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Why Brutalism Isn't All Bad

In 1837 the University of St Andrews committed an act of cultural vandalism by pulling down the Medieval cloisters of St Salvator’s Quad as a cost-saving measure. Today I worry the university risks repeating its mistakes by neglecting our brutalist buildings of the 60s and 70s. People may think they hate brutalism but all the jokes about “HMP Melville” miss the architectural significance of this rapidly vanishing style.

Brutalism emerged in the 1950s as a continuation of the modernist movement. It was once considered the way of the future: bold shapes, exposed materials, and an honest construction devoid of façade or unnecessary ornamentation. This is the style of the Coventry that emerged from the ashes of the blitz and the revolutionary social housing projects of the post-war era. Yet by the 80s it was associated with urban decay, poverty, and authoritarianism. The reason, as with St Andrews today, is neglect.

The university library was once a great building. The concrete beams and pillars visible throughout are a candid record of the construction process. Originally these combined with the wraparound glass to unify the interior with the gorgeous vistas out to sea. The original effect relied, however, on an organic, minimalist interior – wood and concrete, not scorching LED lights, plastic office furniture, mismatched glass shelving, institutional carpets, and random sofas on every corner. In ignoring the original architectural vision, we break the unity the building once claimed and so the entire brutalist philosophy collapses.

A good brutalist building forms a single united space. Take the stunning cube-shaped library at New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy. Formed of simple geometric shapes, the scale of the building is awe inspiring but easily comprehensible. Exposed concrete keeps the building grounded, but architect Louis Kahn made extensive use of organic wood to complement (not contradict) the concrete. Targeted lighting highlights key areas like the library desk, while enigmatic shade makes the gigantic space feel intimate. The custom furniture reflects motifs and shapes of the surrounding architecture. The study vibes are immaculate; Kahn crafted a distraction-free workspace that doesn’t feel like a knowledge-reproduction factory.

Uni Hall’s Lumsden wing isn’t quite brutalist but has a distinctly Warsaw Pact feel. The architect unifies the retro wood-panelled dining hall, by associating the roof with identically pitched chevron-shaped chair backs. Today, these are one of the few surviving original fittings. I suspect they survive, however, like the Victorian grandfather clocks in the corridor, only because nobody has remembered to get rid of them. Gradually, though, these are being replaced with uncomfortably orange alternatives; and gradually the unique character of the place is being lost.

Because that’s what the loss of unity ultimately leads to, loss of identity. Before long the uniform furniture and fittings will make it just the same as every other university building, and a part of what makes that hall special will be lost. Once each room had a unique identity, wallpaper, coloured wardrobes, and matching bedsheets of the 1960s. Now every room is identical: dull, shop-bought, and white.

Perhaps this loss of character is an inevitability of progress. Custom furniture is costly, and replacements moreso. And of course, the originals were “dated”, that’s what people always say. But often what they mean is “neglected” because buildings don’t have to exist outside of time. This atemporal obsession drives us to destroy our heritage in the name of some vague notion about modernity. Every day I smile at the no smoking signs in lecture theatres, the scraps of hessian wallpaper (even where it’s been crudely painted over) and the disused phone booths that remind me I am the latest in a long line of academics to walk these halls.

Where slices of the past remain, I relish them. I love the unspoilt brutalism of the Purdie building. The desks feel substantial and fit the curve of the room. The slit-like skylights provide the natural light that the new medicine building sorely lacks. Unlike the library’s fluorescent flood lights, they produce shadows that highlight the architect’s simple lines. An abundance of elemental, trustworthy materials – wood, concrete, metal - completes the effect. I wish every space in the university could be a time capsule like this.

I can’t say I blame the university. Budgets are tight. Tastes change. Above all, few people really care. But I think it is a pity because when we lose the interior of these brutalist spaces, we are left with just a gutted concrete shell, devoid of character or soul. We are left with exactly what people hate brutalism for.

Illustration: Lauren McAndrew

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