By Oisin Vince Coulter
In the early hours of the 14 June 2017, a fire engulfed Grenfell Tower in London. This fire resulted in an estimated 80 deaths and 70 injuries. Although it has yet to be proven definitively, it is believed the fire spread so quickly due to shoddy exterior cladding added to Grenfell as part of a renovation in 2015-16. This cladding was added, at least in part, to improve the appearance of this block of social housing sat in the midst of one of the wealthiest boroughs in London.
The Grenfell disaster has kickstarted a conversation about the impact of decades of neoliberal city planning generally, and more specifically the continued neglect of social housing since the 1980’s. This necessary conversation inevitably dovetails with one about the legacy of Brutalism, the school of architecture most associated with social housing. In Britain, brutalism proliferated from the 1950’s to the mid 1970’s, and is primarily identified by its use of “raw concrete” and angular building forms. Grenfell Tower was typical of what people think of when they think of Brutalist architecture: a mostly featureless grey tower block. The Berkeley Library and Arts Block are also examples of Brutalist architecture.
We are currently in the middle of something of a Brutalist revival; as the New York Times titled an article last year, “Brutalism is Back.” Various stylistic Instagram pictures and loving blog posts have helped to drive a new appreciation of the style. As it turns out, the brash and avant-garde silhouette of a Brutalist building looks good with a nice filter.
Of course, the most common critique of Brutalism is that the buildings are often just ugly. This is often true: many examples of Brutalist architecture are ugly. But this is not a unique nor inherent characteristic of Brutalism. Many buildings built before and after are easily as ugly as the worst of Brutalism. One need only look at the Barbican or Alexandra Road Estate in London to see that Brutalism can rival any other school of architecture aesthetically.
The ongoing aesthetic re-evaluation does risk overlooking the social ideology at the core of Brutalism. As architectural critic Catherine Slessor writes, the “commodified comeback is completely at odds with Brutalism’s social agenda.”
Brutalism was the architectural wing of this movement, the belief that high-quality housing and public amenities could be available to all. In a recent Guardian interview Neave Brown, one of the most famous British Brutalist architects, responsible for the Alexandra Road Estate: “I didn’t think I was designing social housing, but just housing. Good London housing.”
Brutalism was always more about ethics than aesthetics, tied intimately with the postwar socialist and social democratic projects of building a better world for everyone.
Brutalism was married to this social democratic project because it offered an answer the question of how to provide housing and services on a large scale within the means of the welfare state. Brutalist housing projects offered a high quality of living, in comparison to the cramped tenements of the prewar period, at an affordable price and on a large scale. It allowed for thousands of people to be housed rapidly, along with the building of libraries and civic buildings.
Unfortunately, since the 1980’s the quantity of social housing being built in the West has declined dramatically. In Ireland, there was an average of 6,200 social housing units completed on average annually between 1970 and 1985. There was a brief increase in the 2000’s, for example with 5,000 units of social housing built in 2008. But in 2015 there were only 158 units built, years into the worst housing crisis Ireland has seen in decades. This decline obviously ties into the right-wing shift in the west since the 1980’s as governments abandoned the idea that housing was a human right and left its provision to the whims of the market.
“Neoliberalism has stripped out the social ideology from our country [UK] and led to a ruinous economy with ruinous housing.” – Neave Brown
We don’t need to return to Brutalism or repeat it’s mistakes to learn from it. At it’s best, Brutalism stood for the ability of society to provide for the needs of all. Affordable high-quality housing, large and accessible civic and social amenities: these are things we need in Ireland and internationally now more than ever. It is a moral imperative, after Grenfell and as homeless people die on the streets of Ireland, that we put the social values of Brutalism back at the heart of our planning policies.