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Brutal East End

December 15, 2016
by the gentle author

Ashington House, Bethnal Green

There is little that divides opinion as sharply as concrete modernist architecture, inspiring an unreconcilable split between those who want it demolished and those who want it preserved. Yet the architectural term brutal is of French origin and simply refers to the use of raw concrete (béton brut), even if it is widely used as an expression of the perceived barbarism of buildings in this style.

Photographer Simon Phipps has spent fifteen years surveying these vanishing structures, capturing their lively geometry and dramatic use of textures before they are destroyed, to produce BRUTAL LONDON published by September Books, a catalogue of the capital’s most distinguished examples. His elegant black and white photography draws attention to the idealism of this style which, even when it was misguided, now appears preferable to the ubiquitous cynicism of much new architecture conceived merely as short-life cladding to achieve an effect.

Haggerston School, Weymouth Terrace, E2. Designed by Ernö Goldfinger for the London County Council. Built 1964–67, listed grade II.

Barbican, Silk St, City of London, EC2. Designed by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon for the Corporation of the City of London, Built 1962–82, listed grade II.

Robin Hood Gardens, Woolmore St, Poplar, E14. Designed by Alison and Peter Smithson for the Greater London Council. Built 1969–72, unlisted.

Glenkerry House, Brownfield Estate. Designed by Ernö Goldfinger for London County Council. Built by Greater London Council. Built 1965–67, listed grade II*.

Ashington House, Barnsley St, Bethnal Green, E1. Designed by Noel Moffett Associates for Greater London Council. Built 1971, unlisted.

Shoreditch Fire Station, Old Street, EC1. Designed by the Special Works Department of the London County Council Architects’ Department led by Geoffrey Horsfall. Built 1964, unlisted.

Golden Lane Estate, Goswell Rd, City of London, EC2. Designed by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon. Built 1953–63, listed grade II, (Crescent House Listed grade II*).

Newling Estate, Old Market Sq, Bethnal Green, E2. Designed by London County Council Architects’ Department. Built 1963, unlisted.

Keeling House, Claredale St, Bethnal Green, E2. Designed by Denys Lasdun of Fry, Drew, Drake & Lasdun. Built 1957–59, listed grade II*.

Middlesex St Estate, Middlesex St, City of London, E1. Corporation of London Architects’ Department. Built 1965–75, unlisted.

Crown Estate,Victoria Park Rd, E9. Designed by John Spence & Partners for the Crown Estate. Built 1967–77, unlisted.

Charles Hayward Building, part of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, Hackney Rd, E2. Designed by Lyons Israel Ellis. Built 1972, demolished 2015.

Bethnal Green Fire Station, Roman Rd, E2. Designed by Greater London Council Architects’ Department. Built 1966–67, unlisted.

Photographs copyright © Simon Phipps

Click here to order a copy of BRUTAL LONDON from September Books

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Patricia Niven’s Golden Oldies

At Robin Hood Gardens

18 Responses leave one →
  1. December 15, 2016

    This is definitely not my style. Valerie

  2. Robin permalink
    December 15, 2016

    Just awful looking. Such a shame that so many of London’s ancient buildings were demolished to make space for these ugly ducklings . They have no personality,no flair. they just stand there like a blackeye on the face of London (paraphrased from DaVinci Code)

  3. Patricia Blalock permalink
    December 15, 2016

    I know lots of people hate this type of building but I worked on the regeneration of modernist council estate in Barnet, north London. It was very interesting talking to the older residents who had moved in when the estate was brand new in the late 60s. They had been moved from appalling slums, whole families sharing one or two rooms, several families sharing an outside toilet and even sharing one cold tap. Moving into the new estate had been amazing for them. To have a dry, clean, spacious flat with their own indoor bathroom was a dream come true. So when I see a modernist council estate I remember those residents and remember that at the time these buildings were revolutionary.

  4. December 15, 2016

    Keeling House is great!
    And love the Barbican. I must do an AirB&B there one birthday.

  5. Maureen permalink
    December 15, 2016

    I am currently staying in the Brunswick and while not in the East End, it certainly is the brutal style. A fascinating complex.

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    December 15, 2016

    Greetings from Boston,

    Very interesting, GA. While not in the East End, I believe that the BRITISH LIBRARY is an excellent example of Brutalism, though built later.

  7. Vicky permalink
    December 15, 2016

    I live on the Middlesex Street Estate. It is small in scale, well designed, built as social housing for single people and families. It is functional and still works well despite recent alterations and in its original form it functioned extremely well, as I’m often told by elderly residents. Let us not scoff at Brutalism, it is not all bad, it is just unfortunate that the term béton brut in its translation was used, and the term is often attached, wrongly, to all ‘modern’ architecture we just don’t like. This Brutal House is recommended for those who are interested and Tweet.

