I love post-war modernist buildings, particularly the hulking grey concrete ones. I like their repetitive patterns and the textures of their weathered surfaces. Many people find them horrible, but for me there is inspiration in their scale, their boldness and civic, socialist values. It is also fascinating – if sometimes depressing – to observe what happens to them over time, as historical remains in an age of voracious capitalism.
Over the last few years I’ve been researching the ruins of St. Peter’s College, a contested 1960s modernist site near Cardross in Scotland (see this website and this journal paper). This year I’m part of a project about Modern Futures, which has given me the chance to think more broadly about what post-war modernism is, what it does, and why, against all the odds, I like it so much.
The most common attitude to these buildings has become a popular cliché: “concrete monstrosities, knock them down!” Demolitions attract crowds of spectators, in a late capitalist mutation of the public hanging. In some cases charity raffles have been held, with the lucky winner appointed to press the button to trigger the dynamite. It’s as if society has decided that this kind of architecture is unarguably worthless, that it must automatically be complained about, like traffic, wet weather or Simon Cowell. But this view is increasingly being challenged. As well as blistering pro-Brutalist polemics from commentators such as Jonathan Meades, and architectural experts insisting on the historical value of post-war modernism, there have also been surprising levels of public support for campaigns to prevent the demolition of controversial modernist relics such as Preston bus station and the Apollo Pavilion.
It is important that any celebration of concrete heroics doesn’t airbrush out the trickier details of post-war modernism. Many modernist buildings were experimental, failing to function as was hoped. Some quickly became grim places, usually due to a complex mix of factors. The uncompromising aesthetics of this type of architecture can be intimidating, particularly in the UK, where damp climate and overcast skies turn concrete into a drab mass of rainy grey. There is also an undeniable white male arrogance in Le Corbusier’s ideas about rectilinear rationality triumphing over nature, as expressed in Towards A New Architecture. That arrogance has been mercilessly exposed by the premature ruination of many modernist buildings, either through neglect or deliberate destruction.
Yet the remains of modernism have much to offer. Aesthetically, they are uncompromising landmarks that stand out against the increasing blandness of contemporary cities. Culturally, they are material remnants of 20th Century social history. Politically, they provide a connection to a socialist worldview, in which architecture was seen as a way to engineer better lives for people, rather than as a way of wringing profit from space. These things are all important, but most of all I love modernism for its anti-romanticism. I find it honest – refreshingly, shockingly, brutally honest – about the nature of modern life.
Take the St. James Centre, a shopping centre, hotel and ex-council office block in central Edinburgh, shown in all the photos in this post. A grainy charcoal slab looming over the genteel Georgian new town, it is widely hated. For the majority of Edinburgh residents, its imminent demolition, making way for a more upmarket retail and hotel development, will be an occasion for cheers not tears.
I’m one of the very few people who like this building. For me, there is a mischievous joy in how the St. James Centre punctures the cosy heritage theme-park feel of the city. Its presence is audacious, disrespectful to the point of being outright rude. Scraping against the veneer of its picturesque surroundings, it blocks scenic views from all directions. The building is so offensive that in recent years a giant redevelopment banner has been hoisted across one of its most visible façades. The effect is like a loincloth failing to cover up an embarrassing erection – a desperate attempt to preserve modesty until the wrecking balls swing into action.
Scottish arts promoter Richard Demarco apparently claimed that “no argument can defend the overscaled, heartless and meaningless modernism of the St. James Centre development.” (source: here) Well, here’s my argument.
The building functions as an insitu critique, showing the city for what it really is: a utilitarian, functional, impersonal space, where goods are traded and services provided. The St. James Centre affronts the bourgeois sensibilities of Edinburgh like the Greek cynic philosopher Diogenes defecating in public in Athens. His behaviour was neither dirty protest nor exhibitionism, but rather an attempt to cut through the bullshit of Athenian manners by living in a way that exposed the basic nature of human existence.
Buildings like the St. James Centre are unavoidably modern, unmistakeably urban, unashamedly rational. They don’t pretend to be anything else. Their direct, upfront qualities are the result of an optimistic post-war mood. Modern life was seen as something to celebrate, to display with pride, not something to be ashamed of or hide away. Brutalist architecture openly expresses the incessantly repetitious, mass-mechanised character of late industrial societies, just as a thatched cottage in a rural village reflects the agrarian culture within which it was built.
There is a serious incongruity when people aspire to live in country manors or mock tudor houses, but spend their lives eating food produced by industrial farming, operating mass-produced machines, immersed in a haze of electromagnetic signals, all powered by fossil fuels extracted through heavy engineering. We can denigrate this way of life as escapism, distraction, pretense, denial, or we can enjoy it as bricolage, mash up, a post-modern merging of past and present. But either way, the fact is that a lot of architecture conceals rather than reveals the structures and processes on which contemporary society is built. Dispirited by the violence of modernity, by its ravaging of life, we try to cover it up, or knock it down.
This is why we need modernist architecture, in its successes and failures, in its rationality and madness, in renovation and in ruins: to help remind us of who, what, when and where we are.
Thanks to Hannah Neate, Ruth Craggs and the AHRC-funded Modern Futures network for providing space in which to think about these ideas.