Instagram’s in love with bare-faced brutalism – and so am I | Steve Rose | Social Media
Has Instagram saved brutalist architecture? That theory has been put forward by the editor of Phaidon’s new Atlas of Brutalist Architecture, which surveys nearly 1,000 bare-faced concrete structures around the world. Editor Virginia McLeod attributes the style’s resurgence to the assiduous hashtagging of the Instagram community – nearly half a million #brutalism posts and counting. “I noticed more and more interest in brutalist architecture,” McLeod told Bloomberg last week. “People were excited about it and loved the graphic quality of it.”
I would have to argue there’s more to it than that – the “it” being both brutalism’s revival and appreciation of architecture in general. Brutalism’s newfound Instagram popularity is potentially just as superficial as what made it unpopular in the first place.
Make no mistake, brutalism can look great in two dimensions. The infinite sculptural possibilities of concrete have made for some truly heroic architecture, and some truly awesome snaps. The crisp, black and white photography of the Atlas of Brutalist Architecture amply supports that notion. And this is by no means the first coffee-table book to celebrate the virtues of raw concrete in all its forms – from wacky futuristic schemes to Soviet bus stops.
It is a similar story on Instagram, where you’ll find reams of fine photography tagged #Brutalism, including London landmarks such as the Southbank, the Barbican Estate, the Brunswick Centre, and Camden’s Alexandra Road and Whittington estates. Then there are the myriad movies and TV programmes that use these landmarks for a bit of atmospheric background (you might have spotted Whittington in Bodyguard recently, or Alexandra Road in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Hard Sun, 28 Days Later, Prime Suspect, etc, etc).
It was precisely this superficial form of architectural appraisal that cast brutalism into the wilderness in the first place, you could say. For one thing, no marketing company would have come up with the term “brutalism”. The word was derived from the French betón brut, meaning “raw concrete”, but was seized upon by champions and critics of postwar concrete architecture, particularly in Britain. To its detractors, brutalism’s connotations of hardness and violence fit perfectly. It came to be seen as the language of postwar inhumanity, especially once the concrete became stained and degraded and grotty, and the buildings became rundown and desolate.
But really, this was all surface. Mostly, all the buildings needed was a good clean. Back in the 1980s, the Southbank was a graffiti-stained backwater for skaters and homeless people but, with a bit of care and better access, it became the heart of London. Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower was once considered a crime-ridden eyesore. Then they put a concierge at the bottom (as Goldfinger had always intended) and property prices shot up. As they did at the Brunswick Centre after it was refurbished in 2006 (architect Patrick Hodgkinson had always intended it to be painted but they ran out of money). And even Sheffield’s Park Hill, once a byword for the failure of modern architecture. Now, after a considerable refurbishment, it is the epitome of urban chic. And if brutalism has connotations of outlandish Soviet excess, well, that’s kind of cool isn’t it?
Of course a building’s visual presence is hugely important, but architecture isn’t just about how buildings look; it’s also about how they work. What they’re like to move around in, to live and work in, how they fit in with their surroundings, how they fulfil their functions, how much energy they use, what they add to the community and the culture. You can’t always capture that in an image.
Besides, nobody thinks twice about seeing bare-faced concrete in a new building today – Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern extension, for example, or innumerable buildings by the likes of Tadao Ando, David Chipperfield, SANAA, Eduardo Souto de Moura – the list goes on; long enough to fill a coffee-table book with, in fact. By contrast, it is the flimsy, anonymous, toothpaste tube-cladding boxes of today’s town centres that seem depressing: see Redrock Stockport leisure complex, winner of this year’s Carbuncle Cup. Maybe one day they, too, will become fashionable, but don’t hold your breath.
I first championed brutalism’s unsung virtues 10 years ago, when Instagram was unheard of and a two-megapixel phone camera was considered state of the art. That was too late – or possibly too early – to save now-demolished works like Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens, or John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library, which represented the very finest of postwar architecture. (Architecture minister Margaret Hodge refused to list the latter, saying: “The English don’t like brutalism.”) But others have escaped the wrecking ball, such as Sheffield’s Park Hill or Moore Street substation, or Preston’s beautiful, recently refurbished bus station.
As Japanese architect Shigeru Ban once told me, the permanence of a building has nothing to do with what it is made of, and everything to do with how much it is loved. So if Instagram likes can translate into, er, concrete action, that can only be a good thing. Now, who’s on board for architecture’s #postmodernism revival?
• Steve Rose writes about cinema, culture and architecture