Spot the difference: new brutalism

The New Brutalism
The proposed new flagship House of Fraser store proposed for Broadmead

National Theatre
The National Theatre, South Bank Centre, London

Eugene Street, Kingsdown
Eugene Street, Kingsdown, Bristol

They (whoever they are) say that Brutalism is making a comeback, which is nice.

Brutalist architecture was popular in the 1960s in Bristol as it combined the fashionable modernist-style liberalism of the elitist social engineers and technocrats of the establishment; the trend for high-handed bureaucratic state planning from the government and civil servants and low-cost solutions to increasing housing, car parking, office space and retail demand.

Much of it is deeply unattractive and hell to live with. In Bristol a lot has already been demolished – Tollgate House, Fairfax House – or is going to be demolished – Nelson Street’s Magistrates Court – or people would like to see it demolished – Eugene Street Car Park (above), the Bristol & West tower. Although some of it has attracted a following – Bristol University Chemistry Department, Bristol UBU Building, The Robinson Building and Clerical Medical on Temple Way.

In general it’s not the fact that the buildings are ugly or even that the housing is tough to live in that turns most people off these buildings. In Bristol Brutalism came as a package alongside daft plans for ‘walkways in the sky‘, major roads through the heart of the city and the demolition of whole neighbourhoods to provide the space for these major roads and the new cut-price, state-planned residential ‘machines for living in’.

The ugly buildings were the end result and the visible expression of a much more complex, alienating and destructive process for many Bristolians.

A whole Brutalist planning regime reigned supreme in the city from the late 50s through to the mid 70s. The result was the destruction of places like Georgian Kingsdown in favour of tower blocks; the working class suburb of Totterdown was demolished to make way for a road that never happened and much of Easton and all of Barton Hill were destroyed by planners and replaced by huge new public housing projects in this modern style.

Whole working class communities were uprooted and swept away in a matter of years. People were effectively cleansed from traditional inner-city neighbourhoods at the Docks, St Judes, Easton, Barton Hill, St Pauls, Redcliffe, Bedminster and Totterdown and sent to distant and isolating satellite estates – Hartcliffe, Withywood, Southmead, Henbury, Lawrence Weston – that were never properly completed and where promised high quality public services never appeared when the cash ran out. You can speak to people in south Bristol who have now been waiting 50 years for the hospital they were promised.

The property left behind in central bristol – much of it of significant historical interest – was either demolished for major roads like the Parkway (M32), Redcliffe Way and Redcliffe Hill, Easton Way and Temple Way; demolished to make way for industrial scale retail and commercial development or demolished for mass housing schemes.

What remained became the cheap inner city property that created the “yuppie” property booms and the inner city gentrification of the 80s, 90s and 00s as the huge value of abandoned inner city working class neighbourhoods and their properties was realised by the speculative middle classes fuelled by their better job security, easy access to credit and mortgage lending and rising living standards.

Brutalism – and the technocratic planning regime of which it was a part – basically created bloody great divisions across large swathes of the city. The intentions may have been honourable but the results were not. It was the architecture and planning for a whole new form of class divide.

By the late 70s, as social mobility began to grind to a halt, the city’s white working classes were largely confined to the fringes of the city with poor quality services in a collapsing industrial climate while the rich and the aspirational were increasingly buying into the centre of the city with its superior services, increasing job prospects and series of property booms. The city you find today and the notorious divisions it contains can be directly traced to this Brutalist period.

Jeremy Isaacs, Chairman of the judging panel for the Capital of Culture award, praised Bristol highly (the city was shortlisted), but felt that the city lost because of these divisions. He felt that the M32, the motorway that enters the city, was ‘a physical manifestation of this rift, creating a concrete divide between the St Paul’s and Easton communities.’

Visiting the city two years after the decision, he said that his views had not changed. ‘The city… has its divisions and it was not absolutely clear that the whole city was joining in and uniting [in the bid]. People came pouring into the middle of the city to get together but it did not mean the other parts of the city got the attention.’

For these reasons that period – its orthodoxies, its planning and its architecture – is viewed by many, many people right across the city with cynicism, considerable dislike and often outright hatred.

So it is strange that the fashionable London-based architectural practice, Stanton Williams, employed by Broadmead Developers, the London-based Bristol Alliance, to design a new “flagship”, “iconic” building for us in Bristol as the centerpiece of the new Broadmead development should come up with something that looks like it comes straight out of the Brutalist handbook.

