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BLOG BEING UPDATED - TRY AGAIN LATER This blog records the controversial era of British architecture, 1960's Brutalism. Many Brutalist buildings have been demolished and many still are under threat


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meet the architects behind the buildings

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Brutalism in Britain


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Does brutalism have a future?

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Erno Goldfinger in the east-end

This post examines the residential blocks of the eminent architect Erno Goldfinger in the east-end of London. From the 1960's Goldfinger designed a series of buildings for social housing in the east end which included Balfron tower which was similar to his work Trellick tower in the west end, Glenkerry house and Carradale house. His distinctive architectural style, embracing the utilitarian principles of brutalism (too excessively for many) and his work in pioneering high density high rise in the post-war rebuilding of London gives Goldfinger a prominent role in the development of a modern form of living and the development of the brutalist architectural style. 

Visiting advice: His works in the east-end are all in very close proximity to each other and can be visited at the same time. If you are interested in a visit my suggested route is to getting off at Blackwell (the DLR station) and attempt to walk via Robinhood gardens - another iconic but less appreciated icon (shortly to be demolished!), then follow the A12 north until you find the clearly visible blocks - it is not difficult to miss them! Also - best to go in warmer weather!

Balfron Tower

Balfron Tower, the tallest and most distinguishable of the group bares a striking similarity to trellick tower in the west end, these blocks were built in the late 1960's just prior to the completion of Trellick tower   The most iconic feature of this building and of Goldfinger's social housing are the detached Lift towers which are given a grandeur and monumentality. The design is both functional and aesthetic, functional in the sense that having a detached lift (and services) tower isolates the noisy parts of the building such as the lift, rubbish shoots, the boiler room and (in the past at least) washing facilities away from the main living accommodation. The maisonette structure in which access to the flats is on every third floor is also function in that it both reduces the cost in construction of the lift (often the practical reason for maisonette structures in post-war rebuilding - primarily pragmatism rather than aesthetic or ideological) and reduces the number of lift stops, saving time. Despite the purely practical nature of the design it never-the-less creates the iconic feature of the block, a clear illustration of the  ideological utilitarianism of the brutalist style. 

The tower will shortly undergo a restoration and modernization before the flats are 'privatized' and sold off. The nature of this process is inevitably controversial with the accusations of social cleansing - often justified. It will be interesting to see whether these flats formerly used for social housing will attract the middle class professionals which Trellick tower certainly has in the last twenty years after the same treatment. Brutalist architecture certainly is becoming more desirable however the extent to which these flats do become 'gentrified' will only become apparent in a few years time.   

Glenkerry House

Glenkerry house is the shorter neighbour of Balfron tower although its structure and plan is much the same as the latter, the flats are designed as maisonettes although with a 'semi'-detached lift tower, physically joined to the building  on all floors (unlike Balfron and trellick towers) although set at a right-angle to the main walkways. Glenkerry house lacks the height which creates interest (although I acknowledge its proximity to Balfron tower may have restricted its height) and when viewed from green it overlooks it is in my opinion somewhat underwhelming.  Unlike Trellick and Balfron the lift tower although still a key feature of the building is less successful as in the former with there detached towers with walkways int he sky creates the monumental and iconic image of the building and is the main distinguishing  feature. The iconic detached lift tower which creates the landmark status of the fore-mentioned towers. In my opinion it lacks conviction and is a watered down version of Balfron tower and in such proximity it is inevitably overshadowed by that building - both literally and metaphorically, Glenkerry cannot (in my mind) decide its form, high rise or low rise it (opting for somewhere in the middle) which does not express the confidence and conviction which makes brutalism so stimulating and controversial. Despite this, that is not to say the building is without merit and if viewed without a inevitable comparison with its neighbour it does still assert its own distinctive character. 

After passing from control of Tower Hamlets council (which is a relief considering their record for the care of brutalist architecture - see Robin Hood gardens!) the building is now run by an independent housing cooperative

Carradale House 

Built in the same style as his other works although a horizontal rather than vertical display of his approach to social housing. Although evidently less impressive than Balfron tower unlike the Glenkerry house it has I think more conviction in its form (a long and low block). It has a good relationship with its neighbour Balfron tower (see left) and creates some clear continuity. It also displays the instantly recognizable detached lift tower with the small vertical arrowslit windows and again takes a prominent place asserting again the utilitarian character and nature of the building. 

Friday, 13 June 2014

EVENT: Balfron tower open day

On the 21st June 2014 for one day only Balfron tower in the east end of London, (the sister of Trellick tower in the west end, both designed by eminent brutalist architect Erno Goldfinger) will be open to the public. A series of exciting events (some which need to be booked - see below) will be taking place inside the building all day exploring the architecture of the tower and the surrounding area. 

Built in the mid 1960's the building is due for a series of refurbishments and alterations in preparation for private sell off of the flats (going the same way as trellick tower - more HERE on the 'social cleansing'). This may be the last opportunity to see the interior in its original condition. Not an event to miss if you are interested in Brutalist architecture!

