Concrete Beauty: A Rough Guide to London’s Brutalist Housing Estates

Jack Hanly Jack Hanly

Brutalism has had its fair share of ups and downs. Hailed by architects, governments and academia as the vigorous expression of humanist strength and institutional perseverance in the aftermath of World War II, the architectural style proliferated across the globe at a frenzied pace. The reception by the general public, however, was less rapturous. Many critics deemed the rough “beton brut” of Brutalist buildings a cold and alienating urban presence, citing the projects’ attendant social shortcomings against their projected Utopian dreams. While much of the criticism was nothing more than an ideological attack on the notion of social housing in general, Brutalism gained an infamous reputation that has haunted it for decades.

More recently, there has been a renewed interest in the cultural and historic heritage of Brutalist architecture, not to mention its undeniable aesthetic power. The city of London — where Brutalism found its most enthusiastic embrace — built a number of significant social housing estates (the “projects” in American parlance), massive concrete edifices that responded to the need for a large number of units and the intense psychological trauma caused by the city’s bombing during the war. The verdict is still out on these Brutalist beauties: the public seems to be coming around to some projects, but others have been unable to overcome their storied pasts.

Seminal yet troubled projects such as Alison and Peter Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens are facing the wrecking ball (against the protests of preservationists and architects), while at the same time previously loathed projects have become coveted properties. Here, we explore just some of London’s most iconic Brutalist housing developments, revealing their history and remarkable architectural language, in all its imperfect glory.

via Simon Phipps

via Simon Phipps

Trellick Tower by Ernö Goldfinger (1966–1972)

Trellick Tower is one of Brutalism’s most iconic structures. Finished in 1972 at the peak of Corbusian tower-in-the-park fashions, Goldfinger’s housing project is renowned for its unique dual spatial massing, in which a thin service tower contains the elevator lifts, stairs and mechanical components, and a separate dwelling tower contains the housing units. Each volume is connected at every third floor. This created a layout in which units connected between floor plates, exposing views on both sides.

via Simon Phipps

via fuckyeahbrutalism

The Barbican by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon (1975)

The Barbican, London’s sprawling Brutalist complex was designed in the 1950s and finally completed in 1982 by architectural partners with little formal experience outside the academy. Composed of three towers, terrace blocks and elevated gardens, the complex is almost entirely raised above the city on a concrete podium. And yet the effect is not a sense of isolation from the city at large, but rather a cloistered community full of vibrant amenities, including cultural institutions, schools and shops.

via Municipal Dreams

via Simon Phipps

World’s End Estate by Eric Lyons (1969–1975)

Set on the edge of the Thames River in the Chelsea district, this 12-acre complex contains 750 homes, contained within seven high-rise towers between 18 and 21 stories tall and linked by four-story apartment blocks. The structural concrete frame construction is clad in brown brick, echoing the traditional terrace housing previously found on the site, while irregular floor plans and balconies project and fold into hexagonal layouts.

via Dezeen

via Archdaily

Park Hill Sheffield Estate by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith (1961)

Park Hill is an enormous complex built by the Sheffield housing council. Park Hill is a series of interlocking apartment slabs that are in fact one single building, cranking around a triangular site and connected by pedestrian bridges raised aboveground.

The complex’s almost 1,000 apartments are served by Brutalism’s signature “streets in the sky,” in effect connecting each of the individual slabs into a continuous span. The structural frame featured concrete block infilled with varying shades of brick, while the hillside site necessitated changing heights of 4 to 13 stories yet keeping a continuous roofline.

via buster.net

via Simon Phipps

Dawson Heights by Kate Macintosh (1968–1972)

Inspired by the formal innovations of the above Sheffield Park estate, Kate Macintosh was only 26 when she designed this high point of British social housing at the top of a hill overlooking South London.

The building certainly stands out in its surroundings, and yet the stepped ziggurat form of the apartment block clad in brown brick attempts to submit to the contours of the hillside (in contrast to Park Hill). In addition, floor plates are stacked and staggered, giving the volume a subtly unstable appearance, serviced by balconies that double as fire escapes.

via municipaldreams.wordpress.com

via Simon Phipps

Alexandra Road by Neave Brown

One of the most technologically progressive housing developments of its day, Alexandra Road replaced an area of decaying Victoria terrace houses with a modern iteration of continuous low-rise apartments, organized around pedestrian walkways.

Built in site-cast white board concrete, the homes are two-story apartments with adjoining balconies, where residents have planted profuse greenery. One side of the estate abuts a railway line and steps up and out over this noise factor. Whereas other housing developments of the time met with fierce criticism from residents, the overall reaction to Alexandra Road has been positive.

via archiboo.com

via Richard Einzig

Brunswick Centre by Patrick Hodgkinson

This mixed-used complex of housing and retail/entertainment is another Brutalist “megastructure,” containing all the necessary elements for living in one structure. The raw concrete structure, stepped mass and elevated sculptural service towers have now been painted over, but it seems this was the key to their rejuvenation.

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