The New Brutalist Architecture Anthropology Essay


23 Mar 2015

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New Brutalist architecture is the outcome of a British architectural ethic named 'New Brutalism'. According to Peter and Alice Smithson, the term was coined from a newspaper paragraph heading which, by poor translation of French, called the Marseilles Unité by Le Corbusier 'Brutalism in architecture'[1]. The Smithsons anointed their own British brand of Modernism by adding 'New' both because they came after Le Corbusier and also in response to the style of the Architectural Review which - at the start of the 1950's - sunned many articles on the New Monumentality, the New Empiricism, the New Sentimentality etc.[2] Thus, New Brutalism was set to up be the direct line development of the Modern Movement.

According to Banham (1966), whilst the terms 'Brutalism' and 'New Brutalism' are often used interchangeably, it is important to distinguish the meanings of the two terms as this paper will be focusing on the latter. Brutalism, though a British term, refers to an architectural aesthetic that is characterised by sticking repetitive angular geometries, and where concrete is used. A building without concrete can achieve a Brutalist character through a rough blocky appearance, and the expression of its structural materials, forms and services on its exterior. Another common theme is the exposure of the building's functions in the exterior of the building. Banham (1966) summarises the key characteristics of Brutalist architecture as formal legibility of plan, clear exhibition of structure, direct and honest use of materials and clear exhibition of services. Thus, Brutalism casts back in time to include Le Corbusier as one of its important contributors.

On the other hand, 'New Brutalism' was coined before any New Brutalist architecture was built. It is an 'ethic, not aesthetic' and is associated with socialist utopian ideology supported by Peter and Alison Smithson and the Team 10 group of architects amongst which they belonged. It is more related to the theoretical reform in urban theory proposed by CIAM than to 'béton brut'. Thus, having originated from entirely different, organic theoretical doctrines, the British brand of Brutalism has considerable differences to Brutalist architecture from the continent.

New Brutalism was born in the post-war era, almost exclusively in the Architect's Department of the London County Council (LCC) - the only place where young graduated architects such as Peter and Alison Smithson and many  from the Architectural Association school (AA) could find work in London. Many architects who have returned from the world had fought to make the world safe but the economic terms of the price of victory was heavy and the country faced long periods of austerity resulting in shortages, a shortfall in housing and social services. It was a time of benevolent socialism and commitment to the welfare state following the election of the Labour Government in 1945. The government had assumed responsibility for the welfare of the people in a way that would have been unthinkable in the 1930s.[3] Many houses of the working class poor that were in the centre of large industrial cities such as London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham have been destroyed. In London, Abercrombie and Forshaw published the County of London Plan which described the challenge faced by the government. The report recognised that 'there is abundant evidence ... that for families with children, houses are preferred to flats. They provide a private garden and yard at the same level as the main rooms of the dwelling, and fit the English temperament.'[4] But, to put everyone in houses would result in the displacement of two-thirds to three-quarters of the people. The planners wished to minimise the out-movement of jobs. They settled on 136 persons per acre which - based on the research they did - put one third of the people in houses, and some 60 per cent in eight- and ten- storey flats; about half of families with two children will go into flats, but even this density meant the overspill of 4 in 10 of all people living in this zone in 1939.

Furthermore, there was the sense of l'esprit nouveau - of making a fresh start after the cleansing effect of the war. The London architectural debate was fractionized; largely between the student generation and practicing 'establishment' architects. The Establishment architects tended towards Socialist political alignment, with the welfare state architecture of Sweden as the architectural paradigm. For the whole generation of graduating architects from the AA were strongly influenced by the ideas of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe; 'the Ville Radieuse and the Unité d'Habitation suggested a model to be applied by good hard socialist principles in good hard modernist materials.'[5] They felt the Establishment architects were tending towards what they saw as a 'softer' and more 'humanist' Modernism, a retreat from the pre-war, heroic form of Modernism[6]. The Architect's Department at the LCC provided a model in the early years; it had an unusually free hand, because the Ministry's ordinary cost sanctions did not apply to it[7]. It first produced 'the great Corbusian slabs' which culminated in the only true realisation of the Radiant City in the world - the Alton West estate in Roehampton[8].

The New Brutalist's concept of order is not classical but topological: its implementation on a site could have involved judging the case on its merits (i.e. land form, accommodation required, finance available) rather than in accordance with a pre-established classical or picturesque 'schema'.[9] Thus, they distinguish themselves from the earlier Brutalists such as Le Corbusier who proposed in his 1925 'Plan Voisin' to bulldoze most of central Paris north of the Seine in order to replace it with a hard of identical sixty-story towers. The Swiss architect was working in an inter-war Paris of 'exuberant, chaotic and often sordid everyday life'[10] when the city was racked by disease and slums. He believed in centralising order ('The design of cities was too important to be left to citizens'[11]). His plans always relied on his famous paradox: we must decongest the centres of our cities by increasing their density; in addition, we must improve circulation and increase the amount of open space. The paradox could be resolved by building high on a small part of total ground area[12]. This vision required clearing entire sites ('WE MUST BUILD ON A CLEAR SITE! The city of today is dying because it is not constructed geometrically'[13]). In war-torn London, the New Brutalists had the 'luxury' of bomb-cleared sites but they also had a greater awareness for the historical fabric of the place-the designers of the Barbican estate built around St Giles church which survived the bombing and designers of Park Hill in Sheffield preserved old street names from the slum for their elevated walkways.

