Why Brutalist heritage gets my vote

Why Brutalist heritage gets my vote

MP Ed Vaizey
As the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room reopen after extensive refurbishment, MP Ed Vaizey explains why he's a fan of the Brutalist architecture they epitomise

Brutalist architecture is unashamedly stark, visually austere – and yet one of the most important architectural movements of the 20th century.

Originating in post-war Britain, these structures were the antithesis of the glass-and-steel Modernism which was also rising in prominence. Dominated by its use of concrete - cheap, abundant and grey - it is easy to dismiss these structures as such. But this completely brushes over the innovation and forward-thinking involved in their design and construction.

The Southbank Centre, National Theatre and Barbican have long been flagbearers for Brutalism which is entwined within their very identity. The dramatic shapes this construction method allows befitting of three of the city’s most iconic cultural institutions.

People at its heart

For residential architecture, Brutalist structures were constructed with people at the very heart of the equation. This is most notable in its use by Goldfinger and the Smithsons in the 60s and 70s – with their ‘streets-in-the-sky’ and idealistic approach of using the built environment to change society.

Brutalism was deployed for its directness and functionality – embodying the perceived social ideals of the time.

As the 20th century progressed, Brutalism may well have fallen out of fashion, but it remains a defining layer of our country’s identity and appreciation for its worth has taken an upward turn.

Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, an inescapable focal point of the North-West London skyline, has undergone a resurgence from one of the “ugliest buildings in the world” to become an alternative landmark in its own right.

The V&A, following a toughly fought but failed bid in the site achieving listed status, acquired a three-storey section of the Robin Hood Gardens in East London. A façade from the estate will even this year be exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale as a “defining example of Brutalist architecture and social housing”. 

It’s a great idea – and as the Minister who was proud to list Preston Bus Station, my own small contribution to Brutalist heritage, one that I fully support.

Cultural significance

The aesthetic value of Brutalist architecture will always be contentious.  Its imposing rawness celebrated by many, maligned by many more. One man's Trellick, another's relic. 

But in terms of heritage, identity and cultural significance, its value is irrefutably concrete.