Find out more detail HERE (including booking details)
Guardian article on the festival HERE

Monday, 9 June 2014

Robin Hood Gardens

Robin Hood gardens is one of the most iconic post-war brutalist council estates in east London. Built in the 1960's by the eminent husband and wife architectural duo of Peter and Alison Smithson, it was part of a new generation of projects which sort to rebuild the east-end from the appalling poverty and damage sustained during the second world war. The use of concrete was chosen primarily for its cheap and easy application, although it was at a time when concrete was increasingly becoming the material of use in construction due to its aesthetic characteristics. The estate like many others of era is out of fashion with the politicians in local town halls and as a result Tower Hamlets intends to demolish by the middle of 2015.   

The estate essentially is composed of two long facing blocks overlooking a central open park. The design complied with the aims of planners in the post war era to built high density living but ensure a larger number of greener and open spaces in the east-end, building high density allow for generous public space. The blocks which are even to a fan of the style, quite oppressive in their size (the price of large open spaces) are reached via the popular 1960's architectural notion of 'streets in the sky' with wide walkways run the length of the building. Most flats were built as maisonettes with internal staircases for council tenants but never-the-less were perceived to be spacious - not a luxury afforded to many new houses built.

Despite a recent attempt to have the buildings listed by the 20th century society and others in architectural circles including Lord Rogers - which goes to show the significance of the work- listing has been dismissed by English heritage and inevitably by the council who are desperate to demolish the estate. The council argue that the current buildings do not meet the same energy efficient standards as new homes would, which is a fair point although I can't see Georgian and Victorian houses which are unquestionably preserved as particularly energy efficient (similar arguments were used in the 1960's to justify demolition). It also argues that open space would be reduced but I think this too is questionable - the current blocks use space very efficiently with high density housing and large open spaces, how much more open space will be generated in a scheme which is undoubtedly motivated by developers greed is not clear. 

The estate is due to be demolished by 2015, at present the buildings are still occupied and work has begun on other sites (July 2015 is when their demolition notice runs out- they will have to demolish before then). The development is part of a wider, no doubt 'exciting' redevelopment, 'Blackwell reach', although as usual the replacement makes for depressing viewing (well depending on opinion and taste), some may argue that anything is an improvement but with the picture below in mind I beg to differ. I am in full agreement with the ever sharp Rowan Moore of the guardian in his scathing analysis, 'one proposal for Robin Hood Gardens involves a cluster of towers that is pure Hong Kong, minus the vibrant street life or dramatic topography'.

robin hood gardens
Hong Kong on Thames - One of the possible designs for its replacement

Although the estate was built cheaply in the rush to build houses in the 1960's they are essentially well designed, the current condition of the estate and many similar estates has been the lack of maintenance and investment in their upkeep. Indeed many have accused Tower Hamlets council of deliberately running down the estate in order to speed up the removal of the remaining residents and start demolition. The deterioration of the estate is clear for all to see and often see left (as the council well know) the poor state of the building (induced by the council) is the pretext needed to prevent listing and allow demolition, which is what has happened here and in countless over examples across the country. 

One of the main attractions of many of these council estates is the large open and public spaces which they make available due to high density living. Although many are uselessly wasted the central garden in the Robin Hood gardens estate is one of the better examples of how to use and develop the space. A man made hill gives the garden some interest with well developed trees and flower meadows creating a piece of the country in the heart of the east end. It was clear in my visit that people appreciate the space, I observed many residents using the gardens and enjoying one of the few days of sun. The space between the blocks also houses a playground and an area for raised beds for growing vegetables. Good management of the space has created a genuine area for the community in estates often characterized by exclusion. This space will no doubt be lost in the redevelopment and public access will certainly be restricted in the name of privacy and security. Whatever ones attitude to the architecture the estate is more than just the buildings, its also about the connecting spaces between them, most will I think find the gardens attractive whatever their architectural taste. 

the central mount of the garden  

Robin hood gardens - another one bites the dust

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Update - Preston Bus station 05/06/14

Earlier this year it was announced that the recently listed (September 2013) Preston bus station would not be demolished by Preston city council but ownership would instead be transferred to Lancashire county council who run all over transport facilitates across the county. The county council unlike the city council is not cash-strapped and is prepared to invest in the future of the building, with £8m already earmarked for the project. Although the future of the building finally looks secure after a long struggle the debate continues on what is to be done with the building and whether it is still fit for purpose as a bus station.  

Such a major success for one of the countries most significant brutalist works should be celebrated as a great victory for the Brutalist lobby where we are so often embittered with another defeat, progress is being made. Everyone remembers how the grade one listing of George Gilbert Scott's St Pancras hotel created a momentum for the preservation of Victorian buildings in the 1960's, could Preston bus station be a turning point - we will see. It is also a significant success as (without trying to be to patronizing) it took place in the regions where all to often local authorities disregard the protests of locals and demolish without considering the true merit of the buildings (e.g Gateshead trinity square). 
What was essential as well as the significant local campaign Save Preston Bus Station campaign led by John Wilson was the national debate through media and newspapers. The interventions and lobbying of Angela Brady of the RIBA and other figures in the architectural world significantly contributed to efforts to save the building especially in getting it listed which laid the ground work for a move away from demolition. Although the tireless work and termination of John Wilson and others in keeping up the momentum on the ground and the pressure on the council ensured this national coverage of the debate and the preservation of this brutalist icon at least for the enjoyment and critical analysis of future generations. 

   What do you think of Preston Bus station? leave a comment!