Le Corbusier developed his principles of planning most fully in La Ville Contemporaine (1922) and La Ville Radieuse(1932). The plans differed in their recommendation for social distribution. The Contemporary City's clearly differentiated spatial structure was designed to reflect a specific, segregated social structure: one's dwelling depended on one's job[14]. The residential areas would be of two types: six-storey luxury apartments for professional white collar workers (e.g. industrialists, scientists and artisits), and more modest accommodation for workers, built around courtyards, with less open space. These apartments would be mass-produced for mass-living. The apartments would all be uniform, contain standard furniture and be collectively serviced much like a hotel. Le Corbusier also designed entertainment and cultural complexes close to the middle-class in the centre of the city. The blue collar workers would not live like this. They would live in garden apartments within satellite units. A different and appropriate sort of green space, sports facilities and entertainments would be available for these residents. Many aspects of New Brutalist architecture echo ideas from the Contemporary City. Income segregation has been practiced to different extents; the Barbican estate's apartments vary between elaborate and fashionable layouts on the affluent south side (where the tenants were mainly city workers) and simpler layouts and designs on north side where social housing is concentrated[15]. Furthermore, whole out of town social housing estates such as Thamesmead have been built to resemble Le Corbusier's 'satellite units'.

By the time of the Radiant City, though the tenets of the Corbusian religion remained unchanged, there were important theological variations.  Everyone will be equally collectivised and live in giant apartments called 'Unités'. Every family will get an apartment not according to the breadwinner's job, but according to rigid space norms: no one will get anything more or less than the minimum necessary for efficient existence. Everyone will enjoy collective services such as cooking, cleaning and childcare. Similarly, New Brutalist architects have tried to logically work from basic human needs in order to distinguish the necessary from the unnecessary and thereby simplifying existing architectural conventions to create an efficient living or working space[16]. However, rarely have they attempted to create truly mixed-income neighbourhoods, having concentrated on social housing estates. Although the recent redevelopment of Park Hill estate in Sheffied is mixing affordable and commercial residential housing in the Brutalist estate, it cannot be said that mixed-income communities were a tenet of New Brutalism.

Brutalist architecture quickly became the official architecture of the Welfare State. Criticisms of its severe problems took a very long time to come. In order to see why, it is important to appreciate how bad were the original dense rows of smoke-blackened slums that the towers replaced. Six years of war had reduced those parts of London and the great provincial cities to a sinister squalor. For two decades, any social disbenefits of modernist planning and its transformation of the town passed largely unremarked[17]. Criticisms rapidly became deafening in the 1970s after the subsidy system had been recast and local authorities were already phasing out their high-rise blocks. Though the outburst was triggered by the collapse of a building in a gas explosion, the majority of the complaints were eloquently summarised by Kenneth Campbell, who was in charge of housing design at the LCC and GLC from 1959 to 1974, to be the lifts (too few, too small, too slow), the children (too many), and the management (too little)[18]. Most importantly, critics like to point out that the true cause of all such problems, of which Corbusier is a fully culpable as any of his followers, was that the middle-class designers had no real feeling for the way a working-class family lived[19]; in their world '[children] are not hanging around the landing or playing with the dustbin lids'[20].

Chapter Two

Dreams v Reality

Inside the Minds of Brutalist Architects

'The sin of Corbusier and the Corbusians thus lay not in their designs, but in the mindless arrogance whereby they were imposed on people who could not take them and could never, given a modicum of thought, ever have been expected to take them'[21] Corbusian Brutalism and New Brutalism suffered very much similar design failures, and the two have often been combined or confused in ridicule. However, this chapter points out that New Brutalism should not be indiscriminately blamed for deigning solely for the ideals of the middle-class, or that the designers similarly imposed the designs upon such unwitting residents without considering their social-economic needs and lifestyle.

With ambition for a new approach to modernist architecture, the New Brutalists sought to exploit the low cost and pragmatism of mass produced materials and pre-fabricated components[22], mixing uses instead of segregation (as in Le Corbusier's design of La Ville Radieuse), designing specific to location and purpose and to use their signature elevated walkways which they named 'streets in the air'. A satisfactory analysis of the architecture would evaluate the performance of such design features one by one, in essence performing an autopsy and separating the healthy organs, from the moderately healthy and the failed. After the procedure is over the pathologist may wonder why certain failed organs were designed in a way that may have been responsible for putting them in the line of trouble. To understand this we will look at what the architects were trying to achieve and the sources that influenced them.

