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Why Brutalism revival may not be not just an Instagram craze

Brutalism, with its grey buildings typical of the 50s and 70s, is in full revival. Some say it’s due to social media, where #brutalism is very popular. Yet this rebirth also shows the desire of architects to play once again a social role. And to support the principles of the welfare state: such as the right to the city, and to a home

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«One of the worst disgraces of all times». «An architecture with no compromise». «An eyesore». Londoners (and newspapers) have never been kind to the Robin Hood Gardens, the social housing designed by Alison and Peter Smithson.and built in 1972. near Canary Wharf to give decent housing to the poor and create a culture of Neighborhood. A building whose romantic name (which evokes woods and damsels on horseback) has always punched with its look, typical of brutalist architecture.(exposed concrete, no concession to decoration).

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Yet today there are people who would do anything to save the brutalism of the Robin Hood Gardens – demolished a few months ago – from oblivion.

The Robin Hood Gardens, London

Like Olivia Horsfall and Christopher Turner, curators of the Victoria and Albert Museum.who have recovered two floors (two insoles with walls and ceilings) to be exhibited in the permanent of the London museum. At present, and until November 25, everyone can see them in Venice Biennale, at the Arsenale. in the exhibition Robin Hood Gardens: A Ruin in Reverse. While cult publisher Phaidon has just come out with an Atlas of Brutalist Architecture, the only full account of Brutalist buildings (existing and demolished) all over the world.

Grey architecture

Brutalism is “grey” architecture. Because it uses reinforced concrete and proudly shows it (hence the name, from brut, which means “raw”, in French). And because, in people’s minds, it became synonym of cheap social housing. The hundreds of windows in a row, the repetition of a geometric form, the rigor of the corners, the roughness of surfaces.

So, after the glorious beginnings (Brutalism was started by Le Corbusier in 1952), thanks to the low cost of the material it uses, Brutalism has fallen from the stars to the stables. Apparently defeated by the other great architectural philosophy of the twentieth century,. (that steel + glass, the so-called International Style started by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe).

The reasons of a comeback

Today, however, surprise: Brutalism is back in vogue, and not only among museum academics and curators. It actually did a comeback in a pop version in California. Where rapper Kanye West openly cites it through the concrete walls and furnishings of Yeezy’s headquarters, designed with Willo Perron. And it was used in glamourous short movies such as Ode, by the photographer and director Eliot Lee Hazel who works with Thom Yorke: you can find it on Nowness.com).

Fashion shoot at the Le Corbusier Haus in Berlin

While at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) has named among the ten most beautiful books of the year Finding Brutalism, by Simon Phipps (ed Park Books).

Brutalism, in short, is cool again.

Some say that it is about social media because #brutalism goes great on Instagram this year. This has certainly contributed to the entry of the severe architectural style in the pop imagery in recent months. But, on the other hand, Twitter has been the platform of revival among architecture lovers in 2014. The revival of the style that was Le Corbusier is in fact, when the Twitter account @ThisBrutalHouse, of the chart Peter Chadwick, has picked up a boom of consents.

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Chadwick turned his collection of images published online in a book (This Brutal World, ed.Phaidon). But even he did not expect a crowd of 400 to attend the presentation of the volume at the Royal Institute of British Architects. It was 2016, the year in which – at the same time – there were five books dedicated to Brutalism. Ben Wheatley’s film High Rise, inspired by the novel by J.G. Ballard, set in a London “condo”. «The rebirth of Brutalism was as rapid as its cataclysmic descent a few decades earlier», wrote architecture critic Edwin Heathcote on that occasion. «An obvious example of how a utopia can become a dystopia, only to re-emerge when it is needed».

Not just a revival

Because everything suggests that attention to Brutalism is not a simple revival, like the cyclic ones – of fashion. but the symptom of a new way of seeing architecture. Which is inspired by historical moments (those of the ’50s and’ 70s, when Brutalism was the greatest) in which the profession wanted to do much more than create breathtaking environments. When, that is, architects dreamed of changing the world.

Saving social housing and the right to the city

«The most common trend today in the cities is to break down social housing. and rebuild from scratch, with the support of the City and private individuals. This is what is happening with the Robin Hood Gardens», explained Olivia Horsfall and Christopher Taylor during the presentation of their exhibition at the Biennale in Venice. «The answer to the lack of housing is therefore increasing the number of units (1,500 apartments instead of 300 built by the Smiths). And make them with a higher quality».

Habitat 67, Montreal, Canada

Displacing people is a mistake

But in the vast majority of cases, this leads to a forced displacement of the original inhabitants. A purchase order is imposed on the property and that is equal to its value at today’s market prices. The new structure will have a much higher value, though, even if it will be sold at controlled prices (ie at 80% of the London market price). We are therefore at odds with respect to the thought of the brutalist architects, who dreamed of giving everyone the opportunity to live in the metropolis». With the Robin Hood Gardens, beyond the architectural value of the exhibit, the V & A intends to open a debate on the role of social housing and of maintaining the access to the city as a right.

Symbol of welfare

«Brutalism is associated with the welfare state. And this, at a time when its principles are being questioned by politics, makes it attractive to a generation that believes in diversity. in the power of urban density, in the right to the city and to housing», says Barnabas Calder, author of Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism.

Calder also reads the resurgence of Brutalism as a response to the excesses of gentrification.

«Looking at an era where architecture was a symbol of change, and didn’t emphasize the differences between rich and poor, has a political significance. And a psychological one. Those structures without decorations, anti-charming and anti-hedonistic, were animated by a high moral value. But also from a profound optimism in using construction to change the world».

Restructuring rather than breaking down

Restructuring instead of breaking down, keeping alive the original social vocation, avoiding forced displacements and giving new life to the neighborhood, is possible.

Park Hill in Sheffield, ph Urban Splash

An example, in this sense, comes from Sheffield. Where Park Hill, the condominium designed by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith in the late ’50s  is back to life. The new project, by Urban Splash, has made it into the ranking of the 20 coolest places to live in UK (also thanks to the video of the Arctic Monkeys This is England, filmed right here).

The brutalist structure has been refurbished and filled with color.

Graffiti transformed into neon lettering. (“I love you will you marry me”, on the bridge of the barracks, has become a must for tourists). And the apartments (sold at moderate prices, even if the critics say not enough) will soon host university residences and the largest art gallery in the region.

Involving the inhabitants in the redesign

«The quality of re-design projects often depends on the degree of involvement of the inhabitants», says Laura Peretti, architect. She knows it well, since she won the competition for the regeneration of public spaces and services of the the Corviale, a massive social housing built by Mario Fiorentino outside Rome in the ’70s. The houses on the fourth floor will be renovated by Guendalina Salimei.

Street art at the Corviale in Rome, ph. Matteo Nardone

7000 people and 40 years of history

«We are talking about seven thousand people and 40 years of history to be reconsidered», explained Peretti during the presentation of her project at the Venice Biennale.

«Respect is therefore fundamental to both people and architecture. Updating affordable housing projects, modernizing them without losing their social responsibility, is the challenge of a country that respects its history. And look to the future. Breaking down realities like the Corviale would make no sense, while it is extraordinary to imagine that it could once again be an example of social, civil and identity regeneration».

Cover photo: Urban Splash

 

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