Architecture at the Movies: Why Brutalism Is the Real Star in Spy Films

Brutalism is modernism gone rogue, relinquishing its role as the guardian of social balance and disowning the aesthetic puritanism of sleek white walls and ribbon windows.

Lidija Grozdanic Lidija Grozdanic

“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.”

Paraphrasing Harry Lime’s famous quote from the 1949 film “The Third Man,” British journalist and author Jonathan Meades states: “Necessity is merely the adoptive mother of invention. War is the birth mother.” As the author and narrator of BBC’s documentary “Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry,” he continues to cite the numerous modern-day utilities — computers, prosthetics, smart textiles, food substitutes, space travel, surveillance systems, etc. — born from martial ingenuity. It is the period of the Second World War in which the author finds the precursors of Brutalist architecture whilst also referencing the defensive qualities of ancient compounds and the once-hated Victorian Modern Gothic.

Still from “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011)

The origins of Brutalism can not be geographically or chronologically pinpointed within a single time and space. Its genetic base falls squarely in the genus of modernism, but its phenotype draws on more distant ancestors: primitivism, Incan architecture, expressionism, Fauvism and a general aspiration toward making raw uninhibited art.

It is modernism gone rogue, relinquishing its role as the guardian of social balance and disowning the aesthetic puritanism of sleek white walls and ribbon windows. Cyclopian, coarse, ziggurat-like, monstrous and poetic, Brutalism has developed as an exploration of form, but its essence is closely linked to the destructive power and horrors of the war. Inspired by war bunkers and military infrastructure, it undoubtedly projected the collective anxieties of the Cold War era and revived the notion of buildings as weapons.

Still from “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011)

Now, two generations later, spy films and TV series set during the Cold War echo a renewed interest in this era — a trend that can be attributed to nostalgia, romantic ideas about secret agents and double lives and, most importantly, aesthetics. What “Mad Men” did for the 1950s design, fashion and architecture, films like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and TV series like “The Game” are doing for subsequent decades.

The role of architecture is less prominent in another popular genre of spy drama set in present day, i.e., “24,” “Homeland” and the Bourne film franchise, which portray space as almost completely inconsequential. In these post-9/11 thrillers, plots are based on surveillance, data and instincts; architecture is expendable, and survival depends on constant movement and ability to adapt. Cold War–era spy films, on the other hand, portray the moment in history in which the illusion of safety provided by spatial boundaries became exposed.

Still from the BBC’s series “The Game”(2014)

In the BBC’s TV series “The Game,” the headquarters of the British MI5 is located in the Birmingham Central Library, one of many Brutalist buildings slated for demolition. The building, designed by architect John Madin in 1974, safeguards the intelligence, archives and secret files its massive walls enclose, spaces sparsely furnished with leather sofas, bookshelves and lamps. Ironically, though, the intimidating massive walls don’t seem to provide a satisfactory level of safety, which is why the ultimate safe space is placed at its heart. The boardroom, “the fray,” acts as a cocoon where a special committee discusses their plans of action against the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency.

This bunker-inside-bunker typology is amplified in the 2011 film “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” In this hunt-the-mole mystery based on John Le Carré’s 1974 novel of the same name, director Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) chose an old Victorian structure for the MI6 headquarters dubbed “The Circus.” The headquarters itself is actually housed in a Brutalist ’60s block digitally inserted into the building’s courtyard.

Like a Russian Matryoshka doll, the smaller structure has another completely sealed-off conference room at its center, padded with sound-insulation foam, where a handful of senior MI6 officers meet (Gary Oldman garnered his first Oscar nomination for his portrayal of spymaster George Smiley). Despite the spatial layering, architecture again fails the war effort: One of the men is the mole.

Meanwhile, in the Michael Caine 1986 spy thriller “The Whistle Blower,” an entire flat is disguised as a film set in order to trick the enemy. As two characters are talking, the set slowly falls apart, and we are left in awe of its believability and the ultimate redundancy of architecture in modern information warfare. The remaining true value of Brutalist architecture is an aesthetic one.

Still from the BBC’s series “The Game”(2014)

This resurgent fascination with the Cold War era parallels a concurrent fetishization of Brutalism among creatives. A popular blog called Fuck Yeah Brutalism and Jan Kempenaers’ photographs of monuments from Tito’s Yugoslavia are among many projects and platforms dedicated to the rough charm of Brutalist architecture. In an article, the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman argued against the renovation of Paul Rudolph’s Brutalist masterpiece, Orange County Government Center, in Goshen, N.Y., and Orange County’s plan to tear down part of the building and add a glass box.

Brutalist structures seem to be dropping like flies. Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago and John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library have already been torn down. Granted, some of these structures may be worthy of the pejorative term “concrete monstrosity,” but the majority of them are simply beautiful structures that became victims of neglect.

Still from “Get Carter” (1971)

Whatever the case, Brutalist architecture remains unapologetic and unamenable to the feebleness and mercantilism of public and boardroom consensus. In the 1971 film “Get Carter” (more of a gangster film, but based on the same narrative premise of obtaining and concealing information), a rich manipulative mobster hires two architects to design a restaurant atop Trinity Square car park in Gateshead, U.K. The investor gets pushed off the building, and the architects, depicted as rather slimy opportunists, are left waiting in doubt they would ever see a dime.

The car park, a rather unappealing structure, was demolished in 2010, as the town officials claimed the community needed a new town center worthy of its inhabitants. What the town of Gateshead eventually got was a shopping center, which ended up on the nomination list for Britain’s ugliest building in 2014. Whether or not the car park could or should have been preserved and renovated is debatable, but the question remains: If not, then why replace it with another mediocre structure?

Perhaps the answer lies in a quote from a different Gary Oldman film. Playing venal businessman Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, he explains the necessity and benefits of destruction to Father Vito Cornelius. “Life, which you so nobly serve, comes from destruction, disorder and chaos. Now take this empty glass. Here it is: peaceful, serene, boring. But if it is destroyed … ” He knocks down a glass, it shatters on the floor, and several small machines come out to clean it up.

Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg

“Look at all these little things! So busy now! Notice how each one is useful. A lovely ballet ensues, so full of form and color. Now, think about all those people that created them. Technicians, engineers, hundreds of people, who will be able to feed their children tonight, so those children can grow up big and strong and have little teeny children of their own, and so on and so forth, thus adding to the great chain of life. You see, father, by causing a little destruction, I am in fact encouraging life. In reality, you and I are in the same business.”

He then takes a sip of water and starts chocking on a cherry pit. Father Cornelius taps him on the back, he spits the pit out but ends up having to swallow his own words.