Revolution! Tear it all down and start over! Progress!

The 60s was a time of revolution. Not just in sex and drugs, but in architecture too. The war had torn the hearts out of city centres all over Europe, but England in particular. There was a housing crisis and money was short, so it's perhaps not surprising that people like Le Corbusier, Alison and Peter Smithson and Ernő Goldfinger managed to win contracts and planning permission for revolutionary new architecture. But this was no mere shift in materials. It was a shift in man's relationship with the built environment. A social experiment rendered in raw concrete.

During my recent visit to London I came face to face with one of the fullest, and fanciest realizations of the revolution, right in the heart of the City. The Barbican Complex.

The Barbican has it all. The streets in the sky, the maisonettes, the arts, the massive concrete forms, the "repetitive angular geometries," the strong sense of totalitarian oppression.

My arrival at the Barbican was rough. Rakka and I were heading to the Rain Room exhibit at the Arts Centre in the middle of the complex. When we emerged from the Barbican tube stop we were faced with a wall with a road running through it, but no obvious pedestrian entrance. This was a bit worrying. As it was lunch time we thought a stop at the Whitecross Street Market just to the north would also count as a quick recky round.

A scotch egg and a sausage roll helped our spirits but didn't provide any insight into entrances. The entire estate seems to be walled in. We hadn't yet even set a foot on the estate and already a sense of foreboding began to creep in. Did the Barbican not want us there? Were we even welcome?

We were experiencing one of the defining characteristics of Brutalism. The atmosphere of totalitarianism.

The brutalists were masters of putting you in your place, which was in submission to the state (and the architect). The huge, blocky forms immediately create a dichotomy of scale. You are minuscule next to these things. The walls are flat. No decoration. Even the texture is on a small scale (no feature larger than a brick) and uniform. This lack of features reinforces the dichotomy. There is nothing human size in this place. The very structure of the building screams out "You are small. We who built this, we are large. You are small! We are in control!"

This is the architecture version of 1984. Of Fahrenheit 451. (Incidentally, Fahrenheit 451's opening scene was filmed in the brutalist half of Alton Estate in Roehampton.) It was architecture that felt like this:

Light Music by Lis Rhodes. 1974. (On display at the Tate Modern Tanks, Oct. 2012)

In the end, we just picked a stretch of wall and followed it until we found a ramp leading up. It was near a tunnel for cars that lead under the estate. Near the mouth a sign listed upcoming events at the exhibition hall. Pedestrians did not seem welcome in the tunnel. The ramp was labeled as if it were a street. We ascended.

A man flew past us, seemingly in a hurry to get away. At the top we found a windswept courtyard, paved in smooth brick and completely devoid of all animal life. The slowly decaying wooden slat benches built in to the garden wall didn't show signs of having ever been used. There was a large sign reading "Barbican Exhibition Halls." We were heading in the right direction. But this sign was mounted over a glassed in breezeway with "no entry" signs on the doors.

Windswept Courtyard
Oh, very welcoming.
Strange Holes

Our only way forward was through the open parts of the tower in front of us. The Crescent, I believe. The open plan of the building could have been used to provide vistas of what was to come, drawing you forward into the complex. Instead, there were giant, fluted columns there instead. We couldn't know where we were going until we were there. We were only one 'layer' into the centre and already we'd been made to feel unwelcome in three or four different ways.

Under the Crescent are these weird little holes in the ground, where you could look down to the level below. In the hollow part there are a pair of massive concrete structures, topped with vegetation. They're probably called gardens. It's hard to to tell from the photos but they tower over you, and dominate the courtyard. The courtyard full of empty tables, like a food court with no restaurants.

Here was a second defining characteristic of Brutalism. The total failure to understand public space.

I've never seen the concept drawings for the Barbican. Even so, each time I entered a new space I saw the drawing in my minds eye. Looking down from on high (about three floors) the space is rendered in elegant pastel lines. Smart looking, semi-transparent people stand in evenly distributed groups of two and three having intellectual discussions. This group has a young child with them. He gazes up in awe of his elders. The group nearer the foreground could be discussing Checkov, or how brilliant 'the Party' is.

The only problem is it never happens, does it? Those drawings of my imagination are probably the only time anybody has sat on those benches. Ever. It turns out that big, empty concrete squares are actually not so much conductive to life as completely threatening and uncomfortable. Who knew?Well, everybody really. But these were revolutionaries. Out with all those old ideas about how to live. We are the great architects and we will tell you how to live! This was such obvious nonsense that by the 80s it was just a joke. Just take this bit from Alexei Sayle's Stuff.

Alexei Sayle's Stuff, 1988

Finally, we found our way inside and in to a sort of maze of stairs and corridors. There were people here, the first we'd seen that weren't scurrying through the security doors as fast as their legs could carry them. We had to ask for directions, and we eventually found the main hall of the Barbican Arts Centre.

What an awful place.

