When I was young, I once heard a teacher mention a building as being typical of 'the new brutalism'. This was said with a strong note of distaste and disapproval, so when many years later I realised that 'brutalism' was actually an architectural concept, and not an alternative way of saying 'brutality', I took it as read that such buildings would be harsh and ugly monstrosities – perhaps Prince Charles' 'carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend'.
It was with a certain amount of surprise, therefore, that I discovered that not only is Brutalism (the initial capital thus categorising it as an internationally recognised architectural school and movement) a neutral term, but that it has been actively championed by many respected architects and critics. The style, which flourished from the 1950s to the mid-1970s, has in recent years been reappraised, and certain of its buildings have even received listed status; others have been the subject of campaigns to save them from demolition. Perhaps the most famous example of the latter category was the Trinity Square multi-storey car park in Gateshead, which played a role in the 1971 film Get Carter (this campaign failed, the car park was demolished in 2010, and Gateshead Council sold commemorative pieces of concrete in specially decorated tins).
So why was this oft-reviled architectural style given such an uncompromising name, guaranteed to turn people off? The British architects Alison and Peter Smithson coined the term in 1953, from the French béton brut, or 'raw concrete', a phrase used by Le Corbusier to describe the poured concrete with which he constructed many of his post-World War II buildings. The term became better known when the British architectural critic Reyner Banham used it in the title of his 1966 book, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?
Le Corbusier was a pioneer of the Brutalist movement and envisaged the development of utopian, socialistic urban living environments in which Modernist, high-rise dwellings would include 'streets in the sky' and encourage co-operative, neighbourly interaction. His 'Unité d'Habitation' – the finest example of which is located in Marseilles – continues to exert great influence. However, the great slabs of concrete that typify Brutalist buildings do not sit well in northern maritime climates such as Britain's, since they become stained and grey within a relatively short time. Many Brutalist buildings failed to live up to the utopian ideals attributed to them and instead became associated with social problems and inner-city deprivation. This decline, it could be argued, is hardly the fault of the buildings themselves, but more due to the general social environment and the lack of suitable maintenance, not to mention funds.
Despite the (often justified) hostility that Brutalism has evoked over the years, there are some examples that continue to feature in architectural textbooks and attract the specialist visitor. One of these is Trellick Tower in North Kensington, London, which was completed in 1972 and designed by the Hungarian-born architect Ernö Goldfinger; it is now a Grade II listed building. Incidentally, Ian Fleming did name the James Bond villain Auric Goldfinger after Ernö: Fleming had been among the objectors to the pre-war demolition of the cottages that were removed to make way for a Goldfinger building in Hampstead. Ernö Goldfinger consulted his lawyers when Goldfinger was published in 1959, but eventually decided not to sue; Fleming's publishers agreed to pay his costs and gave him six free copies of the book.