Peter and Alice Smithson wished to achieve the Virgilian dream - the peace of the countryside enjoyed with the self-consciousness of the city dweller - into the notion of the city itself[23]. Thus, unlike Ebenezer Howard who created the garden cities to combine the benefits of the countryside with the utility of city services, the Smithsons wished to take the garden city back into the city. They sought control and calm as key qualities in the modern city.

They were also inspired by the flood of new consumer technologies and advertising. The Smithsons felt Le Corbusier was the first to put together the world of popular and fine arts towards the end of his life in Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles. They felt he viewed historic art - possibly the classical origins of heroic architectural principles -- not as a stylistic source but as a pattern of organisation, and a source of social reform and technological revolution[24]. The Smithsons themselves recognised that advertising was making a bigger contribution to the visual climate of the 1950s than any of the fine arts. Advertising was selling products as a natural accessory to life and is packed with information for the average man - it had taken over from fine art as the definition of what is fine and desirable by society. They recognised that the mass produced consumer goods had revolutionised the house without the intervention of the architect. However, they also felt that pre-fabricated buildings built for utility and not aesthetics (e.g. schools and garages) have adapted to the built environment a lot better to the existing built environment than buildings designed by fine art architects. Thus, in context of the desire to create calm and safe dwellings for the city dweller, architectural should be developed for the machine-served city.

As with the majority of architects of their age, the Smithsons were profoundly influenced by the architecture of Mies van der Rohe. The Smithsons in particular stated that they were profoundly changed by two of Rohe's themes:

1. To make a thing well is not only a moral imperative, but it is also the absolute base of the pleasure of use

2. The machine-calm city. No rhetoric, just ordering of elements to effect a gentle, live, equipoise ordinary quality. Neoclassicism.[25]

The first point touches on the material aspect of Rohe's love for perfection of detail and the use of the finest quality of materials, with the greatest care. The Smithsons' felt Rohe had a 'special feeling for materials as luxury ... the observer is made aware of the essence of each material'[26] Interestingly, this focus on the existential qualities of concrete and the keenness to use the material for its physical characteristic has enjoyed a recent revival in architecture. Conversely, there is debate with regards to the reason why the Smithsons and the Modernist architects before 1980s used the material so liberally. Sarah Williams Goldhagen believed that the Smithson did employ concrete for its physical properties whereas Adrian Forty argues that such conclusions are misguided in part because the Smithsons themselves tried to appeal to a later audience by discussing their earlier works in a new light in their publications. Forty believes that the Modernist architects of per-1980s were primarily interested in the form of their structures; further that in the ordinariness of their forms and the unremarkable, smooth and grey expanse of concrete they sought to achieve an abstract formlessness, as if literally urging the structure to disappear with irrelevance. Thus, concrete was not chosen because it was concrete, but rather because it had the properties the architects desired. The latter explanation seems to be the case of the Smithsons in 1974 when they wrote that many old cities the feeling of 'control' is derived from the repetition of the use of materials on every roof, the roofs having been built at the same pitch, with similar roof lights etc. This suggests that perhaps the repeated use of concrete in so many parts of the building was not motivated by its suitability but by the need to repeat and extend control.

The Smithsons were keen for their repetition of elements to seem to derive from the intention of the whole, rather than seeming to have been designed as one separate entity which is then repeated. They found that a repetition with subtle differences used by Rohe in creating a large at-the-whole-community-scale central open space was 'life-including'[27]. They also felt that a building is more interesting if it is more than itself - if it 'changes the space around it with connective possibilities' but 'by a quietness that until now our sensibilities could not recognise as architecture at all'. They felt a sense of wellbeing can be found if the built-form and the counterpart space are 'locked' together[28].

The recognition that a building is not alone, that it exerts an influence on its surroundings and needs to interact with it to be successful seems now far off from the emphasis of today's planning policies for 'high quality, inclusive design' which should integrate into existing urban form and the natural and built environments[29]. However, what sounded similar is very different in practice as we can see in Robin Hood Gardens, a project by the Smithsons where they consciously incorporated their vision of 'inclusive design'. We can see that the buildings were definitely designed with the central space in mind - they are even curved according to the landscape features. However, the estate does not integrate with buildings of the surrounding areas very well in terms of scale or layout. Critics state that it failed to come to terms that existing spatial fabrics held 'memory' and value[30]. People adapt slowly to change - a building that nods to the original fabric will aid the adaptation process. This design fails to be 'inclusive' for the surrounding areas that are outside the architects' control and thus does not fall into the broader scope of today's standard of good design. However, an earlier project by the Smithsons was a widely held success for integrating well within and introducing variations to the City of London. This was the Economist Plaza which was completed in 1964. A group of three office towers built on a picturesque piazza to allow pedestrian movement independent of the road system with street level access to services and shops, it broke the London tradition of the closed block, and may be considered the precursor of later office developments such as Broadgate[31]. However, its success was also attributed to restraint that was sensitive to context, by the use of stone instead of concrete to assimilate choice of material of older buildings nearby, and designing on the basis of an ancient Greek acropolis plan to maintain with the scale and governing lines of tradition-bound St Jeremy's Street. The successful features of this project also marked a retreat from Brutalism to the restrained Classicism of Mies van der Rohe[32].

