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Zaha Hadid, The World Monuments Fund & British Brutalism…

October 11, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

2010 and 2011 have undoubtedly been good years for Ms. Hadid, as after many years of receiving little or no recognition in her adopted home country, she has recently been crowned undisputed Queen of the Stirling Prize, winning for the second year running with her Evelyn Grace Academy down in Brixton.

Ordinarily I would applaud such a decision. She is after all unquestionably one of our greatest living architects with an enviable ability to create dynamic and contemporary spaces with consummate ease.  Her list of recent successes includes last year’s Stirling Prize winner the MAXXI Museum in Rome, The amazing London Aquatics Centre, The Guangzhou Opera House and the Riverside Museum in Glasgow.

This year however I felt the decision of the Stirling Prize Judges was somewhat misguided. To me the obvious winner was Michael Hopkins’s velodrome over in Stratford. A triumph of materials, scale and detailing, it is without doubt one of the most elegant buildings to have been completed in the UK over the last few years.

Unfortunately I haven’t managed to get to the velodrome yet, but earlier this year I made the trip to Brixton to have a look at Zaha’s school and I was honestly shocked at how fortified it seemed, surrounded as it is by concrete walls and multiple layers of 8ft high close link, steel fencing. Very difficult from street level to get a feel for the building beyond. It’s interesting I think, to note that almost every single publicity photo of the place has been taken from within the grounds of the school, hence avoiding the security fencing. The image at the top of this post is about the only “beyond the gates” one I could find and is taken from a high vantage point to minimise the fencing.

Now I know that Brixton has something of a reputation, and as an architect I know that security requirements are not something we can ordinarily do much about, but I am surprised that someone of Zaha’s skill didn’t attempt to reduce the impact of the fencing, intensifying as it does to the overall feeling of separation and containment. And it’s this detachment and lack of connection to the street and the surrounding environment that I feel is the weakest aspect of the scheme and the reason that it shouldn’t have won the Stirling Prize…

Which leads to me to the second half of this post which is the recent welcome announcement from the World Monuments Fund that a number of key British buildings from the much derided Brutalist Movement have been added to the watch list of “endangered” structures.

Preston Bus Garage (Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson of BDP – 1969), Birmingham Library (John Maddin – 1974) and the various elements that make up the Southbank Centre (Lasdun/Herron/LCC Architects et al/ 1960’s & 70’s) have STILL not received listed status, and indeed the bus station and the library are both scheduled for demolition. (I actually quite like Mecanoo’s new Birmingham library, but that’s a different matter and I don’t want to get distracted…)

The term Brutalism was coined by the Smithson’s in the early 1950’s from the French phrase “breton brut” (or raw concrete in English) and is generally used to describe large, dominating structures which are usually accused of having little regard or thought for their existing context. This was undoubtedly true for a large number of structures put up throughout the 60′ and 70’s, whose construction and design it could be argued, were fatally compromised by either a lack of understanding of the building form or because one too many cuts were made to an already reduced budget.

Large scale social housing projects particularly suffered. Seen by many as the panacea to the post war housing crisis, they were flung up at an alarming rate with little regard to either the local historic or more tellingly perhaps, the wider social context in which they were planned. The basic idea for large scale blocks of housing as espoused by the socially progressive Brutalist’s I would argue is sound and had worked very well on the continent for many years prior tot the 1960’s. . The problem with much of this construction (and our weather has much to do with this of course) is that concrete was seen by many as a perfect material, easy to model and virtually indestructible and I would suggest that it was this aspect that led to most large housing estates being completely ignored when it came to maintenance budgets. A lack of care, post construction I would argue is as much to blame for their apparent failure as a lack of thought and budget, pre construction.

Civic and public buildings generally fared rather better however and there are some fine examples of British Brutalist architecture throughout the country, and especially on University campuses and particularly Leeds University which I remember with great fondness from my time there, walking along Red Route (supposedly the longest corridor in Europe at that time) admiring the acres and acres of beautiful concrete…

All of these are worthy examples in their own right and every effort should be made wherever possible to keep them and reintegrate them into the urban fabric. It would be a real shame if in 10 years time, our built environment contained nothing but well mannered steel and glass office blocks and anodyne little brick and render houses. Surely there’s room for the odd “ugly” thing every now and again…

  1. vexarb
    October 12, 2011 at 07:27

    Yes, that school with its depressingly brutal sheep-pen of “security” fencing ought definitely to be listed as a socially significant ugly building which will represent the Age of Insecurity for posterity.

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