly interesting as the range of concrete textures on the façade help to break down the large flat facades using combinations of in-situ concrete cast with rough sawn timber planks and panels that have been hand-picked to achieve a texture almost like pebble dashing.

The internal circulation is layered to connect the multiple entrance levels of the theatre using a series of mezzanines and staircase to weave through the building without creating disconnected spaces. This creates tall volumes that are tied together by a square coffered concrete ceiling which allows electricalelements such as lighting to be recessed and not break up the form of the ceiling. A similar ceiling can also be found in the Barbican Centre which has been modernised with up lighters to emphasise its concrete form. electrical

We then made our way North towards Brunswick Square, a housing development designed by, Patrick Hodgkinson. The approach from Russell Square tube station reveals the back of the development;  apartments stepping up from street level. This pattern is replicated on the inside on the development where two slabs sit on top of a podium facing each other.

The central concourse is where the development shows its strengths and weaknesses as it appears to have been revitalized by the introduction of market stands, cafes and shops at the lower level of the podium. However, the top level has very little in the way of landscaping bar some climbers to try to soften the penetrations of concrete blocks containing mechanical equipment. This space is also somewhat under used despite being designed away from the public thoroughfare and seems to act as demarcation between the two.


The most interesting spaces are those created by the stepping of the apartments. Large tapering concrete columns support the high level housing leaving behind a triangular shaped void which is populated by external access to the apartments and “streets” that are supposedly to instigate the community interactions. The space relies heavily on the various light and shadow that breaks it up to create an impressive atrium but even this cannot prevent it from feeling intimidating and uninhabited.

The dramatic entrance of the lower podium from the East side is the most grand and welcoming and features the entrance to the Renoir cinema. The lack of connectivity between podiums disconnects the space, most likely intentionally for security but at the expense of truly integrating the housing into the urban fabric.

So far the buildings visited show how Brutalist buildings, when properly looked after,  in desirably areas of London, and habited by those who have pride in their home can still be successful spaces. The next building we visited was Robin Hood Gardens Social housing estate designed by  Peter and Alison Smithson and has for a few years been in danger of being demolished. This has unfortunately taken its toll on the building, which is starting to become dilapidated due to lack of maintenance. Architectural features such as the longitudinal ribs along the facade have started to break apart and the reinforcement bars  are often visible where the concrete has crumbled away.

Robin Hood Gardens shows just how defensive Brutalist architecture can be. The perimeter is protected by a two metre high castle battlement style concrete wall. This is first building that we encountered that feels as though it has been designed to prevent public access. The apartment blocks sit adjacent to each other with a large landscape expanse in between to give green spaces to them. This helps to soften the architecture but is unfortunately under used both in terms of numbers and designed elements.

Nearby, also in Poplar, is one of Erno Goldfingers two infamous towers, Balfron Tower, completed in 1968. Inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation in the arrangement of its duplex apartments and circulation corridors only on every third floor. The vertical circulation is kept separate in a service tower which contains stairs, lifts and a mechanical and electrical services room at the top. Of all the buildings seen Balfron Tower probably most polarises opinion on the success of Brutalist architecture, its design and form have become iconic and capture the character of modernism. It’s failings have been more to do with the social characteristics associated with the tower. Criminal activity and anti social behaviour have gone hand in hand with Balfron Tower and the surrounding buildings.


About Alex Bilton

Chartered Architect

One comment

  1. Georgina Kearney

    Inspried by 1960’s Brutalist Architecture, I think you and your readers may be interested in the upcoming show Machines for Living at Battersea Arts Centre.

    Machines for Living is a striking piece of physical theatre with a spectacular set.. Fusing playful dark humour with tragic scope, up-and-coming Let Slip and Crank use their irreverent and visually arresting style to explore the legacy of Britain’s tower blocks.

    Immersed in the social idealism of the 1960’s, two architects believe they can design life. They move into the tower block they have created, engineered to encourage kinship and social harmony. As the building degenerates and Community breaks down, who should be held responsible?

    Check out the link for more information-

    Hope to see you there.

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