The Economist Plaza is an example of how the Smithsons usually go about the designing process -- they conducted length research into the working practices of the journalists of the Economist magazine in order to create the most efficient structure. Their aim was for their buildings to be specific to their location and purpose[33]. They also took inspiration from the works of others. At the time when the Smithsons were compiling their entry to the Golden Lane housing competition between 1951 and 1953, they had contact with the Hendersons who were conducting social studies in the East End of London. This steered their reading of the city towards a form which reflected the structure of human association. This led to their radical suggestion that the street and housing blocks might multiply in a random and biological way to form a network overlaid on the existing city in a way reminiscent of molecular patterns or fractals. Thus, the topography or the context of a specific site would mould the disposition of the project.

The idea of a network is based on the Smithsons' belief that a community cannot be created by geographic isolation which, they feel, was the mistake made by English neighbourhood planning (through grouping around an infant school, community centre or group of shops), and the Unité concept of Le Corbusier[34]. They aspire to aid social cohesion through the looseness of grouping and ease of communication. They felt the quintessential role of the planner is to create a 'sense of place' by encouraging the creation of non-arbitrary groupings and effective communication, making possible groupings based on the family, street, district, region and city apparent. To maintain the looseness of grouping and the ease of communication, density must increase as population increases. The Smithsons believed that 'we must build high to avoid eating up farmland and creating congestion and increasing travel time on the roads.

The architects recognised that high-rise living led to problems such as deprivation of outdoor life, the 'ineffectiveness of vertical communication', and difficulty in forming friendships for the lack of horizontal communication at the same level[35]. And so they proposed an ambitions vision of a multi-layered, city, leaving on the ground the support networks such as freight and utilities. 'In large cities, such things as light industries, workshops, clinics, shopping centres and small hotels could easily be located on raised levels: integrated with the deck-dwelling pattern ... the hope is that the advantage of close physical proximity will draw people to the clearly different districts of the city - cause an urban revival - a new city in which the home will be very much the centre of all activities[36]'.

The council house in the UK should be capable of being put together with others in a similar sort, so as to form bigger and equally comprehensive elements which can be added to existing villages and towns in such a way as to revitalise the traditional hierarchies, and not destroy them. The architects felt that building imitation market towns both inside and outside cities deny them the right to be urban forms because they do not engage with the pre-existing community to which they have been attached.

The architects were also interested in achieving clarity between private and public space, much like Le Corbusier's Unité which 'preserved the individual in seclusion while giving expression to the communal life and faith of the Order with a double-height 'collective' space, and links through the balconies with the world outside. The interior street provides an enclosed world of neighbours whilst the shopping arcade and the roof space belong to and give expression to the total community.[37]' The Smithsons were keen to preserve this divide: 'From the moment the man or child steps outside his dwelling our responsibility starts for the individual has not got the control over his extended environment that he has over his house'[38].               

The Smithsons' entry for Golden Lane failed but their design laid the foundations for the development of 'streets in the air'. The 'streets in the air' are a reinterpretation of East End bye-law streets because the Smithsons saw that such traditional streets in the East End function well as a main public forum for communication, as a playground for children and provide open space for public gatherings and large scale sociability in working class Britain. To fulfil these functions in a Brutalist apartment block, Le Corbusier's 'rue intérieure'-the double-loaded, long, dark corridor on the inside of the building - will need to be moved to the exterior. They will be 12 foot wide, continuous and reach every part of the development. At Park Hill estate, Sheffied, the architects even made sure that original Victorian street names were kept and neighbours from the original slum area where the estate replaced were housed next to eachother. This contributed to the initial popularity of the estate but it could not stop problems of crime and dilapidation following.

It is interesting to compare the fates of Robin Hood Gardens and Park Hill. The vertical circulation system and access from 'streets in the air' were said to make the Robin Hood estate unpopular[39]. However, it was also blamed for disagreeing with the Smithson's idea at Golden Lane of housing elements forming networks or clusters - and the Team 10 premise that a building's first duty is to the fabric in which it stands - by having been divided into two building blocks. They do not demonstrate, by combining into a longer entity the potential for a city wide pedestrian network[40]. On the other hand, Park Hill estate does join up into a large entity but its 12 foot decks were in turn blamed for providing quick getaways for burglars and other criminals. Neither building realised the dream of the elevated community utopia. Does this suggest that 'streets in the air' in actuality never 'got off the ground'? The Barbican estate offers safe and secluded elevated decks with beautiful views over the estate but it does not serve as a social gathering place for the residents nor a playground for the children. It seems somehow it is extremely difficult to recapture the East End feel in the Smithsons' signature design feature.

