Monday, 5 February 2018

A London walk on the theme of....Brutalism.

Last year's Art Deco walk around London had been such fun I'd immediately taken to arranging some sort of follow up. Friends who'd been on the last one suggested that a tour of some of London's more imposing concrete edifices, the beasts that call themselves Brutalist, would be of interest - and we joked how a grey wet wintry day would be just perfect for such a constitutional.

Of course come the week of the walk itself I found myself checking the weather on the Internet and the forecast covering everything from sunshine to thunderstorms. In the end it was a day of solid, but light, drizzle - and it wasn't too cold. On the way to Waterloo I saw a car that had crashed into Camberwell New Cemetery and a couple of plug sockets hanging somewhat precariously from the rafters in the station itself.

Shep, Adam, Teresa, Darren, Sanda, Ed, and Wen all arrived whilst Colin and Neill said they'd meet us at the Barbican about 1ish. So the eight, soon to be ten, of us wandered off in the direction, as ever, of the South Bank. There had been twelve on the Art Deco walk but what with the weather and various other factors I was still pleased with the attendance. I could stand smugly, hands clasped to my waist, and announce a 'good turnout'.

Brutalism flourished from the fifties through to the seventies. The term comes from the French word for 'raw'. Le Corbusier chose 'breton brut' (raw concrete) as his building material of choice for Brutalist icons like the Unite d'Habitacion in Marseilles and the Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh. It's a nice coincidence that brut and brutal sound so similar though as these buildings are often thought of as ugly. Some love them but it's fair to say they're polarising.

I wasn't setting out with an agenda but just giving people a chance to look, to ask questions, and decide for themselves. My view is there are, like any other school of architecture, both good and bad buildings that come under the umbrella of Brutalism. We'd be seeing both.

The first building to be called Brutalist was Villa Goth in Uppsala, Sweden (by Bengt Edman and Lennart Holm) but it'd hardly compare to the buildings that later took the name. Modernist architecture took many forms but it was the buildings, and the materials, of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe that did most to inspire the British Brutalists. Alison and Peter Smithson popularised the form and in architectural critic Reyner Banham it found its most fervent admirer.

Brutalist buildings sprung up all over the world (Belgrade, Buffalo, Brasilia, and Montreal have particularly eye catching examples) and all across the country. We'd not be able to make it as far as the Balfron Tower in Poplar or Guy's Hospital Tower near London Bridge today and Grenfell Tower was off the itinerary for heartbreakingly obvious reasons.

The first of our little beauties was Denys Lasdun's 1976 National Theatre. Seen as a softer, gentler form of Brutalism, because his influences spread beyond Le Corbusier and Mies to Nicholas Hawksmoor, the National Theatre (which has four separate auditoriums inside, the main one, the Olivier, based on the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus) it was nevertheless likened by Prince Charles to a nuclear power station that had been snuck into the centre of London. Prince Charles often likes to talk of how architecture should be built on a human scale and if you've seen his mum's houses in Windsor, central London or elsewhere you'll know that it's not something his family seem too concerned with. Small houses for the plebs. Big ones for the royals. That's what he's saying.

The National is now Grade II listed and much loved by the thousands who regularly take their walks along the South Bank. Its biggest disappointment is its rear aspect which doesn't offer up much to the street. Very much a tradesman's entrance.

Over Blackfriars Bridge, past the Art Nouveau (there's another walk) Blackfriar pub, and in to Queen Victoria Street. Here once stood Baynard's Castle, once of London's most magnificent buildings but demolished in 1213 by King John. In its place rose a medieval palace which perished in 1666's Great Fire. Now Baynard House, an unremarkable and easy to miss but surprisingly huge building, spreads itself out aggressively along the side of the road. BT occupy it these days but its most noteworthy feature is Richard Kindersley's totem pole sculpture, Seven Ages of Man, which was unveiled in 1980.

The architect responsible for Baynard House, William Holford, was born in Johannesburg in 1907, educated in Cape Town, and studied architecture in Liverpool before becoming a town planner.

From here we cut through an alley towards St.Paul's Cathedral. As the dome came into view Teresa asked 'what's that building?'. Wrong denomination for her I guess.

It was a spectacular view of one of London's most famous landmarks and most important religious buildings. We walked through the gardens and took in the bizarre sculpture before heading up Aldersgate Street towards the Barbican. I like to think we were the only tourists that day who rushed past St.Paul's to look at some tower blocks.

