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The Brutal Truth of saving Twentieth Century Architecture?

Owen Hatherly reviews Brutal and Beautiful: Saving the Twentieth Century, an exhibition at Wellington Arch

‘You’re telling me that’s beautiful?’ a voice asks, echoing around a gallery built into a triumphal arch. ‘You’re having a laugh.’ He’s not talking about Wellington Arch itself. This sits at the middle of a strange memorial roundabout just next to Hyde Park Corner, an accretive and sometimes bizarre landscape of legislated memory.

Dedicated to the victory over Napoleon’s France, the arch features, inter alia, an equestrian statue of Wellington himself in full regalia and headgear, two recent memorials to the Antipodean presence in the imperial armies, both in an uneasy combination of ‘accessibility’ and abstraction, and two memorials to specific groups of combatants in the First World War, one the gross kitsch of Francis Derwent Wood’s Grecian spearman-cum-machine gunner, the other the utterly convincing violence of CS Jagger’s terrifying monument to the Royal Artillery.

Within this space, English Heritage present a celebration of the second half of the 20th century, the era where morbid or aggrandising monuments to imperial grandeur and suchlike were, supposedly, to be vanquished in favour of an optimistic, equitable, technologically-driven new society. The exhibition raises the question of whether this tension even matters any more, or how sincere it was in the first place.

The upper floors above the arch contain three small rooms profiling a selection of the buildings constructed since 1945 that English Heritage has successfully had listed. Necessarily, there is no space for those that got away, that EH tried to list only to be batted off by central government − John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library, Ahrends Burton & Koralek’s Redcar Library − but it’s a rich selection nonetheless, divided into discrete sections: on ‘The Years of Austerity’, ‘The New Brutalism’, ‘The Swinging Sixties’, and finally ‘The 1970s and 1980s’, perhaps too diverse or divisive to receive a snappy epithet.

Love it or loathe it. Erno Goldfinger's Balfron Tower never fails to elicit strong feelings from the British public. English heritage has some way to go in persuading Brutalism sceptics of the enduring value of such schemes

Love it or loathe it. Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower never fails to elicit strong feelings from the British public. English Heritage has some way to go in persuading Brutalism sceptics of the enduring value of such schemes

A lot is squeezed in here − photographs, by James O Davies, crisp, laconic and elegant; models, some forgettable, others intriguing; and short films, which resonate in the background, one on Denys Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians, one on Peter Aldington’s own house, and a documentary ‘What is Brutalism?’ presented by EH’s main specialist on the era Elain Harwood, whose tireless enthusiasm and erudition helped get many of these buildings listed in the first place. The dissenting voices in the latter, such as that quoted at the start of this review − a passer-by commenting on Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower − suggest that English Heritage still have some work to do in convincing people that the buildings represented inside Wellington Arch might have as much value as its imperial bombast.

Because of that, there’s an underlying sense that the choice of exhibits is there to answer various possible objections from the punter with a more traditional view of Heritage. You thought postwar buildings were all hostile to their classical neighbours − well, look, here’s Albert Richardson’s brick and sandstone palazzo for the Financial Times, with a high-tech, contextual (and also listed) extension by Michael Hopkins built right into it. You thought that Modernists wanted to erase the past, well look at the way Lasdun managed to accommodate and display the Royal College of Physicians’ venerable history within a marble-clad geometric block. You thought that Modernists all lived in Georgian houses, well here’s private house after private house designed by architects for architects − Derek Sugden, George Marsh, Peter Aldington, Gordon Yates, John Bonnington, all happily living in clean-lined, glass-walled seclusion. You almost certainly can’t visit these Modernist retreats, but at least you can have a peek into them here.

It sits strangely with the claim in the captions and the films that Modernists were ‘gripped by a fervour for change’, intent on shaking up the built environment and all the things that happened in it, proud to build things that don’t get built any more, like comprehensive schools, municipal libraries and most of all council housing. These are present and correct, but are unexpectedly downplayed. The rationale is no doubt to show the true diversity of the era, and the diversity of what has actually been listed − but council housing and comprehensive redevelopment really did dominate the era and its architectural debates. Why be ashamed of it? Wouldn’t it be better to face all the prejudices head-on, rather than sidestepping them?

One of the Barbican's residential tower blocks

One of the Barbican’s residential tower blocks

The future they didn’t expect is just outside, among that somewhat variable reservation of monumental sculpture. Poking their heads above the trees are speculative blocks dating from various eras − the London Hilton, Portland House, the slender green glass finger of the new St George Wharf tower. You can see the Park Lane Playboy Club, that was partly designed by Walter Gropius himself, in the near distance.

Looking at central London it becomes abundantly clear that Brutalist architects did not permanently change the structures of class and power, and nor did the social democracy they worked for. But unlike us, they tried, and it’s worth remembering that, rather than dwelling on their equally impressive ability to provide well-designed luxury for themselves and their mates.


Venue: Wellington Arch
City: London
Dates: Until 24th November

Readers' comments (1)

  • I was quite underwhelmed by the exhibit. First, what an odd location choice. I really think that the exhibit should have been in a modernist building. Yes, I know that EH owns the arch but I think that if we are going to persuade people to value modernism, then we should use modernist buildings.
    There was some good photography but I think that the presentation was quite weak and lacked content.
    It all seems like an apology for listing rather than an educational piece. The Twentieth Century Society does a much better job of producing these public education pieces.

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