Did these architects even bother to find out anything about Bristol and its recent past in the course of their work? Did they speak to anyone from Bristol? Consult anyone? Do some basic research? Certainly doesn’t look like it as they’ve gone for a look and feel straight out of one of the most controversial periods in Bristol’s history. But then Stanton Williams concerns aren’t local; they’re working to a global agenda.

Of course, they don’t label this stuff Brutalism any more. Instead Stanton and Williams have some original-sounding waffle to make the cosmetic differences now possible as a result of technological innovation in engineering appear as something entirely new.

They tell us: “The massing of the building along Bond Street … [is] be[ing] developed conceptually as a series of shifting tectonic blocks or plates with geological faults between them.”

And to make you think they’re innovating – or “challenging assumptions” in the lingo – they say: “the original masterplan … was conceived as a curved shaped building, but Stanton Williams challenged this assumption and devised a multi-faceted building instead, forming a strong urban edge along Bond Street.”

What the difference is between a “strong urban edge” with “shifting tectonic blocks” created in steel and concrete and old-fashioned Brutalism is not all that clear. Although this style and language of geometrics spouted by Stanton and Williams is traceable not to Bristol but to Los Angeles and its celebrity architect, “Gruesome” Frank Gehry the Deconstructivist Wunderkid.

Gehry is one of the heroes of this era of globalised corporate capital. He made his name and his money building brutalist fortresses for the global super rich of corporate Los Angeles, expressly designed to keep the new, burgeoning global super poor of blacks, immigrants and the disenfranchised working classes out.

The fact that this style of building and these ideas are now emerging locally is the latest sign of the arrival of this new era of globalised corporate capital here in Bristol. Have no doubt that accompanying Stanton and Williams’ brutalist fortress for the rich will be a panoply of other forces arrayed to keep the poor out of the new Broadmead.

From CCTV to the banning of street drinking. From expensive transport links to expensive luxury goods. From a uniformed security presence to petty rules for petty behaviour. The message to our own emerging super-poor will be only too clear.

Already as part of this new Broadmead ethic, the cleansing of St Pauls is well underway. Again the poorest and the most vulnerable are on the move to make way for the salaried, the young and the urban. It’s hardly a secret that social housing is hard to come by for Afro-Caribbeans in St Pauls now. And this is just the beginning. Already plans are afoot for some more brutalism in the area.

What sets the New Brutalism apart from the old is its fundamental aims. Where the original Brutalism was a failed egalitarian social engineering project driven by a well-intentioned, if naive, state trying to make lives better, the New Brutalism has a very different set of ideals.

New Brutalism also comes as a package with a wider social significance. It is the product and expression of corporate global capital. This is the architecture and planning of the emerging turbo-charged global markets, where heavily rigged competition creates a cut throat world of winners and losers. Where Brutalism at least tried to build homes for people to live in, New Brutalism build homes for the rich to invest in.

This could create divisions in the city way beyond anything the relatively innocent do-gooding looney post war planners with their utopian screw ups managed. It’s unfettered private corporate capital doing the planning now not a social democratic state. As a housing crisis unfolds before our eyes, the only properties being built by the New Brutalist planners are investment apartments, penthouses, lofts and duplexes for the wealthy. Welcome to Bristol, the latest global city of the haves, the have yachts and the have nots.

Stanton and Williams brutalist fortress is only the start, along with Temple Quay and Canons Marsh. A major road, again carving up communities, is being planned to the south of the city along with a bigger, better airport to help transport the global winners. South Bristol is also seeing the first signs of the ubiquitous – in the centre of the city – investment property boom. These changes could radically alter the whole makeup of the south of the city. How long now before Bristol follows the Los Angeles blueprint even further and begins to gate in its rich communities and attempt to design the poor out of every available public space? (Ashton Court festival anyone?)

Not long because the signs are all already there to see.

If Brutalism, first time around, was the architecture of class division then the New Brutalism goes further. It is the architecture and language of open class warfare and Stanton and Williams have just fired the latest salvo.

Photographs and links courtesy of: Groovebox, Joe Dunckley, Vantan, Stringberd, Knautia, Canis Major. Special thanks to Fray Bentos whose photos and commentaries of Bristol over the last 50 years are invaluable.

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7 Responses to Spot the difference: new brutalism

  1. Pingback: PressPosts / User / SCV / Submitted

  2. Mapreader says:

    Good post. Broadmead was identified as turning its back on the city, but the new city walls they’re replacing it with are incredible- everyone keeps asking “they’re going to be clad, right?”.

    Best book on the Bristol’s modern development- “Design Control in Bristol 1940-1990. “, John Punter, available from the Redcliffe Press. The final section is of chronological pictures of each of the (hundreds of) buildings. Watch the money fall away and the cynical architecture arrive.

