Kings of Concrete: Brutalist Architecture in London

Like A Local Guide • 29 Nov, 2014

London is a powerful city. The bigger it grows, the stronger it gets. It takes guts to live in such a city as it can make one feel lonely and insignificant. Its buildings reach for the sky and its roads, rails and tunnels form a giant tortuous labyrinth. London is fast-paced – hesitate during rush hour and an emotionally atrophied crowd will trample you into the ground. Sweaty and loud cycling commuters will come first, monochrome office workers will follow, and finally, seasoned pram-pushing big-city mums will finish you off. Tramps will quickly catch the change as it falls out of your pockets and passing cars will splash a filthy puddle all over your new coat. At that moment your telephone will start vibrating. As you overcome the shock of the shivering cold, trying to unlock the screen with wet and dirty fingers, a message will pop up. It’s a life changer: a dream job offer, a declaration of love, anything that will bring an end to your struggles and pains at least temporarily, before the novelty becomes your daily reality.

London is not always easy on its residents, but it rewards them to the max for trying hard. Historically, the British capital’s fate has never been sugar coated. The great fire and bombings of WWII destroyed many of the city’s landmarks, not forgetting the myriad of tragically lost lives. The war-ravaged city had to be rebuilt quickly and on a tight budget. The authorities wanted it to look modern and forward thinking, as well as controversial – something that could bring the excitement back to a post-war depressed population. That’s when the architectural movement known as Brutalism came into the spotlight. No wonder the authorities saw it as the country’s future. It was all about bold ideas: each building had to fit the place, represent its time and reflect its purpose. The designs were confrontational – exteriors were left raw to showcase the key building materials, which in most cases was bleak grey concrete. The most important design elements were functionality and layout, therefore the interiors of Brutalist buildings are often surprisingly airy, light and well-planned.

As fashion changes and we evolve, at certain points some things become obsolete and others become relevant. Nonetheless, the Brutalist movement wasn’t just about evolution or change, but also about recovery. The grim beasts of rough concrete are as significant and important as Gothic palaces and Baroque cathedrals. They had their mission of ushering in a bright future for London by encouraging growth and promoting urbanism, community, togetherness, strength and grace. They may not be the most glamorous of buildings, but who says architecture should be glamorous? Looking at them evokes nostalgic feelings as they were part of a forward-thinking project that failed to succeed. So, how do these building fit into modern-day London?

Some of these buildings have been razed to the ground, some vandalised and some are functioning as before. What I really want to talk about, however, are the icons of London’s Brutalist movement, which, mysteriously, are back in fashion, with their stark images now featuring in modern art, clothing prints and on the surfaces of interior objects.

Trellick Tower – The Building of Strong Ideas

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Completed in 1972, Trellick Tower is a block of council flats designed by the leading Modernist of the time, Ernő Goldfinger. It’s definitely very dramatic. Right in the middle of London’s sophisticated and snobbish Chelsea district, this brave and grim tower reminds flamboyant West Londoners of the issues of modern society. It provides the city’s rapidly growing population with 217 homes. A set of four-storey townhouses (much more common to the area) fit into the same space would hardly provide a quarter of this number.

Interesting facts:

  • Back in the 70s, newspapers dubbed the estate The Tower of Terror on account of a spate of terrifying occurrences of vandalism, crime and suicide.
  • In the early 00s, the building was miraculously “cleaned up”, thus avoiding its expected demolition. Today, flats in this iconic building change hands for almost half a million pounds.

A local rumour: In the past, when residents of Trellick Tower moved out, goodbye parties were thrown at the local laundrettes. Oysters on beds of crushed ice and champagne were offered to party guests.

Nearby hangouts: 

Established by the trendy and upmarket SOHO Group, the down-to-earth Pizza East Portobello has won over the hearts of both hipsters and yuppies. Its warehouse-style décor resembles bohemian Shoreditch, and its menu offers a wide variety of absolutely delicious pizzas as well as a few worthy mains.

cafes outside trellick tower

After you’ve filled up your stomach, take a walk through the quirkiest antique stalls ever. You’ll be sure to bump into dozens of “fashion killas” browsing second-hand clothing stands looking for a pair of “almost new” Isabell Marant sneakers. For those not too squeamish and with the patience to search, there are some unbelievable bargains.

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Finally, take a walk by the Grand Union Canal, which can be found snaking at the back of the Tower of Terror. It’s home to a very special narrowboat community that lives life afloat. If it’s sunny, have a drink in the garden at The Union Tavern pub and watch the life of the canal. There’s so much to do in this part of London and the activities are so diverse that you might also want to stay over for a day or two in Trellick and enjoy the spectacular views of the Chelsea borough. If this sounds a little too extreme, go for a hotel. West Kensington has been overshadowed by its southern brother, and t
herefore its hotels run promotions throughout the year.

