London’s Brutalist Buildings

From the 1950s until the mid 1980s, some architects were let loose on projects in London using the ‘Brutalist’ style of architecture. Built in concrete, and favouring function over beauty, these buildings still divide opinion today. I happen to like them a lot. Most people hate the style.

This is just a small selection of those still standing.

The South Bank Arts Complex at Waterloo, South London. Built in 1951, it contains the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room, Hayward Gallery, National Poetry Library and Arts Council Collection.

Barking Station, East London. Built in 1959.

A Greater London Council tower block in Thamesmead, South-East London. Built in 1966

Brunel University Lecture Theatre in Uxbridge, West London. Built in 1973.

Estate stairwell on the Strawberry Vale Estate East Finchley, North London. Built in 1978

The Mall car park in Bromley, South-East London. Built in 1967.

Croydon Magistrates Court, South London. Built in 1968.

The National Archive at Twickenham, South-West London. Built in 1973.

Dawson’s Heights Estate in Dulwich, South-East London. Built in 1964.

Trellick Tower in Golbourne Road, West London. At one time the tallest housing block in Europe. Built 1972.

The Barbican Complex in the City of London. Built 1982.

Thinking Aloud on a Sunday

Design Icons

I normally wake up on a Sunday thinking about something profound. On occasion, there might be a memory, or an idea. This morning, it was something completely different. I woke up thinking about those things that were the style icons of my youth. In most cases, their appeal has endured for me, and I can still see the attraction.

Citroen DS.
This French car was not only futuristic when it was launched, it still looks that same way now, a long time after it has stopped being made. The transport of so many different people, from Presidents to film stars; it was used as an ambulance, available as a luxury convertible, and also a mainstay of the French commuter during the 1970s. I love it!

The Trimphone
Hard to believe in the age of smartphones and tiny portable home phones, but the Trimphone was the absolute bee’s knees at one time. When my parents replaced our old clunky house phone with one just like this, I thought we had really arrived!

Dansette Record Player
The portable record player was freedom for a teenager in the 1960s. No need to have to ask to use your parents’ large gramophone unit anymore. These could easily be carried too, so you could turn up at a friend’s house with your player, and a box of records in the other hand. Half a dozen 45s could be stacked to play in sequence, and they also played full size 33 rpm albums, and even old 78 rpm records from the wartime years. Nobody cared about the tinny sound from the built-in speaker either!

Vespa Scooter
This was the ultimate in cool transport. I was too young to be able to ride one, but wanted so desperately to be able to. They featured in all the films of the day, and often had attractive stars perched on them for photo opportunities. Used as everyday transport for many Italians, their appeal stretched all over Europe, with the Mod youth movement in The UK adopting them as their own.

What were the iconic objects of your youth? What did you have, or desire to own, back in the day?

Architectural admiration (1)

I freely admit that I know almost nothing about Architecture. I have never designed so much as an extension, let alone a massive building or structure. I just know the sort of thing I like, so have carried out a little research in those areas. As I have mentioned before, I have a great admiration for the styles of Art Deco and Modernism. I also cannot disguise a fondness for the 1960s buildings, often described as ‘Brutalist’, along with some housing developments derided as ‘concrete canyons’. Of course, I don’t have to live in them, just admire them from outside.

As a diversion from the usual subjects featured here, I thought that I would discuss some buildings and houses, and attempt to explain why I like them so much. There will not be much Victorian Gothic featured, and you may notice a distinct absence of Edwardian Villas too. I will give some examples though, and if it is well-received, I may well post a follow-up, another time. I will try to only comment on those that I have actually seen, though the Internet, and the availability of images, make it possible to feature almost anything anywhere, I feel that the experience of looking at them can add something to the telling of the tale. They will mostly be in England, with some exceptions that I have admired in other countries too. I will also not restrict myself by sticking to dates or periods, and I will not feature them in any chronological order. The list will appear as it did in my head.

In the tradition of this blog, no photographs will appear. (Except for the Oyster Bungalow, that just popped up!) This will require the small task by the interested reader, of clicking on a link that will appear at the end of each section.

Senate House. (University of London)
Long before I had any idea what this building was, I was taken by its sheer presence, and the way it dominated the surrounding area in Bloomsbury. Completed in 1937, the Art Deco structure was a true skyscraper at the time. It was the second tallest building in the whole of London, overlooked only by the uppermost level of St Paul’s Cathedral. It reminded me of a medieval castle, the symmetrical rows of windows reminiscent of loopholes in an ancient fortification. Even today, it is still visible from most high points around the city, and its imposing stance has made it popular for use in many television and film productions.

Rowley Way, North London.
An experiment in communal living, The Alexandra Road Estate was opened by Camden Council, in 1978. Now commonly known as Rowley Way, this provided over 500 homes, a school, community centre, youth club, and even boasted its own heating system. Built in the style of a stepped pyramid (Ziggurat), the central area is pedestrianised for its entire length, as car parking is incorporated below the apartments. Despite backing on to a busy railway line, the main thoroughfare appears peaceful, and lots of planting gave it a garden feel. Opinion about the use of untreated concrete is still divided. This did not weather too well, and can make parts of the complex appear neglected. Social problems with some tenants also gave the estate a poor reputation, and many did not want to take up the offer of homes there. A stone’s throw from multi-million pound dwellings in St John’s Wood, one of the most desirable parts of London, the change in the law that allowed tenants to buy at a discount has changed the face of this development. To buy a three-bedroom apartment there today would cost a cool £500,000.