At the CIAM conference in 1953, they attacked the decades-old dogma propounded by Le Corbusier and others that cities should be zoned into specific areas for living, working, leisure and transport, and that urban housing should consist of tall, widely spaced towers[41]. The Smithsons' ideal city would combine different activities within the same areas. However, the legacy of CIAM and of Le Corbusier was a significant burden and will take time to wear off[42]. By the close of 1960s, there was a shift from the 'raw' Brutalism of the 50's to a gentler and more refined form of architectural language[43]. Team 10's urban productions were marked by a distinct retreat from the early mobility-driven solutions to solutions based on the 'metamorphosis' of inherent qualities of existing urban structures where large open sites were concerned; or rehabilitation and reuse of existing structures combined with new small-scale interventions, were existing structures are concerned. In effect, many of the so called Post-Modern revolutions of 1970s, including participation, rehabilitation, restoration, preservation, and political reorganisation, had been pre-dated by Team 10's thinking during 1960s.[44]

Does this suggest that the New Brutalists finally acknowledged the mistakes of their designs and retreated? Such an interpretation would have ignored the context of 1950s where a quick solution was needed to re-house many people from bombed out regions in the centre of industrial cities and putrid slums. However, haste is a lazy excuse for questionable design. It cannot be ignored that the hard concrete aesthetic and morphological autonomy in part alienated Brutalist works from their residents and ended up forming 'ghettos' for housing for the lower classes. In fairness, many estates in Britain were brought off the peg by local authorities 'too lazy or unimaginative to hire architects and planners of their own'[45] that resulted in 'appalling dimness and dullness'[46]. But, the original designs from New Brutalist architects also proved to be 'design disasters'. Despite their efforts to accommodate the working class into their towers, they designed buildings with features that were highly unsuitable for such residents and eventually drove them away.

Chapter 3

Design Failures

According to R. K. Jarvis[47], Le Corbusier's urban design principles belong to the artistic tradition in urban design, sharing the umbrella term with Camillo Sitte, Gordon Cullen, Roy Worskett and the Ministry for Housing and Local Government in London which designed the post-war British towns and villages. From first appearances, such principles could not be more different. Sitte's emphasis 'artistic principles' in city building is the direct aesthetic antithesis to modernist's conception of Order by pure geometry; and neither would have tolerated the rows of front-and-back garden semi-detached houses of post-war England.

Martin Kreiger's Review of Large Scale Planning[48] sets out 'three binds' - the set of limitations of particular attitudes that are common with all urban designers of the artistic tradition. Firstly, the desire for a formal, general model which will provide a scientific foundation for planning analysis and proposals can be seen just as clearly beneath Sitte's sensual and overwhelmingly visual impressions as Le Corbusier's utilitarian explanations of the benefits of international-style living. Guidelines, whether calling for 'That the centre of plazas be kept free' or 'WE MUST BUILD ON A CLEAR SITE!'[49], all lead to the exclusion of richly described personal viewpoints both of, and within the planning and design process. Secondly, there is the general omission of feeling persons, and the woodenness of their introduction when they are used, e.g. in the use of 'representative' characters of places to exemplify interests and the processes of change. Frederick Gibberd criticised the emphasis on design and layout in Design in Town and Village[50] which gave little consideration to user needs, the result exemplified in front gardens which were designed without any thought to privacy, trespass, individuality of the house, or the use of space. Thirdly, there is the disembodied critical modification of past practices that proceeds to establish a new visual theory with little reference to its contemporary social and economic context. In Sitte's work, social change is observed in relation to urban space and activity (e.g. fountains are no longer used for water, just ornament). Instead of examining the new locations that old activities occupy, or new uses for plazas and porticos, Sitte ultimately turned to edification to justify his principles in modern conditions: 'city planning in particular must allow full and complete participation in art'.

New Brutalism v Martin Kreiger

New Brutalism v New Urbanism

Sitte's work ignores important issues of class and race, economics and governance, and how to implement city plans[51]. On the other hand, it's advocacy of human-scale building, consideration of artistic principles and emphasis on public space has found sympathy with growing interest in postmodernist designs. 'New Urbanist' architects and planners such as Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Peter Calthrope and William Fulton are rediscovering much value in the principles he developed more than a century ago. These four are leaders in a current intellectual movement in architecture and urban planning called the 'New Urbanism' which is interested in reshaping urban and suburban patterns to create places where people can interact with their neighbours, enjoy public space, and get from home to work, school, and stores by foot and bicycle as well as by car.

