Brutalist Architecture: Was it all Bad?


Glasgow, more than any other city in Europe, was Concretopolis. The Labour-dominated city chambers demolished swathes of neglected sandstone tenements, as damp and decaying slums made way for modern concrete towers. This was driven by political philosophy, as a solid expression of the Welfare State.

I grew up in Gourock on the River Clyde, a pretty neighbour to the tough shipbuilding town of Greenock. Often in summer I climbed a nearby hill for a panoramic view, dominated by council estates stretching up the moors, with the tower blocks of Bonhill and Drumchapel on the distant horizon. By that time, the point and slab blocks built for Greenock’s working class were notorious for crime, vandalism, drug abuse and ugliness.

As a student at the Central College of Commerce in the 1980s, I had an awesome vista of the north-east of Glasgow, featuring the Red Road flats amid a forest of vertical concrete. Many of these towers have since been pulled down, an act facilitated by population decline in the industrial belt of Scotland. Recently, some doomed blocks have been reprieved from the wrecking ball to accommodate asylum-seekers on Home Office dispersal. 

The much derided product of the post-war council housing boom has its devotees. Barnabas Calder, in his book Raw Concrete: the Beauty of Brutalism (2022), celebrates this period of progressive, practical building. The modernist movement in architecture rejected the individualism of ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ to create a new society. Le Corbusier, the Swiss originator of Brutalism, regarded residential buildings as ‘machines for living’; the style was functional and zealously devoid of ornament.

Of particular interest to me is Calder’s chapter on the Anderston Centre in Glasgow. In the 1950s Anderston Cross was similar to Trongate on the eastern approach to the city centre, a confluence of roads lined by a soot-blackened mix of residential, commercial and industrial premises. The council decided on a radical redevelopment, engaging the services of architect Richard Seifert (who also designed Centre Point in London) for a shopping centre overlooked by large blocks of flats.  

My college course was in retail management, and I went on a field study of the Anderston Centre. Built on a raised platform in a forbiddingly bleak area a mile away from the main thoroughfares of Argyle Street and Sauchiehall Street, the shopping centre was never likely to succeed beyond a brief blast of novelty. The concrete was still white, the buildings little over a decade old. The only visible activity was a neon ‘on air’ sign for Radio Clyde; the shops having almost completely disappeared.

Brutalism set the stage for the 1971 film Get Carter, starring Michael Caine, the action culminating in the newly-built multi-storey Trinity Square car park in Gateshead, a concrete carbuncle now demolished. Across the Tyne, council leader T Dan Smith strove to transform Newcastle from a city of fine Georgian parades to a Brutalist maze. Fortunately only a small part was built, in harsh juxtaposition with the enduring stone masonry. 

Urban renewal was exciting in the 1960s, with every town planning office having its balsa models of major schemes in ubiquitous concrete. As described by Bill Lancaster in Newcastle-upon-Tyne: a Modern History (2001), Smith was a prosperous Trotskyite who tried to rush through his plan to make Newcastle the ‘Brasilia of the North’, abandoning the city’s industrial heritage for a ‘new, international image’. The bigger the project, the worse the delays, the higher the costs, and the more extortion; in 1973 Smith was arrested on corruption charges.

Champagne socialists have a penchant for modern architecture, but a common criticism was made by a Times article (Richard Morrison, 25th September 2015) titled ‘Those who want to list Brutalist buildings should try living in one’. To be fair, Calder genuinely enjoys living in concrete blocks, and he is not alone. The classic Brutalist buildings of Trellick Tower near Notting Hill and Balfron Tower in London’s east end, designed by Marxist Ernö Goldfinger, are now magnets for the metropolitan elite.

In an eloquent defence of Brutalism, Calder shows a humane interest that is often lost in collective idealism. The buildings of the 1960s were well-spaced, brighter and warmer than the narrow terraces that they replaced, but they became symbols of social malaise, as depicted in JG Ballard’s dystopia High Rise. Society learned to look down on building up. Yet look around any city centre today, and you will see ever-higher steel and glass towers, built close together, housing mass immigration as well as middle-class urbanites.

The consolation of a good view from the 28th floor is no guarantee, as warned by the cranes and pile-drivers. The ten-storey slabs of council flats at Elephant & Castle, for example, have been replaced by much taller structures of extremely high density, affording little privacy. Brutalism did not stop in the 70s, it merely paused.

Niall McCrae is a Registered Nurse and officer of the Workers of England Union.