  8. December 15, 2016

    Many of these marvellous photographs depict social housing built at a time when there was an enlightened consensus that it was the responsibility of local authorities to build social housing to meet the needs of the population who could not afford to buy their own homes; some of the best designers, planners and architects were employed to build these homes. Many of the estates illustrated in East London are not listed and are now under threat from gentrification. The heart is being ripped out of London. Gentrification is brutal.

  9. Ian dicks permalink
    December 15, 2016

    I like architecture…good architecture…new or old is irrelevant.
    Good architecture should arise from, and with respect its surrounding environment not ignore it.
    Good architecture should have a sense humanity of about it.
    It is interesting that the photos show no people . If we people them I our minds eye who do we see?.Winos in sleeping bags invisible to hurrying humanoids on phones escaping into their own digital fairy land .
    This architecture breeds inhumanity and the heartbreaking trend continues not just in London but throughout the land…if this price sounds depressing don’t blame me, blame architecture!

  10. Matt Nicholls permalink
    December 15, 2016

    Like all styles of architecture, there will be some which is breath taking in its vision, implementation and synergy of the environment within which it stands and some which will be generic, uninventive and mass produced mundaneness.
    The external staircase of Artisan House (?) viewed from the corner of Artisan Street and Harrow Place brings a smile to my face every time.

  11. December 15, 2016

    I have always rather like brutalism and London has some fine examples. I used to sit in the classroom of St Bartholomew’s Hospital School of Nursing and gaze out of the window at the blocks of the Barbican…and all the rest of the building going on in 1978. The skyline was still quite clear then. Glad these works are being acknowledged and recorded.

  12. December 15, 2016

    It’s easy to scoff at Brutalism and the name is unfortunate. How many other styles were despised by those a generation later and threatened with being torn down?

    I grew up near the University of East Anglia and loved the Brutalist architecture there that was very well done, especially the pyramid-shaped residence halls. Now in the US, I nostalgically pass Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. It is modelled after those UEA pyramids. Rising amid the traditional red brick loveliness clothing most of campus, I find it fascinating that Harvard chose Brutalism to house their architecture department.

  13. Simon permalink
    December 15, 2016

    Like marmite, people love or hate Brutalism! I guess I’m in a minority but I find Brutalism fascinating and, yes, (strangely) attractive. Thanks for sharing these photos and I’m glad to read in the comments that I am not alone.

  14. Vicky permalink
    December 15, 2016

    Matt – that is the staircase on the SW side of Petticoat Square, Middlesex Street Estate. Functional and beautiful and makes me smile too.

  15. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    December 15, 2016

    It has been claimed in the comments above that some people who were moved into these type of buildings when they started to appear after the post war slum clearance programs had got underway thought they were wonderful at first but that in itself should not be taken as an endorsement of this style of construction, many of those people had previously been living in property’s that were so appalling almost anything would have been seen as an exciting improvement, I wonder how many of the architects who designed these places actually chose to spend their lives living in these type of buildings themselves ? ?

  16. kristine dillon permalink
    December 16, 2016

    I know that opinions are strong regarding this style of architecture. It’s good to reflect on what has or has not work for the people who are expected to live and work in these buildings. Going forward, one might choose not to build structures such as these. This being said, it seems a shame to demolish theses buildings simply because some people don’t care for the structures stylistically. I think these buildings represent a chapter in the history of London, telling an essential part of a story. If they are all demolished, it will be like trying to read a history book that is missing large sections from various chapters. It must be human nature to embrace what is new and unique, only to loose interest in it and eventually dismiss it as not worthy of the space of land it occupies. Who here would not give their back teeth to see all the lovely buildings of old London still standing, I know I would. It would be a shame to make another similar mistake and knock all these building down.

  17. Shawdian permalink
    December 16, 2016

    Yes, the majority of people going from a decrepit slum dwelling would think these flats were a palace on the internal. But this does not detract from the point of view of many that these buildings are ugly, claustrophobic monstrosities. I for one feel sickly and headachey at the sight of them when ever I spend time living in London and come across them. I now live on a tiny island and thank my lucky stars I do not see any brutal architecture . It is all a matter of ‘personal point of view’. The only way I can justify these buildings, is when I have done linear sketches of the buildings, lots of intricate detail and fascinating shapes to record.

  18. Stephen Barker permalink
    December 16, 2016

    As for the point about the absence of people in the photos believe that this is a deliberate choice of the photographer who is concentrating on the architecture, not the streetscape.

    It is unfortunate that not all buildings estates were designed and built to the same high standard of the Barbican, Golden Lane and Keeling House.

    I agree that high rise flats are not suitable for everyone, but I would argue that lack of maintenance and changes in housing policies contributed to the decline of high rise housing as a solution for to meeting demand for social housing. Tower blocks seem to be very popular for luxury flats as witnessed by the number built in London in recent years.

    At its best Brutalism has created some very fine buildings but poorly designed, built and maintained it can create appear very unattractive and hostile to those who have to live with it.

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