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Aimee Ambrose: Why the time has come to embrace our brutalist legacy

Media centre home > Feature and comment > Aimee Ambrose: Why the time has come to embrace our brutalist legacy

Published: 09/09/15

The National Trust, the self-proclaimed custodian of "the places we love" has embraced brutalist architecture with tours of some of the country's best-known brutalist wonders, including Sheffield's very own Park Hill.

I have long admired the boldness and bravery of the movement that helped re-invent our war-torn cities in the face of great post-war austerity.

Instead of resorting to predictable pastiches and the recreation of abundant Victorian forms that still dominate much of our former industrial cities, the modernist architects of the 50s and 60s including Owen Luder, and the Le Corbusier-inspired Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn introduced something truly different.  

These imposing geometric concrete forms came as something of a shock to a nation so accustomed to the conservative and utilitarian legacy of the industrial revolution and the 'fussy' ornateness  of the neo-gothic styles evident in so many of our civic buildings.

Modernism brought clean lines, hard edges and the affordability and flexibility of concrete enabled us to build quickly and scale new heights, introducing to our cities new levels of what is (technically) known in the architectural world as 'bigness'.

Modernism introduced forms to our cityscape that were so incredibly different from what had gone before and coming at the end of a period when the public had witnessed the destruction of so much that was familiar, it must undoubtedly have felt very brutal indeed.

But what was the alternative? Could we and should we have continued to churn out Victoriana well into the 20th Century?

Could the young architects of the day be expected to suppress their creativity and shun the radical thinking of the time in favour of the replication of 'safe' built forms that would not upset or unsettle the public?

A huge opportunity presented itself to break with the old and in cities like Sheffield, where much of what had made it distinctive before (if, indeed, it was ever distinctive before) had been lost to The Blitz, a forward-looking architectural team headed by Lewis Womersley grabbed it with both hands.

They were brave, bold and I believe, genuinely committed to the best possible quality of life for the people of Sheffield.

The Park Hill flats, Sheffield's most immediate landmark, exhibits features and design details that attest to the architects' concern for the tenants' comfort and convenience such as wide walkways dubbed 'streets in the sky' designed with neighbourly interaction in mind and echoing the street pattern of the slum neighbourhood the flats replaced.

Schools, shops, pubs and community facilities could all be reached via an undercover walkway without leaving the estate. I am, of course, now at risk of being accused of idealising what, for some, became places of great unhappiness and dysfunction.

And, indeed, I would certainly support the view that towards the end of the era, the design principles of the modernist tower block became sloppily replicated with little consideration of concern for context or the needs of the occupants, in a frenzied attempt to remedy massive housing shortages.

The plight of modernism (housing in particular) worsened greatly in the 1980s when budget cuts as brutal as the architecture saw 'council housing' debased, housing management and maintenance budgets slashed and police resources squeezed.

At this point, social problems such as  crime and vandalism become synonymous with modernist housing estates and modernist architecture was about as far away from our affections as it could be.

Most of the worst products of this era were consigned to the wrecking ball during extensive programmes of slum clearance and the same fate has beset many of the worst examples of modernism - and the odd gem such as the Gateshead multi-storey from the Ted Lewis' film Get Carter.

What we are left with is, in the main, some of the most enduring and high quality examples of the era and they are certainly worth holding on to.

Now we have come full circle. Flats on the Park Hill estate have been redeveloped by Urban Splash and some of the city's most creative pioneers like Warp Films and Human Studios, have moved in.

I have great hope that the National Trust's latest move may represent a bold step towards celebrating the city's architecture.

The author:

Aimee Ambrose

Aimee is a qualified town planner and previously practiced within local government.

"Flats on the Park Hill estate have been redeveloped by Urban Splash and some of the city's most creative pioneers like Warp Films and Human Studios, have moved in."