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Brutalism on tour

brutalism map

The Brutalist London map may propagate a landmark approach to the city, but it has a clear pedagogical potential

Rendered in concrete grey, dotted with Constructivist red for landmarks, and complete with a sans-serif font, the minimalist aesthetics of Blue Crow Media’s Brutalist London Map forgoes utilities such as road names. In fact, the only aspects highlighted apart from the buildings in this snapshot experience of the city are London Underground stations and parks. It is undoubtedly stylish, but navigationally, it presumes the use of another map, or even better: a smartphone.

And so, equipped with both, we embarked on our exploration to discover what this new guide might teach us. For this is a map with a mission statement, as Henrietta Billings of the Twentieth Century Society states on the reverse, ‘designed to affirm the value of these buildings and to inspire further consideration of Brutalist architecture today’. And herein lies something of a paradox between its didactic – even political – aims and its aestheticisation of London’s concrete behemoths, one that the walking tour perhaps allows us to bridge.

‘Although presented as ideal for walking tours, Brutalist London is dispersed enough to make the treks between buildings daunting for even the avid urban explorer’

The experience of London while painstakingly staring at such maps dissolves into nothing more than ‘in-between’ moments. Each landmark becomes punctuation, a paragraph in the narrative just as they are a red highlight on the map. This experience reaches its utmost when visiting those furthest from the centre: emerging from the Tube only to see one monumental structure before disappearing below ground again. Although presented as ideal for walking tours (or as a framed piece for the budding formalist), Brutalist London is dispersed enough to make the treks between buildings daunting for even the avid urban explorer.

Brutalist london selection jpg

Brutalist london selection jpg

Source: photographs by the author

On tour: from left to right, SOAS Library, Camden Town Hall Annexe, Weston Rise Estate

Although partly a symptom of the map’s aesthetics, it is also characteristic of an approach to cities and their histories that centres on landmark ‘poster’ buildings. As parts of the city that have been singled out or separated, they become carriers of symbolic value, entries into a particular architectural canon that becomes somehow superior to the surrounding urban fabric. To better understand cities we must question this relationship, approaching the built environment as something continuous. Perhaps the answer is suggested by the map itself: a walking tour. After all, the act of walking connects these monuments, creating a new social space that would otherwise disappear with a piecemeal approach. Whether it be Brutalist housing estates or well-known public buildings, walking is not only useful for exploration, it also gives us a new sense of these spaces, challenges preconceptions, allows us to contextualise or even transgress. In a city fortunate enough to include successes such as the National Theatre and the Barbican, and progressive projects such as the Alexandra Road Estate, Brutalist London reminds us to view the escalating trend towards privately owned public spaces with a new criticality.

This fact is reinforced by the photographs on the reverse, all tactile concrete surface and abstract composition. When visited it becomes clear that a number of the sites are seen only as concrete monuments due to their inaccessibility (in practice, additional information on possible access would be useful). Similarly, no credit is given to the ingenuity and importance of many other aspects, such as the complex arrangement of flats at Alexandra Road and in the Balfron Tower. This does not mean that visiting these places is worthless, but their presentation as almost sculptural objects sits at odds with the reality, which provokes thoughts on whether there is more to public space than the ability to eat a sandwich without security telling you to get lost.

‘Soon the true value of this map may be found in its simple act of documentation’

But for all this talk of walking tours and transgression, you are getting exactly what you pay for: a map. This is not a guide book, and just as it dispenses with pages of information on each building, it forgoes any suggested route through the city or its Brutalist history. Therefore, it presumes, as is necessary in specialist maps, a degree of previous knowledge to be employed in discerning its use – for example, the nature of the relationship between the National Theatre and the neighbouring Southbank Centre – details which enrich subsequent visits. Although this would imply a lack of prescribed narrative (resulting in some slightly arbitrary decisions in our visits), the selection of objects included already suggests a canon. Without a proposed tour route or justification for the choice of buildings, the map initially reads as an attempt at objectivity and neutrality, with only a hint of a political narrative evident in Billings’ calling to attention the plight of Robin Hood Gardens.

Brutalist london selection 01 jpg

Brutalist london selection 01 jpg

Source: photographs by the author

On tour: from left to right, Michael Cliffe House, Finsbury Estate, Crescent House

Warning that ‘many [Brutalist buildings] remain undervalued and under threat’, the map forces us to confront the fact that a disproportionate number of Brutalist structures were publicly funded, and are now threatened by spending cuts and a political consensus that doubts the value of 20th-century architecture. Soon the true value of this map may be found in its simple act of documentation. With several structures on the map having been rejected for listing or undergoing regeneration, this might truly be a ‘last chance to see’ tour. This ‘exhibition’ notion is perhaps problematic, for it exoticises these buildings and is in danger of subjecting people in precarious political and social situations to cultural tourism.

The pedagogical potential is clear. Brutalist London contains many examples of innovative public spaces and housing designs. While they remain as isolated examples of architectural experimentation, the study of such buildings still holds valuable lessons, especially with truly public spaces becoming increasingly scarce and a solution to the housing crisis remaining elusive. As typological examples, they hold markedly more value than as monuments.