Oyster Bungalows.
The quieter seaside towns in southern England were often developed and expanded during the years between the wars. Pevensey Bay is probably best known for being the site where William the Conqueror landed in this country, before the decisive battle near Hastings, in 1066. The area is overshadowed by its proximity to the larger and more popular town of Eastbourne, so it never really expanded as a resort; though Pevensey Castle still attracts visitors. Built in the 1930s, hoping to capitalise on the popularity of seaside holidays, the Beachlands Estate is home to a collection of Modernist and Art Deco homes, all on a small scale. Included in this development are the famous Oyster Bungalows. I have never seen their like anywhere else. Small two-bedroom bungalows on tiny plots, each built in the shape of an oyster. The living area bulges outward, narrowing towards the back. They might actually be better described as Scallop Bungalows, as their shape more obviously resembles the shell of this animal. However, whether by accident, or design, they were called Oyster Bungalows, and they are delightful.
An "oyster" bungalow, Beachlands

The Royal Crescent, Bath.
Just to show that I don’t only like 20th century architecture, feast your eyes on this 18th century marvel. Bath is a city that is so full of interesting buildings, it demands a visit. From the ancient Roman Baths, The Pump Room (made famous by Jane Austen), and the wonderful Pulteney bridge, with the shops built into it, the whole place is a touristic delight. The Royal Crescent, dating from 1775, is a sweeping terrace of houses in the Georgian style. These days, there is a museum at Number One, as well as a luxury hotel at Number 16. The whole row of houses is listed of course, and beautifully preserved. Essentially unchanged since the time it was built, this is a true look at architectural history that is still living and breathing today.

Bodiam Castle, Sussex.
Back even further in time, to the 14th century, we find the exquisite moated castle of Bodiam. This is the embodiment of every castle I ever wanted to visit, or to live in. In a near-perfect setting, well-preserved in part, and also sympathetically restored, it is now owned and run by the National Trust. The imposing battlements have witnessed so many upheavals in our history, from the Wars of The Roses, to the English Civil War. On the losing side in that war, much of the castle was demolished, until later rebuilt to its original plan, in 1829. Despite its military appearance, the castle is not well-designed for war, and is more of a stylised ideal, than a practical fortress. Nonetheless, it is simply sublime.

St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow.
Many churches of the Orthodox religion feature the distinctive ‘Onion’ dome in their design. However, there are few churches, or any buildings for that matter, as unusual and as easily recognised as St Basil’s in Red Square. Built during the 16th century, to commemorate the victories of Ivan the Terrible, it has nine domes, and two spires. The domes are coloured and patterned, with the effect that the whole building appears to be about to float into the sky, attached to a series of balloons. Since 1928, it has been a museum, owned by the Russian state. Illuminated at night, this iconic building is simply breathtaking, and remains as the instant connection with the city of Moscow, known the world over. (Click small icon to see a photo)

The De La Warr Pavilion.
For the last entry in this first post about architecture, it is back to England, and the 1930s. If I could choose to live anywhere, it would certainly be to own and live in this marvellous Modernist building in Bexhill, on the south coast of England. Inside as well as out, it typifies everything I adore and admire about this style and design. I could write a post about the staircase alone. The interior light, the feel of space, the flat roof terrace and outside balcony, all are just divine. Unfortunately it is not a house, and it is not for sale. It was built in 1935, to serve as an entertainment centre for this sedate seaside town. It houses a theatre, a gallery, and a popular restaurant, as well as exhibition rooms, and a gift shop. Since 1986, it has been listed as a Grade 1 building, so can never be altered. It will remain as it is, for as long as it stands. It is one of my favourite places, anywhere in the world.

So, there you have my first seven choices. I don’t for a moment expect everyone to agree with them. But please have a look at the links, if you don’t already know these places, and see what you think. Feel free to suggest your own preferences, and I will happily investigate them. I have plenty more for consideration, but seven is enough to be getting on with. If you like this idea for a series of posts, let me know. I will be happy to write more.

Cars I would like to own

This is a somewhat lightweight post, ideal for a chilly Saturday afternoon. Watching something on TV recently, I noticed one of my favourite cars, the Citroen DS, being driven by a character, and it prompted me to think of all the cars that I once desired. So, here is the list of favourites, in no special order. I have decided not to include any thumbnails. If you are remotely interested, there are good shots on Google Images, and Wikipedia.

1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air. This sums up everything that I remember about American cars from my youth. Fins, two-tone paintwork, whitewall tyres, and acres of chrome. Whether hard-top, or convertible ( it has to be the two-door, not the four-door, or station wagon) this was the car of college boys, rebellious youth, or boyfriends arriving to collect the heroine for the prom. It reeks of drive-in movies, and diners where the waitress on roller skates brings your cheeseburger, and a tray to attach to the lowered window. This was a time when I aspired to being a small-town boy in America. That soon changed.

