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The result was that brutalism, in the public mind, became the architecture of a forgotten underclass: windswept plazas, crumbling concrete, ugly dystopian soullessness. Far from being something to aspire to, it was something to escape from. The name didn’t help: even though it derives from the French béton brut, for raw concrete, it still connotes brutality. The architecture could be pretty brutal too: hulking, massive, monumental. Certainly by 1981, when Tom Wolfe published From Bauhaus to Our House, brutalism had become something to hate, a symbol of everything that was wrong with modern architecture.
Say what you like about brutalist buildings, you have to admit they look gorgeous in photographs and in coffee-table books such as This Brutal World, recently published by Phaidon. Brutalism might still be a bit austere for many people’s taste. But when you live in something that good looking, you can’t help but feel a little bit of glamor by association.
As it remains with Brutalism even now, what happened because of the absence of backup systems and ongoing maintenance is wrongly thought of today as an aeshetic failure. This over-concern for the aesthetics of social housing projects seems confined to the English-speaking countries. It’s as if their occupants aren’t allowed aesthetics of any kind, let alone decent maintenance. The elevators in The Barbican seem to work fine. Stylistically, some of Brutalism’s architectural ideas such as raw finishes and the absence of ornament weren’t bad ones but it’s the social optimism of Brutalism that really needs keeping going. It’s precisely this that’s under continual attack.