sat 16/12/2017

Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloody­mindedness: Concrete Poetry, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloody­mindedness: Concrete Poetry, BBC Four

Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloody­mindedness: Concrete Poetry, BBC Four

Provocative, hectoring and loquacious - Jonathan Meades on the architecture people love to hate

Jonathan Meades outside the Wotruba Church in ViennaCredit: BBC/Francis Hanly

Is Brutalism brutal? Pugnacious? Uncouth? The name was coined by English academic and architecture writer Reynor Banham – more on him in a moment – as a play on the French béton brut (literally raw concrete) and the English “brute”, and hence was probably doomed from the start. Who, after all, can love an architectural style that sounds like it’s got all the grace of a troglodyte doing a plié before punching you in the face?  

The civic courtship of Brutalism in its heyday in the Sixties and Seventies (or the “long Sixties”, as Jonathan Meades prefers it) hit the skids long ago, and today’s city councillors and town planners – those “cretinous apes of the demolition community” as Meades delicately puts it – have little hesitation in setting the bulldozers to work. And in his two-part wordy paean to the concrete bunker, the monolithic cooling tower, the sprawling multi-storey car park and the bulge-fronted bus garage cum shopping parade cum aerial walkway, this wanton eradication of the recent urban past made Meades very, very angry.  

Let’s be grateful he deplores the infantilism that’s infected arts broadcasting and isn’t afraid to use big words

Meades’s television essays are nearly always insightful and clever and he makes interesting connections that alert one to all the extraneous stuff that goes into informing taste. And in the first part of this BBC brut-fest he’d compared two architectural styles and their apparent rejection by popular taste: just as Victorian Gothic was once despised as we entered the 20th century (though was it? Really? Or was it only despised by an educated elite in thrall to the burgeoning International style?) so Brutalism became despised, and was now getting a belated thumbs-up by another generation of educated elites.

It was a persuasive thesis, but I was troubled by it, since I’m not sure if the 19th-century voice of “the people” Meades was speaking out against in their distaste for the pointy Gothic style has ever been recorded on the matter. With regard to the common consensus (a notion he spits on with disgust) where were Meades’s assertions coming from? And actually, that High Victorian aesthetic was once everywhere – not just in architecture, but in art (those Pre-Raphaelite boys) and in craft, too (from stained glass windows to ceramic tiles), so presumably someone was loving it and making it commercially very viable.

In contrast, and since it’s a thing of living memory, we all know, rather than waiting to be told, what most people today think of Brutalism. They think it’s ugly, and given half the chance would rather live in a Georgian terrace (didn’t most Modernist architects from these shores live in one, too?). But here Meades blamed the Georgians for giving us a taste for everything safe and bland and “pretty”. And to be honest, I found this slightly bonkers. It's true that the Georgians had a mania for all things in strictly classical proportion, and the Victorian Gothic – which its mongrel pick-and-mix style – largely threw all this out of the window, but I’m not so sure about the popular outrage that's meant to have ensued. I’m inclined to think Meades’s love of being a contrarian often gets in the way of historical accuracy. 

This doesn’t mean that Meades isn’t a refreshing voice in television land. Let’s be grateful he deplores the infantilism that’s infected arts broadcasting and isn’t afraid to use big words and reference big concepts as if one would use them in everyday parlance (to make the point he dressed up in a cuddly animal playsuit and drooled on cue, but perhaps this was rather too close to show-and-tell “dumbing down”).  

Meades had some fascinating things to say, and I was glued for the most part, though also exhausted by his endless hectoring lists and his loquaciousness. And it’s a shame he never actually likes going into buildings – a two-second shot of the extraordinary Wotruba Church in Vienna, with its jutting cuboid stacks, made me long to explore the interior. But Meades just isn’t very interested in whether a building functions well as an inhabited space. To him it’s just a sculptural intervention on the landscape. In fact, in neither episode do I recall him actually entering a building.

I think people love Meades partly because his hauteur goes so aggressively against current television convention, and I’m all for writers and presenters sticking two fingers up at that. And naturally he’s got interestingly provocative things to say, and three cheers for that, too. But does he really have to affect a sneeringly exaggerated cockney accent (not once, but twice, as if it were side-splitting the first time) to denote “I know what I like” idiocy? This is a man who ostensibly detests cliché but is quick enough to deploy it himself. And it makes him sound like a nasty bully. 