Low light, low ceilings, pits and gargantuan raw concrete stair cases going from everywhere you're not to places you're not sure you want to be. It's a warren. Two minutes in and you don't know up from down. With every step you expect a surprise attack . Bamn! A face full of béton brut (raw concrete, for which the Brutalist movement is supposedly named).

Crushed and Confused in and by the Barbican Arts Centre


Stairs everywhere!

A third defining characteristic of Brutalism. Awe through confusion.

It doesn't come up quite as much in the standalone tower blocks. But a few days earlier, Rakka and I paid a visit to Southbank Centre and found it to be designed to confuse too (as well as oppress and all the rest). Signs are kept to a minimum, and tend to be labels rather than directions.

In Frontier in Space, a Doctor Who story from 1973, the Doctor an Jo spend time at Southbank which is standing in for a futurist military spaceport. Notice the 'military.' The place lends itself to totalitarian imagery.

Southbank: Bridge, notice the stairs in the foreground. (Frontier in Space, Doctor Who, 1973)
Walkway in the sky
Friendly Concrete
Walkway. (Frontier in Space, Doctor Who, 1973)

You can compare the footage to a the Southbank of today and see that the place has been simplified and humanized since then. In recent years some of the crazy staircases and flying walkways have been removed, or replaced with more useful ones. The many identical stairwells across the site have been brightly painted in a variety of colors so as to distinguish them and brighten the place up.

Southbank: The Concrete stairs are gone, and new ones are aligned with actual foot traffic.


Stairs from? to?

Modern tables don't fit.
Southbank: Bright yellow stairs are slightly less depressing than raw.

The Southbank of now is still a bit daunting with all its twists, turns, nooks and crannies. And being daunted is a form of being awed. It's not rocket science to layout some buildings in such a way that you can easily have a sense of where you are and where you're going. That people are always confused on their first visits to these places is clear evidence that it's intentional.

Back at the Barbican we did not wait in line for two hours to see the exhibit. The space was too oppressive to even contemplate remaining in it for so long.

But on our approach I noticed something. A tower block flying over the artificial lake. And hanging under it, a concrete ribbon with people on it. A true life, literal Street in the Sky.

Barbican Estate: Street in the Sky, yet under a tower block.

Long view.


The Barbican Lake

Conversation pits? Note the awful waterfall in the back.

A street in the Barbican Estate.

The Streets in the Sky concept was big fad within the brutalist movement. Corbusier's Unité d'habitation has an 'indoor street' with shops and stuff on the middle floor. And he's the father of brutalism, so you know all his disciples wanted to put that stuff in. But it was often implemented in a devolved form. In Park Hill, Sheffield the Streets In the Sky were just wide walkways which continued from building to building. They were wide enough for milk floats, but the milk floats stopped running after a few years (after an accident of them killed a child). There were no shops. In the end they just look like something you'd find on a motel 6.

The Barbican's are different. Many of them hang under the buildings. Since these don't front on to flats or anything access points are limited. Four stories up and no exits is not a comfortable place to be. From our vantage point under a tower block but over a lake, we got a great view of further evidence of bad public spaces. The set of brick conversation pits, sunk directly in to the lake and connect to land by only a narrow pedestrian bridge would make a lovely place to face down a mugger. If you want to keep your wallet you're swimming for it.

Yet another defining characteristic. Complete disregard for how people actually behave.

These architects, Corbusier and the rest, really though they were architecting a new society. They weren't engineering buildings to fit peoples needs. They were engineering buildings based on their internal ideologies, and expecting people fit into the slots they were given, just like the prefab concrete slabs sometimes used in the construction. Corbusier's to produce "uniformity of the part, variety in the whole." The atomic unit was the uniform "house machine" in to which the uniform residents could be slotted in to.

And none of these residents would ever use the lack of escape routes to their own nefarious advantage. Oh no, the architecture will rise them up over their base desires. They will all be shining examples of contented, happy proles communing in harmony with each other. It's obvious, right?

The conceit is so over the top that you wonder if the attitude isn't just an excuse to disregard people all together. I sometime imagine that many of these places have a zombie Richard Briers wandering around eating people who don't respect his perfect architectural vision.

This is the world of Paradise Towers, another Doctor Who story. The The Great Architect, Kroagnon (Richard Briers) comes back from the dead to purge his perfect building of all the filthy residents. Paradise Towers was filmed in 1987, well after its main inspiration, High Rise by J. G. Ballard had begun to come true in many of the tower block estates around the country.

Published in 1975, about a year after the Barbican complex was finally complete, High Rise a pretty presentient book. By the 80s places like Park Hill Estate, Trellick Tower and Robinhood Gardens had become famous not for their new, ideal society, but for their drugs, rapes and murders.

To my knowledge the Barbican Complex never had the problems that most of the other brutalist estates developed over the years. Its location in the City garners it special treatment. The square mile of the City is home to only 7000 or so people, most of them probably high flying banking types. Of those 7000, about 4000 live in the Barbican. Over half of all the residents of The City live here! Three bedroom flats in Shakespeare tower start in the range of £1.5 million. This is not a group of people who are going to let the local council slack off on maintenance or security.