Out of the rain briefly and up a broken escalator to the entrance of the Museum of London. Neill, and then Colin, joined us. I love the Barbican. It's hard not to get lost but the solitude in the centre of the city, the water features, and the play of concrete upon them is truly a delight. I've enjoyed gigs, art exhibitions, and films there - as well as a beer or two out by the lake. I've even seen a heron there.

Shep had never been before and he wasn't particularly impressed when I told him how yummy their lemon drizzle cake is either (though, thankfully, he was impressed by the Barbican itself). Built on a war ravaged site between the sixties and the eighties by the architectural firm Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, it's the site of the former main fort of London (hence the name), and you can still see bits of the old London wall standing from the high walks that face a road called, appropriately enough, London Wall.

The three towers stand proudly above the whole complex. Cromwell was named for Oliver, Shakespeare for William, and Lauderdale, less impressively, for the Earls of Lauderdale. About a decade back they were surpassed as London's tallest residential buildings by the Pan Peninsula on the Isle of Dogs. Each floor of the towers contains only three flats. That's some prime real estate, right there. They'd have got a great view of Skepta filming his Shutdown video.

At the same time, just metres to the north, Chamberlin, Powell & Bon also built the Golden Lane Estate. Some prefer it to the Barbican but it has to be said it's much less iconic and harder to grasp as a complex. The fact the concrete has been painted gives it less of a Brutalist feel than many of the buildings we saw and it's said that many of the flats were built, unlike the Barbican, for single occupancy. A nose inside the windows reveal them to be pretty funky dwellings inside if less than spectacular on the outside to some now somewhat damp ramblers. Great Arthur House was briefly the tallest residential building in the UK but was soon dwarfed by Cromwell and his brothers the other side of Silk Street. To make up for it Great Arthur now wears a somewhat incongruous concrete titfer!

We paused to look at an odd building by Blair Associates before hotfooting it up Goswell Road, Percival Street, and along Skinner Street to the Finsbury Estate (Emberton, Franck & Tardew, 1965).

It's a monster and it sits somewhat uneasily with the graceful curve of the road it lies on. It is seen as an example of High Modern and fancifully lays claim to being influenced not just by the city of Brasilia but also the criticism of Clement Greenberg and the music of Milton Babbitt. This machine for living was what came out of the 20s/30s radical architectural group Tecton's followers (they built the gorilla house at the zoo as well as Highpoint tower in Highgate). Think of them as a kind of British Bauhaus.

People were most impressed to learn that the Finsbury Estate was where they filmed the scenes set in Super Hans' flat in Peep Show! We skipped the Weston Rise Estate and headed west to the Brunswick Estate.

When I first moved to London (and was snooty about the small towns I'd lived in before, briefly) I was most unimpressed with the Brunswick. With Covent Garden, Soho, and Camden all within walking distance who'd want to do their shopping in somewhere that looked like Milton Keynes or, worse (to me then), Basingstoke?

To be fair it wasn't that great in the nineties, a few greasy spoons and a run down shop or two, but now, like everywhere else its been gentrified with sushi bars, a branch of Giraffe, and the always excellent Renoir cinema has been taken over by the Curzon. Shep and I saw Dheepan there in April 2016 and while it was an excellent film the cinema, and its converted multi-storey car park that sells beer vibe, was equally impressive.

The Brunswick Centre looks like it belongs in the south of France and on a sunny day you can imagine people taking advantage of the fountain and the outdoor seating.

But this wasn't a sunny day. People were getting thirsty, bladders were being tested, and the thought of a pint in Fitzrovia institution the King & Queen was simply too tempting. Once we'd found the only table in the pub where Six Nations fans wouldn't be inconvenienced we had a nice sit down and I glugged a pint of Cornish ale back (Tribute). A two pint mistake came into play immediately and, for some, a third. We still had four miles to walk but, once we got back on the road, it started to get dark.

We found ourselves outside the inviting red fa├žade of the Golden Eagle in Marylebone and took a vote. Shall we carry on or shall we go to the pub. Sanda was the most vociferous campaigner for the pub (despite not being a drinker) and Shep was the only one who voted against it. Two years ago I'd have laid money on the opposite being the case.

It was a great pub though and we retired for more beers, fruity chat, architectural arguments, and, go on then, one more beer before people made their separate ways. Colin, Teresa, Adam, Shep, and I to Pizza Express, Ed and Wen to China Town, Neill to a party (I joined him later), while both Darren and Sanda went home.

They'd been great people to spend the day with - and great people to take on a walk. We never made it to the Trellick Tower but that just means we're going again in the summer. Why don't you come with us? All welcome.

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