Snog, marry, demolish
On Cumbernauld and the South Norwood Library
The pro-and anti- brutalist building camps can be defined in two words apiece; there are those who believe they are ‘concrete poetry’ and there are those who believe each one is a ‘concrete monstrosity’. Like the battlefields of WW1, there is nothing living in between.
Yet again the debate between icon and eyesore is being hashed out, this time over two buildings at the same time; a rare double-bill. The latter camp, the anti-concretists, are as ever larger, louder and more vociferous than the former. Their mainstream position is even seeping out into the fringes with even Aaron Bastani, of Never Knowingly Right Novara Media, getting in on the hating old-but-not-old enough buildings.
Yet the reaction of the anti-concretists to these two serve to show not only the indifference of people to the values of the building - architectural or otherwise – but the weak ideological underpinings of their architectural conservativism.
The first in the dock is the Cumbernauld Centre. It made a huge impact when it was built in 1967 not so much for it’s architectural value but for the fact it was built at all. As Jonathan Meades writes, in an age of extravagant, idealised new towns, its’ impact was its’ existence; ‘It could be visited. It could promise the visitor a jolt of despair. Even the most fervent advocates of megastructures were shocked. It appeared, still appears, simply to have happened.’
For even the most strident pro-brutalist activist it is hard to defend. If Owen Hatherley can’t and even Barnabas Calder has to rely on the heritage and carbon implication of demolition, rather than the aesthetic importance, then what chance do the rest of us have? Better to spend the efforts of less erudite brutalist enthusiasts on more defensible causes, perhaps.
It is true that the building, as with most brutalist constructions, has had a hard life. But that is to talk around the fact that it is more interesting than it is good. It doesn’t achieve the same effect from massing that better brutalist efforts do, which gives them their unapologetically monolithic quality. The sheer weight of brutalist buildings became a virtue, to be toyed with by the use of cantilevers. Here it is piled, almost haphazardly. Nor does it make a virtue of it’s construction material, which gives starker brutalist buildings their raw uncouthness. It should be noted that the megastructure of the building is more captivating when viewd from afar, sitting atop the town with graceful heft like the island on an aircraft carrier, but buildings cannot be saved because they look good from far away.
There is a debate between retrofitting and replacement. The crowd of anti-concretists, like Romans before the gladiators, bay for the Consul to lower his thumb. Their concrete lust may soon be sated; the council have sold the centre to private developers, who will likely knock it down.
The second to appear before the Crown is the South Norwood Library, an interesting example of South London brutalism that proves brutalism didn’t have to be big to work, either on paper or in situ. I visited it in the thankfully brief period I lived in Croydon, but it was shut when I got there, so couldn’t venture in. Architectural photographer Michael Heyward does far more justice to this insignificant treasure than I could;
‘The building is by Hugh Lea, Borough Architect for Croydon. Dates from 1968. Its a real little gem, Mesian modernist inspired with a bit of brutalism thrown in. Black painted concrete and steel frame with large expanses of original aluminium framed glazing. The levitating cantilevered cuboid volume of what was the Reading Room (now the children’s library) is expressed in randomly vertically ridged concrete with an exposed aggregate finish. Lighting to this space is via set back clerestory windows. The volume sits nicely on expressed beams projecting from the columns. Original, what I assume is, a black painted steel sign of unknown font.. Inside its far more interesting spatially than one might think from outside. Interlinked and split level volumes are all open plan to an open central staircase allowing fluid movement and visibility throughout. Its a very interesting layout for a small building.’
It’s not a staggering building, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a tiny South London library; it can just be good. And so it is.
South Norwood, too, is threatened. In 20221, as part of cost-saving measures by a Labour Council (as they so often do) drowning in debt, it was announced that a newer, smaller, costlier library would open close by. Naturally the new buildings has vastly reduced services, since there is no longer a need for books in South London. There is a campaign mounting to save it, but they face the usual opposition.
South Norwood makes for an interesting litmus test. If anti-concretists were really motivated to improve the architectural scene, to ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’, then it might be better to start by tearing down the most offensive building first. In which case, you’d be better dealing with the rest of Croydon first, surely? The town has bigger problems than a small public library with a strong case for retainment.
These buildings, as I have said, are not alike in dignity, and I think I’ve made clear I believe the Cumbernauld deserves to go but that South Norwood doesn’t. However the reaction of anti-concretists to the possible demolition of both has been the same, welcoming destruction like raving millenarian street preachers.
As is so often the case, the keenness to see the buildings go west is not about commitment to improving the architectural scene. If so, then they would be celebrating the destruction of the Cumbernauld, which is not a good building and decreases the aesthetic value of the area, and trying to prevent the destruction of South Norwood, which is a good building and increases the aesthetic value of the area.
Now many anti-concretists are Scrutonites, who take on his fundamental argument that Britain has become indifferent to beauty. That is fine; I agree that Britain, on the whole, builds too carelessly and without enough concern for aesthetics. The provinces are cursed with Barrat Boxes and the cities with Chicago skyscrapers.
But anti-concretism has no advocacy for great buildings to replace the ones which are lost. Rather, anti-concretism is just that. Anti-concretism. Its’ sole ideological underpinning is not liking concrete buildings. But simple ‘beauty’ is a simpering, vague ideal that is the result of conservativism as the result of inertia, of poverty of ideas. That is why the sole style that is suggested to replace concrete buildings is always the same, the kind of unaufhörlich-Victorian & Neo-Georgian style that makes Poundbury so utterly soulless. They have too much style and not enough substance. Too much tea, not enough Mussolini.
Concrete buildings were not built to be, necessarily, beautiful. They have other qualities. They are raw, uncouth, virile, ‘an atavistic grunt frozen in concrete.’ The anti-concretists are so opposed because brutalism places an emphasis on substance, not style - on Mussolini, not tea. They are unapologetically functional, and all the better for it. No-one has ever shown me what a Palladian multi-story car park might look like.