Duany and Plater-Zyberk are the founders of the Congress for New Urbanism - a loose association of like-minded architects, planners and other professionals. Being another husband and wife team, they draw uncanny parallels with the Smithsons and Team 10. Like a shadow to the object, the similarities are as stark as the differences. Duany and Plater-Zyberk are neo-traditionalists in their love for traditional vernacular architecture and people-orientated layout of small American towns, which is strongly reflected in their design for Seaside, Flordia - the poster example of a new development built on New Urbanist principles. Like Jane Jacobs, they feel that promoting human interaction and community are as important values as designing for efficiency and are sceptical of the way in which urban designers have segregated land uses and imposed artificial and de-humanising order on urban spaces. They reject the emphasis on machine-age efficiency, large scale, and speed that dominated the thinking of modernist and New Brutalist architects; they feel the auto-orientated corridor system had had a devastating impact on community and the quality of life in suburbia that needs to be changed. Whereas the Smithsons were building in anticipation of a greater future role for the family car, the New Urbanists are building for its decline. Further, they feel whereas the modernists needed to segregate living from working space in order to rescue the population from smoke-blacked Victorian slums, the same argument for segregation of land uses is no longer relevant in the post-industrial information age. Thus, the idea neighbourhood they envisage is small - a five-minute walk (quarter mile) from centre to edge. It is diverse, containing a balanced mix of dwellings, workplaces, shops, parks, and civic institutions such as schools and churches. The neighbourhood would have a centre dominated by civic buildings and public space, and an edge of some kind (defined by fields, forests, highway or rail line). There would be a system of pedestrian-friendly and transit-orientated transport corridors that offer residents opportunities to walk, bicycle, drive, or take public transit to work, school, shopping, and entertainment.

This vision is superficially different to New Brutalism in that it advocates a low-rise, traditional-looking neighbourhood compared to a high-rise, modern and heroic-looking habitat. More fundamentally, the styles will produce a totally different way of life for its residents. The New Urbanists foster the traditional, inclusive and introspective, spatially-local community. One can see this because they specifically call for an 'edge' that not only protects the community but contains it. The homes look inward towards the 'centre' where it is expected that social bonds will be formed based on the sheer number of physical encounters that will happen between members of a small community in an isolated community sharing a few local services. This is precisely the spatial-isolation which the Smithsons deplored in traditional English towns. They prefer a cosmopolitan and outward-focused view where with greater 'connective possibilities' people will have greater choice of social relationships. The New Brutalists' high-rise designs may enclose a private open space for open-air, nature and children to play but they also look over the city and are connected via walkways out of the immediate neighbourhood. The Smithsons wanted to bring the benefits of the garden city into the city whereas the New Urbanists wishes to create a new generation of garden cities.

Connections can be made between Sitte's celebration of plazas and public squares in classical Greece and Rome and in medieval renaissance European cities with Lewis Mumford's notion that cities, above all, should be theatres in which humans can display their culture through human-scale developments, the retention of historical elements and the joys of irregularity[52]; and William Whyte's views on how urban parks and plazas contribute to urban life[53].

As we have seen above, the Smithson's work have evolved from Corbusian influences to regard the users of land not in a disembodied way, but as motivated, perceiving and responsive persons for whom successful interaction with their environment was an essential prerequisite of their designs. Their work was contemporary to, the result - and perhaps even a factor - of an evolution of urban design theory. R.K Jarvis named this new generation of urban design theories as 'The Social Usage Approach to Urban Design'. It is vital to evaluate New Brutalism against its contemporary context of urban design theory as well as our understanding of the field today.

A titan amongst the Social Usage generation, Kevin Lynch's seminal work, The Image of the City, shifted urban design in two ways. Firstly, it was the beginning of the realisation that , although the city may give pleasure and relate to artistic creation, it is not a cultivated but a common place experience shared by different people. People are both the audience and the actors; time, weather, people and events around it are all fluid. Secondly, rather than examining the physical city, it is the people themselves that must be examined: 'we must consider not just the city as a being in itself but the city being perceived by its inhabitants'. There may be a difference between the city itself and the city being perceived.

Urban planners Allan Jacobs and Donald Appleyard were both students of Lynch. Under Jacob's leadership, the San Francisco City Planning Department produced an award-winning urban design plan, which draws heavily on Lynch's ideas and insights from Jacobs and Appleyard's surveys of San Francisco which also culminated in their 'Urban Design Manifesto'[54].

Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in America in 1961, quickly became one of the most influential books for its aggressive attack on modern city planning. She hit out at both of the great orthodoxies on which city planning had based itself in its first half century of life - the Garden City movement and the Corbusian movement. The Corbusians were vilified for egotism ("An imitation of Le Corbusier [always] shouts "Look what I made!"[55]). A city can never be a work of art because art is made only by selection from life and a city is life at its most complex and intense, Jacobs suggests instead that the role of urban design should be 'a strategy of illuminating and clarifying life and helping to explain to use its meanings and order - in this case helping to illuminate, clarify and explain the order of cities.'