But when Meades sneers he really aims to put the boot in. And here the aforementioned Reynor Banham really got both barrels. After a long j’accuse, Banham, he concluded, was a man who would have “trampled over his grandmother to snuggle up to a passing trend". That may indeed have been true (and this time I enjoyed the wit of the attack) – but Meades didn’t bother telling us why so much should be heaped on Banham’s head alone. It seems that Banham’s crime was that he wasn’t that interested in looking at architecture as sculpture, but as buildings that function as inhabited spaces. In other words, he’s Meades’s mirror man in reverse.

Personally, I’m not inclined to extol the beauties of Trinity Square in Gateshead (commonly known as the Get Carter carpark, now demolished) in the same way I might the Wotruba Church (main picture), or even the Royal Collage of Art building. I just can’t get into paroxysms of delight at the work of the same architect who gave us the lumpen Michael Faraday monument on the roundabout of the Elephant and Castle. Whatever it is Meades is looking at I’m just not seeing the same thing.

People love Meades partly because his hauteur goes so aggressively against current television convention

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Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Meades sees brutalism as heroic and as of considerable architectural merit - that is to say ethically and aesthetically superior to noddy houses and bland curtain walling. According to him, Brutalist construction allowed architects to give expression to their creativity rather than being dumbed down by timidity of petit bourgeois values. One of the major inspirations of the modern movement was that modern technology was to be put to work to rid the world of poverty and squalor and in its place create a new world of clean crisp sharp lines and universal wellbeing. Outdated construction techniques were to be eschewed and modern construction was to be the vehicle through which the techno-logical utopia of the future was to be realized. Architects chose to use flat roofs not because they were functionally superior to pitched roofs, but because they accorded better with the Ideal of this machine technology. Le Corbusier eulogized plate glass as a quasi magic crystalline substance dividing the harsh climate of the outside from the world of the inside. We see here that the buildings of the modern movement were to symbolize abstract ideals, rather than be guided by accretions of experience. So designers tended to install large sheets of glass dripping with condensation in freezing cold buildings rather than to build in a despised vernacular tradition with smaller windows and open fires. Bricks, tiles, wood, and manual construction of the past were out; the steel, glass and concrete of the future were in, and these were to be used in a way that was to eschew outdated and inefficient craft trades. Brutalism shares these lacunae with other modernist construction. Traditional buildings tended to have overhanging eaves and moldings - the more august piles referenced classical motifs which (it has been claimed) raised to new heights of sophistication the modelling of the facade and the control of the weathering of the surfaces. Brutalism was expressly devoid of any such sophistication, and the crude construction and streaked grimy surfaces were found to jar with what most people rate as harmonious. As I understand it, for Meades this reaction merely brands the suburban middle classes as philistines who fail to appreciate the creative spirit of architects. If I’m right here, then I think he’s wrong. One of the things people tend to value is evidence of carefulness. We dislike dirty windows on trains, not just because they obscure the view, but because they give expression to a certain care-less-ness - the windows should have been cleaned, and we are affronted by the fact that they were thoughtlessly left dirty. Many aesthetic judgements seem to be closely related to our social values and ideals. The ideal we hold is that the railways should be run efficiently and the windows kept clean. Dirty windows are ugly, and they give expression to an uncaring society. You might think that the upper reaches of the Tiber would be beautiful and perhaps they are. But if the branches of the trees are festooned with plastic bags, the scene jars with our ideals and is an affront to our aesthetic sensibilities. There is nothing particularly obnoxious about a plastic bag, they’re very useful - and up there in the wind and sunshine they are not unhygienic. But they give expression to a couldn’t care-less society, - a society that leaves plastic bags to be blown around in the wind into the river and end up in the trees. Here our aesthetic sensibility appears to be closely related to our social ideals. Concrete buildings don’t have to be brutalist. The National Theatre would probably be categorized as brutalist in that it is constructed of beton brut, but it was designed with care and constructed with care, so that the way in which the surfaces would weather was properly controlled. The reason why people dislike brutalist construction is precisely because it eschews this sort of care-full-ness. The coarse texture, streaked grimy surfaces and crude construction offend people’s finer sensibilities - and this has little to do with their timidity or their reactionary politics.

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