Why Brutalist Architecture Is Not Necessarily Socialist, and Vice Versa

Amanda Vincent-Rous/CC BY 2.0

Andrew Sullivan asks Can Brutalist Architecture Help Explain The London Riots? and illustrates his post with an image of Alison and Peter Smithson's classic Robin Hood Gardens. Sullivan quotes Tom Clougherty of British libertarian website Adamsmith.org :

The trouble with so much architecture from the post-war period is that the state was the client – architects designed housing projects with little or no concern for the people who would actually live in them. The design of housing estates did not reflect the way people lived, worked and played. ... Opposition to post-war architecture tends to focus on aesthetic concerns. And, certainly, much of it is appalling ugly, almost to the point that merely looking at it fills you with despair.

Now I am a tremendous admirer of Andrew Sullivan and the Dish and think that he almost always gets it right, but what is interesting is that the original sources never use the word Brutalist, they call it Socialist housing. Sullivan is conflating two very different things.

Bristol Record Office/Public Domain

Much of Britain and North America's postwar social housing was indeed brutal and appallingly ugly, but that doesn't make it Brutalist. The term Brutalism was in fact coined by the Smithsons in 1953 , derived from the french béton brut, a term used by Le Corbusier.

Amanda Vincent-Rous/CC BY 2.0

So Robin Hood Gardens is Brutalist, and as we have noted on TreeHugger, it has had its share of social problems, leading to the point where some people are trying to have it torn down.

Foxton Real Estate/Promo image

But it is a funny thing about architecture; how it is managed matters. The Trellick Tower by Erno Goldfinger was considered another architectural disaster; according to Open2.net:

Women raped in elevators, children attacked by heroin addicts in the basement, and homeless squatters setting fire to flats were among the more lurid. So bad was the Tower's reputation that one urban myth told how the architect, wracked with guilt at creating this monstrosity, threw himself from the roof.

Then it got cleaned up, new management was brought in, some units were sold to occupants or put on the market so that there was a mix of public and private housing instead of a monoculture, and it is suddenly a hot property, with a three bedroom flat for sale for £400,000.

It is a nit-picky point, to complain about Andrew Sullivan changing the word "socialist" to "brutalist." I can even see why he did it, given the polarizing nature of the word socialist in America today.

But I think it is important to separate an architectural theory that created some very significant architecture that deserved better treatment than it got, with a system that crammed a whole lot of unemployed, undereducated and underserved people into monocultures, separated from the rest of society and left to fester.

It has nothing to do with the architecture, which in the case of the Smithson's Brutalist Robin Hood Gardens, was visionary then and still could be a model for higher density living. It is all about how you treat the people in it.

More on Robin Hood Gardens and the Smithsons.
Another One Bites The Dust: Robin Hood Gardens
New York Times Critic Visits Robin Hood Gardens
Concrete Can Be Beautiful

Follow me on Twitter and Friend me on Facebook

Tags: Architects | Preservation | United Kingdom