She argued that there was nothing wrong with high urban densities of people so long as they did not entail overcrowding in buildings. A good urban neighbourhood needed 100 dwellings per acre (equivalent to 200-300 persons per acre), which is higher than almost anything in post-1945 London. It could be achieved by cutting out open space. She prescribed keeping the inner-city neighbourhood more or less as it is before; it should have mixed functions and therefore land uses, to ensure that people are there for different purposes, on different time schedules, but using many facilities in common. It must have conventional streets in short blocks. It must mix blocks of different age and condition, including a significant share of old ones. And it must have a dense concentration of people, for whatever purpose they are there, including a dense concentration of residents[56]. However, critics pointed out that the result would be the gentrification of the city[57] and Jane Jacobs, like so many well-intentioned urban designers and architects, could not escape working from a middle-class point of view.

In Notes on the Synthesis of Form and A City is not a Tree, Christopher Alexander points to failings to design form without context, or to approach city design in a way that did not allow rich diversity in cross connections between activities and places. This prompted a move from focusing on what people 'need' to what people 'tend' to do. Conflicts between tendencies should be resolved either by suppression of one or more of the tendencies, or to adapt the environment to the people.

In recent years, theories and research have decoupled, whilst theorists such as Appleyard and Okamoto made proposals for explicit social evaluations, Thomas for emphatic user studies, Lynch for 'community liaison' and 'root consultancy' and Alexander for decentralised utopianism, planners have retreated to their expert shells to 'implement' their plans during the 'design' stage

New Brutalism v Postmodern Urbanism

Nan Ellin's Postmodern Urbanism is considered widely to be the authoritative text on the subject. The Postmodern period of the 1970s and 1980s (and arguably continuing today) is defined relative to the previous Modernism by, first, a return to historicism and a renewed search for urbanity, second, a new emphasis on contextualism, regionalism, site/place, pluralism, and the search for character and populism, third, the renewed use of decoration, ornamentation, symbolism, humour, collage, and human scale (among others), and fourth, a humble and anti-utopian apoliticism that no longer seeks ideal solutions on a large scale - with associated characteristics of small-scale, legible, neo-traditional projects that cater to consumer tastes and involve citizen participation (to name a few of its key elements). In assessing Postmodern Urbanism, Ellin illustrates four different critical stances which will help us understand it origins and meaning: Form Follows Fiction; Form follows Follows Fear; Form Follows Finesse; and Form Follows Finance.

Form Follows Fiction stems from Postmodern Urbanism's enchantment with a romantic nostalgia for the industrial past; a history that juxtaposes with the requirements for contemporary life; i.e. the desires for speed, efficiency, nuisance-free living and convenience. The critique suggests that Postmodern Urbanism is susceptible to kitsch, inauthenticity and sentimentality, using materials for appearance and aesthetics without regard to context, geography or semiotics. This is in direct antithesis to New Brutalism's belief in the honest use of materials, the exposure of services and an ordinariness 'without rhetoric'.

Form Follows Finesse suggests that Postmodern Urbanism is a narcissistic undertaking of architects producing work for the sake of image and fame, and a preoccupation with aesthetics rather than solving social problems. Ellin points out that in light of their use of progressive planning and design theories, some postmodern projects are regressive in that they contribute to making the city less affordable and less accessible to moderate income residents. With respect to the social critiques and idealism apparent in Modernism, Postmodern Urbanism abandons most discussions of politics, critical social theory, or political economy.

Following from the above, Form Follows Finance suggests that because of the apolitical stance of many designers, Postmodern Urbanism exacerbates existing urban inequalities and reinforces corporate capitalist agendas. Because of its populist nature, postmodern design may in fact be promoting enhanced opportunities for consumption and profit-making. The adaptive reuse of historic buildings, the rise of the festival market-place, the growth of themed resorts, and the prevalent post-industrial redevelopments formula (cineplexes, food courts, entertainment, bookstores, stadia, malls, and museums) - all suggest an increasing commercialization of urban development and the importance of market forces in Postmodern Urbanism.

This suggests, in a nutshell, that Modernist and Postmodernist Urbanisms are but reflections of the economic and political context of the era. Born in the post-war climate of socialism, large scale public housing such as those offered by New Brutalism were desired because many people could not afford to buy or rent commercially, the Blitz spirit was still in the air and the public wanted a paternalistic socialism both demonstrated by mass public housing and by their election of the Labour government. With increasing wealth, people become more individualistic, consumerist impulses point towards more fanciful and fashionable dwellings, the Conservatives were elected, and through no fault of their own, the style of living offered by Brutalist housing estates automatically become less popular.

