A couple of weeks back I wrote a post about two brutalist concrete buildings, (the Cumbernauld and South Norwood Library) and how the threatened demolition of both had been received with equal glee amongst adherents of a movement I called anti-concretism (copyright Tom Jones, all rights reserved).
Anti-concretism - and the resulting, unchallenged cliché of ‘concrete monstrosity’ - has come to dominate the public understanding of post-war architecture. The movement is as loud as it has ever been, but with the loss of so many Brutalist buildings - Gateshead’s Trinity Square Car Park, Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre, Birmingham Central Library, Virginia Water’s Greenside - it is inching ever closer to its’ goal of eradicating brutalism. It is vociferous, unabashed, unforgiving. Anti-concretism carries with it the instructions given to Tsarist troops reoccupying St Petersburg in 1905; ‘Show no mercy. Make no arrests.’
Anti-concretism is a school of architectural thought that is, in essence, a school of anti-thought. It doesn’t concern itself with what kind of buildings should exist, but what kind shouldn’t. Rather than laying down rigorous aesthetic principles to guide new construction, anti-concretism is built on opposition and defined by a reflexive, reactive desire to tear down anything cast in concrete. In the case of the Cumbernauld and the South Norwood Library, the architectural merits of either – or whether they actually improve the surrounding area – are unimportant. The material alone is proof enough of guilt.
Anti-concretism is an end unto itself. Although it is separate to, it is often tied up with the desire to see traditional architectural styles revived. Prince Charles is its’ highest profile proponent and his anti-concretism is similarly tied up in a larger package of anti-modernism and pro-traditionalism. It has since trickled down from such dizzying intellectual heights. The crossover is most readily available on twitter, where the foot soldiers of the movement do their spade-work; anti-concretism is #tradarchtecture-adjacent. The Venn diagram of anti-concretists and people who follow accounts that post second rate watercolours of women in traditional European dresses working in fields of wheat is not an exact circle, but it is only just.
Anti-concretism is literally reactionary, a reaction against the urban environment that post-war architecture created. For anti-concretists brutalism is innately tied to – indeed, bears responsibility for – the loss of a great number of important and beautiful buildings at the hands of city planners. The demolition of swathes of pre-war buildings (particularly in provincial towns and cities) at the hands of planners enjoying a startlingly efficacious combination of opportunity and power after the Second World War was a monstrous impoverishment of our architectural inheritance. It was into this lacuna that brutalism first arrived, stumbling and unheroic.
It is not just the loss of those buildings that has fostered the unabashed vitriol of anti-concretism. The huge wave of post-war modernist buildings saw not just a physical replacement of traditionalist architecture, but an intellectual one. At the center of anti-concretism is the desire to return to an architectural line of continuity that radical modernism has been responsible for severing – this is why continuity classicism so often accompanies anti-concretism. Both represent a rejection of the post-war architectural consensus. Anti-concretists believe that the destruction of brutalist buildings is necessary in order to resume that architectural line of continuity. Believing that brutalist architects wilfully destroyed traditional buildings to create a new architectural consensus, a physical assertion of a new world build atop the ruins of the old, anti-concretism engages in the same process of creative destruction. Continuity classicism is the hiraeth for a lost Britain; anti-concretism is an abdication of the Britain that was.
Anti-concretism does not just arise from aesthetic concerns, however, but in opposition to the perceived politics of brutalism. That pro-traditional, anti-modernist architecture evangelists are often conservatives is an insight as fresh as those in Polly Toynbee’s 875th thoughtpiece on why Boris should resign, but political persuasion does have a bearing on how brutalism is received. As a conservative of both cases and a former anti-concretist, I am, tragically, my own case study.
For conservatives, anti-concretism is a reaction against the womb-to-tomb progressive utopianism of the post-war years. A venerable anti-concretist line is that the monolithic forms are on an ‘inhuman’ scale. This is of course nonsense. Brutalism is no more inhuman in size than the neogothic, for instance, but anti-concretist perceptions of the scale of brutalism are amplified, looming as if captured in a B-film dolly zoom, by their sense that it mirrors the ever-increasing power of the post-war state (until reversed by Mrs Thatcher).
Anti-concretism is a small-c conservative reaction against a style of architecture that serves to reify the leftist ideals of post-war government expansion of power at the expense of that of the individual. Most children shed light on the true nature of their parents; brutalism’s determination to use weight, heft and sheer mass to occupy, at times to menace a space with a slabular, dense, unapologetic confidence reflects the amassing power of the state, which wielded brutalism like a top-down sledgehammer.
Whilst it is easy (and in the case of brutalist estates deliberately run down entirely right) to decry this paternalistic ghettoisation, it is also important to remember that whilst the vigour with which town planners tore down worthy buildings is largely decried, the vigour with which town planners tore down slums is largely forgotten. The attitudes of post-Victorian planners were shaped by the appalling slums everyone below the middle class lived in, perhaps the closest to hell man has managed to create. Our attitudes are shaped by the fact that these have already been cleared away. The tower blocks that replaced them may have been built in futuristic, unapologetic, functional raw concrete, but at least they had running water. Brutalist housing projects were created for the sole reason of improving the quality and increasing the quantity of housing, and few replaced grand buildings – yet anti-concretists welcome their demolition too.
Anti-concretists are at once enemies, judges and executioners. Public perception has been so shaped by anti-concretism that those who work to save examples of brutalism avoid using the term for fear of alerting the Architectural Okhrana. Architect Robert Evans launched a petition to save Derby’s Assembly Rooms, but tries ‘not to use the label ‘brutalist’ because it sets alarm bells ringing for people who want to demolish it.’ Talk about the Assembly Room’s use of cantilevering to create arcades that evoke medieval shopping streets and people are for saving it, but mention it is brutalist and it must be torn down. The outrage is invoked by the moniker and the material, not the form or function.
Anti-concretism is unthinking, uncritical, the cultural groupthink of boomer architectural ideology. But the accompanying abject refusal to engage with the benefits and successes of building with concrete runs down the choice architecture of architecture. Brutalism allowed functional infrastructure to have architectural value. The post war world needed entirely new kinds of building which, undreamt of by prior generations, required entirely new styles. Just as the Victorians created a new, identifiable style of functional architecture for train stations, brutalism allowed car parks, bus stations and motorway services to have both longevity and architectural presence.
It is telling that those seeking to return to a time when boats were made of wood, men were made of steel and buildings were made of Portland stone invariably suggest private homes to replace brutalist buildings. The inability of continuity classicism to adapt to functional buildings – a virtue of its’ difficulty in dealing with verticality – means it can never be used to provide those functional buildings. What actually replaces the ‘concrete monstrosities’ is much, much worse. Brutalism gave British towns an added architectural texture, a richness of both style and function. A society that is prepared to tear these buildings down for nothing but the gilded image of memory is ready to become the land of souless corporo-architecture, and deserves to be.