    The worst enemies weren’t just the City Council planners, who were mainly civil engineers with grandiose schemes, but the NHS and the University. St Michael’s Hill, prominent over the centre, is a disgrace. Worst excesses of the ‘if it looks wrong it must be right’ school.

    But s’pose most blame must go to the city planners; car parks on hills (Park Row, Jacob’s Wells), Redcliffe Hill destroyed for a road-widening that never happened and the scheme that really awoke the Bristol people, the Cumberland Basin.

    When the BCF was at Hengrove, overheard a couple (with a SE accent) asking whether the blocks nearby were “holiday flats”. Bugger all services nearby, but great views of Dundry though

  3. Cllr Mark Wright says:

    Hi Bristol Blogger. Very thoughtful post, and I like the links to the historic images too.

    It’s an interesting question: whether Brutalism (the architectural style by designers) can be separated from the era itself (the implementation of city/community shaping by ‘misguided’ city planners). Your article suggests that you think they can’t be separated – that the planning mindset that thinks it knows what the people need and then imposes the solution on them is inevitably a mindset that will design buildings that end up looking Brutalist in form. It’s ironic that the implementation of Brutalist architecture (whose name derives from the French for “raw concrete”) ended up being, well…brutal.

    Brutalism the style reflected the spirit of the day that believed we were about to break into a wonderful future where technology and good planning would solve all our problems, especially the problems of poverty and social decay. It was a spirit of massive social intervention, often forcible, even a kind of “you’ve never had it so good” patrician tyranny. Perhaps this is where it went wrong at the start – it’s notable that Eastern Europe under the Soviets took this many stages further than the West did (but without any attempt to make the architecture pleasing).

    What to do with the legacy? Much of it has been demolished, as unloved relics. It doesn’t help that Britain’s wet climate leads to rapid discolouration of concrete that makes buildings look decaying in a way that doesn’t happen in southern Europe, where the style has fared better. But fixing the legacy of divided communities (and, as you say, Bristol is indeed classed as a “Divided city”) is a massive task, and realistically wont happen for starters without a public transport system that makes trunk roads less necessary. For this Bristol needs at least £1bn, and it won’t be getting that.

    In Europe, local authorities raise on average 50% of all taxes, compared to 4% in the UK. If Bristol was a European city it could have just decided to spend its own money on a city transport network, rather than widening the M4/M5 and building new bridges over the Avon and other nonsense, which both GOSW and SWRDA seem devoted to. Access to south Bristol is a slightly different problem which really does, IMO, need addressing in some way (it’s not just about public transport there – you can’t put business goods, industrial wares and trade on public transport!)

    Finally, you say we should “Have no doubt that accompanying Stanton and Williams’ Brutalist fortress for the rich will be a panoply of other forces arrayed to keep the poor out of the new Broadmead.” I very much hope this isn’t the case, and I don’t think it will be. The rise of gated communities (especially in the city centre in my ward) is a real problem, and I have spoken at length about it at planning meetings and to the police. The problem is that putting a great wall around a block of flats increases their value – because the buyers feel “safer”. If it increases value, developers will do it. And who’s going to argue with residents when they say “I want a wall because it’s dangerous out there!” But the long term consequences of gated communities are terrible, because it leads to a breakdown of communities, and “deserts” between the islands of safety…c.f. Cape Town, Los Angeles etc.

    But do people ever learn from the past? Sometimes I wonder…

    Cllr Mark Wright (Cabot)

    PS I think the Clerical Medical building really is worth saving as a piece of Brutalist architecture of merit, and have a petition here:

  4. vantan says:

    Thanks for the photo credit 🙂

  5. BristleKRS says:

    Only just got round to reading this article, have to say it articulates a lot of what I feel.

    It’s increasingly difficult – IME – to get anything approaching a straight answer from the politicos or the 3rd sector apparatchiks about the future of the area. Things really do seem in hock to the companies running the Broadmead expansion, and the likes of Knightstone (my landlord) appear to me, for all their touchy-feely, inclusive, ‘customer-focused’ language, to be jumping on the gravy train for the chance of swapping ‘difficult’ estates in (now) prime locations for quick money.

    I half expect to be shipped out to some newbuild estate in Sadly Broke in the next few years, despite all the protestations…

  6. newbrutalism says:

    Let’s visit New Brutalism before they destroy it all

  7. Pingback: Brutalism Within Bristol // Links. – joshadamjonesphotography

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