The final critique, Form Follows Fear involves the decline of the public realm, the increasing prevalence of physical controls, surveillance and policing, and the growing privatisation of public space. Ellin attributes these changes to the triumph of individualism in Western society, the corresponding increase in single family dwellings and gated communities, and the growing importance of the home. Privatisation also takes a corporate face in the controlled and policed spaces of the shopping mall, theme park, office park, and new town development. Accompanying these is the decline of public space in the city, attributable to both fear in the city (associated with perceptions of crime, the ghetto, poverty and the 'other') and many cities' neglect and poor maintenance of these spaces. Thus, Postmodern Urbanism has become a language of security (through the use of comfortable tradition trappings and by privatising and extending control) just as many Modernist, publicly-owned buildings now conjure up ideas of crime and dilapidation.

The above suggests that the shift of public demand for privacy, control and security - towards a more individualistic society - may have been the cause of the decline of the 'public' building. The Thatcher government in the 1970s and 1980s had been successful in addressing the desire of 'Middle England' - the average-income, blue-collared family - for ownership of their Englishman's castle. Through privatisation of council housing, a process of residualisation is blamed by academics to result in concentrations lower-income families (who could not afford to buy their own homes) in areas of the least desirable council properties. This with the change in the perception of public housing from standard to last-resort housing option may be the cause of the ill reputation and fate of many a New Brutalism estate.

On the other hand, many more are less willing to see such housing estates as passive victims of changing fashion. Oscar Newman's Defensible Space put the blame of the main culprit on design.  The root of the problem was the failure in architectural education to stress the need to learn how well or badly existing buildings worked, and then to improve their designs[58]. Very poor welfare families, with large number of children, with a deep fatalism about the power to influence their environment, could not cope with this kind of building. Middle- and upper-income families, with a proportion of families with children that did not exceed 50 per cent, and with superintendents and at least one parent supervising, could live comfortably in such environments, but 'while a middle-class family will not perform too differently in one building type versus another, the performance of welfare family proves to be greatly influenced by the physical environment'; for them, 'the high rise apartment building is to be strictly avoided'[59]. This agrees with Ward's view that lower-income residents are better suited for the suburbs where they will have privacy, freedom from noise and greater freedom to create noise. Above all the problem is one of children: for 'unless they get a chance to play out their childhood, they are certainly going to make a nuisance of themselves when they are older'[60]. Jephcott adds that for families with children that are less well equipped educationally, living in high density, high rise: 'local authorities should discontinue this form of housing except for limited range of carefully selected tenant or in cases of extreme pressure'[61].

In a classic chicken-and-egg problem, the answer to New Brutalism's murder is unclear. Enemies of the style loudly proclaim that it was the architects themselves who strangled the blueprints in their cradles with poor design that failed to adapt to the needs of their residents. However, a careful inspector must be wary of a much more insidious conspiracy between nostalgic historicism, rising aspirations of the middle classes, the triumph of individualistic society, a meddling Tory government and the USSR (for creating aversion towards physical forms of socialism in the Cold War era) that may have been just as responsible for sending the ailing estates to their graves.

[1] The French words were 'béton brut' or 'raw concrete' was a phrase used by Le Corbusier to describe the poured board-marked concrete with which he constructed many of his post WWII buildings.

[2] Modernism without Rhetoric: An Architectural Aesthetic; however, Banham (1966) attributed the birth of 'New Brutalism to Hans Aplund who in a 1956 Architectural Review article coined the term 'Neo Brutalist'

[3] Titmuss (1950) pp.506

[4] Forshaw and Abercrombie (1943) pp. 77

[5] Cook (1983) pp.32


[7] Dunleavy (1981) pp.170

[8] Hall (2002) pp.225

[9] Banham (1966)

[10] Hall (2002) pp.205

[11] Fishman (1977) pp.190

[12] Le Corbusier (1929) pp.178

[13] Ibid pp.232

[14] Fishman (1977) pp.199

[15] Heathcote (2004)

[16] Smithson (1994)

[17] Ravetz (1980) pp.89

[18] Esher (1981) pp.129-30

[19] Hall (2002) pp.227

[20] Ward (1976) pp.51

[21] Hall (2002) pp. 240


[23] Smithson (1974)

[24] Ibid

[25] Smithson (1974)

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] PPS1

[30] Webster

[31] Ibid

[32] Kenneth Frampton


[34] Smithson (1971)

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid

[37] Ibid

[38] Ibid

[39] Webster

[40] Robert Maxwell

[41] Ibid.

[42] Jonathan Hale

[43] Webster

[44] Webster

[45] Hall (2004) pp. 226

[46] Crossman (1975) pp.341

[47] Jarvis (1980)

[48] Kreiger (1974) pp. 156-163

[49] Le Corbusier (1929) pp. 232

[50] Ministry of Housing and Local Government (1953)

[51] City Reader (4th Ed) pp 426

[52] Ibid pp. 85

[53] Ibid pp. 448

[54] Ibid pp 456

[55] Jacobs (1962) pp. 23

[56] Ibid pp. 152, 178, 187, 200

[57] Muschamp (1983) pp. 168

[58] Newman (1980) pp. 322-3

[59] Ibid pp. 193

[60] Ward (1976) pp. 54

[61] Jephcott (1971) pp.131


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