South Norwood Saved
A right-wing defence of Brutalism
Some time ago I wrote about the South Norwood Library, a small South London brutalist library that was under threat from demolition.
The South Norwood library is a magnificent modest brutalist building. The Architect’s Journal recommended it at one of the top 10 places to see during Open House London. It’s possible that it was a ‘see it while you can’ decision, but it warranted its’ inclusion.
It’s a fantastic little building that proves brutalism doesn’t necessitate monumentality; South Norwood Library doesn’t dominate its users or surroundings in the same way that the Trellick Tower, the Gateshead Trinity Car Park or the Barbican do. It’s a meeker example, sympathetic in size to the surrounding area. The building’s lines are as clean in real life as they are on paper, whilst the use of reflective glass gives the building a lightness, playing with the heft of the concrete cuboid. The cuboid appears to be simultaneoulsly violently wrenching itself out from the main body as it cantilevers over the pavement and gracefully suspended in mid-air like a concrete cloud. On such a small site to be able to offer any interplay between materials or make play with space is an achievement.
I went to see the building when I lived in Croydon, but I regret that it was shut so I’ve never been inside. However Barnabas Calder has;
Inside, the floating concrete volume turns out to house an intimate and cosy children’s library lit by a clerestory, whilst the abundant natural light and views available on its corner site reach readers in the main library through tall windows with a taste of the civic pride and optimism of its period... The minimalist elegance of the interior design survives unusually well, with original wallpaper and handrails, and the structure of the building unaltered.
Despite this, its’ demolition was being welcomed by anti-concretists, which I define as
‘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.’
In 2021, as part of cost-saving measures by a Labour Council (as they so often are) drowning in debt, it was announced that The South Norwood library would be replaced by a newer, smaller, costlier library close by. After a concerted campaign – and more importantly the abject failure of Croydon Council’s development company to build a replacement library that was up to scratch - the decision has now been reversed, and the building saved.
This will no doubt seize the minds of anti-concretists with mighty dread. Brutalism is bad. The Library should have come down, and so should all the other Brutalist buildings. There are of course more reasonable critics – Niall Gooch, for example, has enjoyed an enjoyable transpormation from anti-concretist to a more nuanced stance - that don’t think all brutalism should be eradicated, but most are firm believers in the separation of exposed concrete and the face of the planet.
In my definition I argued that anti-concretism is a largely right-wing philosophy, a reaction against both the urban environment that post-war architecture created and against the womb-to-tomb progressive utopianism of the post-war consensus. However there is an equally strong right wing argument for preserving and protecting buildings like the South Norwood and the other precious few brutalist buildings we have left. There is no ‘trad’ case for brutalism, but there is a genuinely conservative case. It isn’t an argument for a new phase of brutalism, just for the preservation of what we’ve already built; an active inertia of our architectural heritage.
The fact is that for all the rights and wrongs, the South Norwood Library provides a sense of what French anthropologist Marc Augé defined would call ‘anthropological space’.
In 1992, Augé outlined the differences between what he calls anthropological spaces and non-spaces in the imaginatively titled essay (and subsequent book), Non-Places: ‘Anthropological place is formed by individual identities, through complexities of language, local references, the unformulated rules of living know-how; non-places create the shared identity of passengers, customers or Sunday drivers.’ Anthropological places are easily identifiable - they have the three characteristics of being ‘places of identity, of relations and of history.’
Non-places are everything that anthropological spaces aren’t. They don’t have enough significance to be called spaces; they are transitory spaces in which the individual is anonymised, commodified and controlled. Non-spaces such as airport terminals, shopping centres and movie theatres contain – indeed they allow – for no community to form. They have no relationship to the setting, people or history of their location. The users are ticketed, routed through in the most profitable route, then ushered out again. They leave no trace, form no bonds and are constantly surveilled, should their gestures and movements allow for a more profitable use of space.
The South Norwood Library is not the only brutalist building that provides anthropological space. This isn’t just as the result of their role in providing housing or community facilities, but by their identifiable uniqueness to their remaining host communities. As many have been -often deliberately - run down the reality of that space may often be imperfect, of course, but it is better than what replaces it; demolished brutalism is invariably given over to ‘non-space.’
Significantly further north, Owen Luder’s Trinity Car Park in Gateshead has been replaced by the most soulless, hateful non-space I’ve ever seen. The embodiment of the evil of utter banality, it makes me question the existence of a Loving God. Trinity Car Park may have risen like a spider above the city, but it was identifiably part of Gateshead, after its’ appearance in ‘Get Carter’ as much a part of the city’s cultural fabric as it’s built environment.
Different examples, the same story; Robin Hood Gardens gone for insipid modern apartments, Birmingham Central Library replaced by the Library of Birmingham, which has even less relevance to its surroundings than its’ predecessor did and looks like a second-rate business centre in downtown Dubai. The BCL replaced a J.H Chamberlain-designed Lombardic renaissance building, which has a clerestoried reading room and should never have come down. That first great injustice has apparently resulted in a curse in which each replacement gets worse.
It would be tough to make the case that every brutalist building is worth saving. Or rather, it is certainly beyond my powers to do so. But can anti-concretists genuinely argue the case that the Trinity is better now than it was? Can they argue any of the non-spaces that have replaced these bulldozed brutalist buildings are a genuine improvement?
There are just 12 listed buildings in South Norwood (the library is not one of them). The area is hardly a place of architectural pilgrimage. The removal of one more building of worth from an area that only had 12 to start with would have been another pitifully small-minded step towards the elimination of both Britain’s post-war heritage and what few buildings in South Norwood can be proud of. It should be the source of pride that South Norwood has a building worth seeing as well as worth saving, a building that is definably South Norwood. Would there have been a campaign mounted to save its’ replacement 54 years after it had been built? Frankly, I doubt whether it would still have been standing.
Now many anti-concretists are usually (although not always) trad architecture fans. Part of anti-concretism's ideological base is the desire to return to an architectural line of continuity that radical modernism has been responsible for severing. 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.
But arguing for the demolition of brutalist buildings in favour of continuity classicim is a bit of a cunt’s trick when you know full well the overwhelming likelihood is that it will be replaced by the most grotesque non-space. It’s a bit like stepping off a cliff in order to advocate for the abolition of gravity.
What anti-concretists fail to recognise is that our anthropological spaces are now so under threat that they must be defended whatever the style; to do otherwise is to vote for a deracinatisation of communities. It may not be the style of everyone’s approval, but then if I lived in Brighton I’d want the Pavillion torn down. Would it make Brighton more attractive to live in, or a stronger community? Of course not. It would be a monstrous impoverishment of the town and a huge loss to Britain, regardless of the fact I think it looks like a knockoff copy of a Faberge novelty teapot.
As anthropological spaces retreat, opportunities for people to meet and form communities gradually reduce too. That reduces the ability for traditions to be transmitted and adopted, and as societies atomise they grow increasingly less stable. Yet fostering a society with a sense of community, tradition and stability is at the core of conservative thought.
By arguing for the removal of anthropological space, anti-concretists are weaking the case for building anything but rootless, bolt-together banality, because only real communities with pride in their localities value their areas enough to invest in great architecture. Once a community is deracinated, removed and isolated, profit becomes the only consideration and non-space becomes guarateed. Anti-concretists will find it difficult to argue for continuity classicism that will make communities proud of their area if there are no communities left. The first goal of conservatives interested in architecture should be to fight for the preservation of anthropological spaces. Conservatives know that change leads to insecurity, so the truly conservative approach to brutalism is to fight to conserve it lest, in the inevitable chaos that follows change, it be replaced by something worse.
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Photos copyright Michael Heyward