Security or not, Rakka and I felt very vulnerable as we wandered around the estate. Past the maisonettes in the Postern and Wallside, which by the way look extremely uncomfortable to live in. With the main living area sunk below the front door, I imagine I would always feel at a tactical disadvantage living in one of these. Intruders would have the high ground by default. The fact that I was thinking these things while I was there is a testament to the unease that the place inspired. The unlit, blind corners that we had to navigate to find our way out didn't help either.

Barbican Estate: Maisonette in the Postern.
Most Depressing School
Barbican Estate: Park Hill style Street in the Sky

Eventually we found our way to street level. Street on the ground level, I should say. But still on the inside of that great blank wall that greeted us from the tube. Panic was starting to creep in, but we did get out eventually. The estate finally spat us back out through a tunnel made for cars, on the wrong side for the tube. I was happy, though, to stand on a normal street corner, breathe the free air, and wait for my turn to cross.

The amazing thing about this visit is that this is the good place.

This is the brutalist masterpiece that's maintained its security, reputation and property values since it was built. And it's brutal.

Even more amazing, despite all this talk of totalitarianism and conceit, and despite my discomfort in the Barbican, I actually agree with Corbusier on some things. His problem statement is more or less ok. Looking at 1930s Stockholm he saw “frightening chaos and saddening monotony.” This self contradictory statement does have some merit. Having lived in Baltimore, a town made entirely of identical two story row houses jumbled together in multiple grid patterns, I can see where he's coming from.

He and his disciples were trying to solve a very real problem. We've more people than space. We have to go up. We have to figure out how to make it work. In China there are apparently 179,000 people moving to cities a week. That is mad! Sky City in Changsha might sound crazy (it's planned for 220 floors and 31,400 residents) but it's where we're headed.

Where Corbusier ends up going though, is ridiculous. He ends up with drawings of Ville Contemporaine. In other words, his solution to monotony is 10s of identical buildings on as many identical patches of ground, all lined up in perfect rows. He wanted to solve monotony by creating it en masse. It's mad, really. He does conquer the anarchy, but for me the anarchy of a place like London is what makes it feel alive.

So no, I don't agree with the brutalist solution at all. In fact, tower blocks in general pose a problem, brutalist or no.

I've lived in low rise towers. Earlier this year I spent a few days in the Strata SE1 in Elephant and Castle. These are not brutalist structures in appearance, but they are conceptually the same. These towers are just stacks of "house machines" connected by the barest thread of communal space. The hallways are completely enclosed to give the units the most salable window space.

The hallways, the only communal spaces in these buildings, are cut off from the world completely. In the modern "green" buildings like the Strata they are pitch dark if you stand still too long. The motion sensitive lights drive home the fact that these are not spaces you are meant to stay in. You are not welcome here. Rush through. Slot yourself in to your machine for living in. You feel as much sense of community in those featureless landings as you do in the Barbican's streets in the sky. It's possible to go for years and not know what your neighbors even look like.

Strata SE1: Communal hall lit only by the light of the lift.

It is easy to imagine that in 20 years, after the winds of politics and the economy have swung round again, that these modern tower blocks will develop the same problems of places like Park Hill and Robin Hood Gardens.

The problem is now, as I see it, we're still designing centralized control in to the very bones of our buildings. And as a consequence we are designing communities right out of existence. We are removing words from the language of our built environment in the same way Newspeak removes words from the spoken language. Will the result be the same? In a generation will we even be able to conceive of a community? Of a neighborhood?

I will leave you with a question. Is this problem even solvable? Can we find a way to build cities in the sky that are economically (and environmentally) stable while being socially, culturally, and structurally humane? Can we build up and still allow, or even promote a sense community?

References in no particular order:


Irregular Shed said...

That is a doozy of a blog post. I realise now the reason I like brutalist architecture so much is that it's the architecture of my childhood; in my mind I'm still four and looking at it around me. Guess it sums up what 70s Britain was like - full of the arse-end of social experiments.

leff said...

Yeah, I was surprised reading comments on the bbc park hill thing and watching the preview of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (i didn't have time to watch it before publication) that people were happy to move in to these places. For the first 20 years or so they were happy to live there.

It wasn't until the money stopped flowing in the 80s that things turned bad. I bet I wouldn't be far off if I blamed thatcher.

Phil said...

Good post. My general opinion of these buildings is that people give the architects too much credit. I think they were, generally, simply incompetent.

When I lived in Sheffield I went up to park hill flats, it was actually slightly better than I expected, but still somewhere where, like all other blocks of flats, you go to be sad.

leff said...

Oh, I totally get that. Pictures of Park Hill makes me sad to look at. (I think the whole western world looked like that in the 70s. Sesame Street from then was so drab.)

But did you see this: Why Park Hill Should Live. They're redoing it. Making it brighter. Bigger windows. I wonder if it will end up a happy place, or just less sad.