Centre Point – London’s First Seriously Tall Building

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I remember working nightshifts at a bar in Soho as a student. Lectures during the day, cocktails at night – working fulltime was the only way to survive while studying in London. After finishing my shift I would rush out into the buzzing nightlife of this seemingly never-sleeping district. Through glistering clouds of clubbers, beeping black cabs and smoky takeaways, I would spot the chalky-white Centre Point rising above the hustle and bustle. It was my reference point – as long as it was in my view I could find my way around.

Centre Point, an office tower designed by Richard Seifert, has dominated the city skyline since the 60s. This skyscraper in the heart of London embodied the growing confidence of the city, however, being one of the first towers of its time, it quickly obtained the “white elephant” status and remained partially empty.

Interesting facts: 

  • Centre Point was built in only 33 weeks – one floor per week with only one crane. Such technique and speed is hardly achieved by modern construction companies today.
  • Back then, details about the project weren’t revealed to the public and no one knew when it would be completed. People used to bet on the eventual height of the tower.
  • The tower’s white colour is due to a specially fabricated concrete made out of capstone from the Isle of Portland. This construction method was new at the time and, perhaps, aesthetically it worked better with London’s rather grey climate.

A local rumour:

Centre Point is infamous for a rough underpass that runs underneath it. As you wade through the broken bottles and their sleeping owners, covering your nose from the stench of beer and sweat, you might find it hard to believe that you’re in the heart of London. It’s said that architecture students throughout the country often use it as an example as the worst way to integrate a tower at street level.

Nearby hangouts:

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You won’t need to go far; atop of Centre Point is a restaurant and bar called Paramount. The entrance is certainly impressive – after passing through the cumbersome dark reception and getting trapped in a stainless steel elevator, suddenly natural light explodes on you – if, of course, you visit during the day.

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Otherwise, with all the twinkling lights and darkness of the night, romance is guaranteed. The restaurant is crisp, stylish and, if you keep a track of what you order, almost affordable. If you don’t feel like a fancy meal, you can always head up to the bar for a cheeky glass of red or even afternoon tea. Either way, you’ll enjoy your beverage looking down on Westminster or Google’s London offices, whichever is more your thing, pondering how great it is to find a once outcast office block so alive and fun!

Brunswick Centre – A Megastructure

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Patrick Hodgkinson’s masterpiece was built in the mid 60s. The project was passed onto him by one of his colleagues who couldn’t cope with the workload. He was requested to construct two buildings that would achieve the same density as two tower blocks, without exceeding the 25-metre height limit. He came up with the practical idea of putting the housing in two rows, leaving an open-air shopping area in the middle. Two levels of basement parking were added, taking into account the building’s central location. The rather unusual stepped design allows the sky into the shopping area and provides each apartment with at least two hours of natural light. The architect envisioned Brunswick as a contemporary and sleek city village with modern apartments, shops, a cinema, a gym and restaurants, which it didn’t become for quite a while.

Interesting facts: 

  • Originally there were meant to be 16 types of apartments, starting with luxury penthouses and finishing with hostels for local medical students. However, the local borough of Camden, which was in charge of the building, requested only bedsits and one and two bedroom apartments. Some would argue this turned the building into another council flat slum.
  • At one point Hodgkinson left the project, pressurised by authorities insisting on cheap and rapid completion. Initially a beautiful venture, the Brunswick Centre turned into a grey dump. It was revived 20 years later when the original creator was brought back to work on the project.

A local rumour:

Before the major restoration turned this miserable estate into an edgy haunt, the average amount of time a visitor would spent in the centre was 18 minutes, which is just enough to buy a can of coke and run out.

Nearby hangouts:

In a world of chain cinemas showcasing Hollywood blockbusters, some masterpiece films are unfairly deprived of attention. Renoir Cinema, located on the Brunswick Centre’s eastern edge, has cemented its individuality by presenting mostly foreign language releases. Currently undergoing refurbishment, the cinema will reopen in early January. If you’re around, don’t miss the chance to discover some new world cinema talent.

It must be mentioned that Renoir was pretty much the only reason why people came to this place until very recently. Now things have changed – there are neat groups of people chilling out over lunch, having a coffee and shopping. Spare five minutes to join them in this marvellous construction, or if you feel like hanging around for longer, there are rooms available to rent for short and long-term stays.

The Brutalist movement has always had a following, but these days it’s rapidly accumulating more and more fans. A dominating trend of high-tech architecture has taken over, transforming our major conurbations into glass and steel jungles that often take the places of long since demolished cement beasts. This species is in decline, so if you’ve not yet stood face to face with cold concrete, it’s time to experience it for yourself.

For more local recommendations read:
What locals like to do in London
Where locals like to eat in London
Where locals like to party in London

Special tip:
For even more local London tips, get the Like A Local mobile app

rsz_anaAna Zoria moved to London six years ago to study journalism. The degree taught her not only to communicate accurately and informatively, but also to produce content that is both useful and inspiring to her readers. Ana believes that life is about experiencing things, and that every experience helps one grow. She especially enjoys writing about her personal adventures in London.

Twitter: @ZoriaAna

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