2012 BMW M5.   I had to have something modern and reliable too, didn’t I? It doesn’t get a lot better than this. If you have no kids, an occasional need for the 4 doors, and you want an understated design, that looks almost innocent, until you push the accelerator, this is the one to go for. Years of development and research have made this one of the most desirable cars in Europe. It just does it all, fast or slow, and keeps going with that almost annoying German reliability. If you want to be an enthusiastic driver, corner hard, work through the gears, it’s all there. Fancy a slow meander through the lanes, flipping the tiptronic change occasionally? Job done. You really don’t need much else. Unfortunately, this sort of excellence comes at a price. The car starts at £73,000, and BMW are notorious for their ‘options’, which should read ‘not supplied as standard’. If you added every option available on this car, you would be getting a bill for a jaw-dropping 100 grand. That is the price of a decent two-bed terraced house in parts of Norfolk. But you can’t drive a house.

Citroen DS. This was a car so futuristic in design, that even today, it still looks like a concept car. It is truly a one-off, and there has been nothing like it before, or since. Available in many levels of trim and modification, it could be a saloon for the family man, an enormous estate car, for those needing the load carrying capacity (Safari), transport for The President of France, or in convertible form, a stylish car for the socialites of St.Tropez. The complex hydraulic system guaranteed a smooth ride over all surfaces, self-levelling like the proverbial magic carpet. Dashboard mounting of the gear lever, or auto shift, meant that front passenger room was excellent for the class. But it is not the inside that captivates. This is a car to be admired from outside, to be parked, polished, and drooled over. I will concede that many hate the look of the car, and it is a design that tends to polarize car buffs. I liked it a lot then, and I still do.

1969 Dodge Charger. When the grittier films of the late 1960’s and 1970’s (Bullitt, Vanishing Point) started to arrive in the UK, we were introduced to the American Muscle Car. Over-engined, capable of incredible speed, with design pared down to resemble a chromed brick, these vehicles meant business. They did not care about miles per gallon, tyre usage, or whether you could get the family in the back. They were cars for men who wanted to drive fast, take no bullshit, and get the job done. I wanted one. Many liked the Mustang fastback, popularised by being driven by Steve McQueen in the above film, or the other Ford car, the Gran Torino, as used by Starsky and Hutch, in the television series. I always liked the Dodge Charger, just to be a bit different, I suppose.

1977 Daimler Double-Six Coupe. This was made at a time when the British car industry was in decline. Almost cocking a snook at fast-rising fuel prices, and the belt-tightening economy before the boom of the mid 1980’s, this luxury tourer was an object of desire for me, then approaching my 25th birthday. The massive 5.3 litre engine gave this car a top speed of almost 150 miles per hour, achieved in an atmosphere of refinement, and near silence. If you had to ask how many miles it did to the gallon, you couldn’t afford one. There were all the extras that befitted the transport of the English Gentleman. Hand-sewn, Connolly leather seats, and a real wooden surround for the instruments and dashboard. As only just over 400 were ever made and sold, it has to go on my list, and if it were in order of preference, very close to the top of that list too.

1972 Mercedes 600 Pullman.  If it was good enough for Mao-Tse-Tung, then it has to be on my list. This massive German Limo was the Tiger tank of the car industry. It had a presence on the road that few others could equal, whether moving, or stationary. This is a car that I would have to be chauffeured in, just so I could sit in the back, and close the velvet curtains, before enjoying a drink from the built-in cocktail cabinet. It looks like a car, just more so, and is undeniably German, in every way. It does not have the swooping front wings of the Rolls-Royce, instead favouring a look that seems to be hewed out of a block of granite. I love it.

1968 Citroen Mehari.   Another Citroen, I know. I admire the way that they did their own thing, bucking all the trends of the day. This quirky 2-door runabout, based on the 2CV, had a pseudo-military look. With no roof, and only a canvas top, it was best suited for hot countries, or at least those with little rain. I saw them in France at around the time they were first introduced. They were driven by cool guys, on the sun-drenched roads around Marseille, normally accompanied by laughing, pretty girls. They always seemed to be on their way to a beach, or leaving one, heading for a party.  It didn’t matter that it had no performance, or a spartan interior. It was cool, in the French way.

Before you all scream, I know that there are no Italian cars in the list. A distinct absence of Ferraris and Lamborghinis, and not a De Tomaso Pantera in sight. They just don’t do it for me. Bum on the ground, ridiculously loud exhaust, no over the shoulder visibility, and once you are over 50, impossible to get in and out of. They are all flash and show, style over substance. They are also Police magnets, hooligan magnets, and boy-racer magnets, so you can have them, with my compliments. No Rolls Royce, Bentley, or Aston Martin either? Superb vehicles all, just a bit too boring and predictable for me though. Just these seven cars then, couldn’t get many more on the drive anyway!.