So you think the Durham SU is ugly?

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At the beginning of September, the National Trust launched their ‘Brutal Utopias’ campaign where several buildings, of notable Brutalist architectural style, were opened to the public in a movement to celebrate and raise awareness for this iconic, post war, architectural movement.

Buildings such as The Southbank Centre, the Park Hill flats in Sheffield and parts of the University of East Anglia were opened for tours, given by the National Trust, to try and promote public interest in the movement and to save buildings of this style from being destroyed in order to make way for other, more modern, buildings.

The Southbank Centre was built in 1951 for the Festival of Britain, a festival organised by the government to promote the feeling of recovery in post war Britain by celebrating and promoting its technology, industrial design, arts, architecture and science. The building is a prime example of the Brutalist movement. It has often been criticized for its ugliness and bad use of space and at one point the government considered pulling it down to make way for other buildings. Indeed many of the buildings now being promoted by the National Trust have at one time been sources of controversy over whether or not they ought to be demolished. The subject of Brutalist architecture is often particularly divisive.

The Park Hill flats in Sheffield, which have held Grade II* listed building status since 1998, struggled to find people willing to live in them. They were created to house those who had previously lived in the Park Hill area but whose dwellings were destroyed to make room for the functional and space-effective blocks of flats, designed to recreate the neighbourhood feeling with streets ‘in the sky’ and to provide safe homes for the previous residents of the neighbourhood.

The architectural style of Brutalism, typical of the 1940s-1960s, focuses on the expression of forms through the use of different shapes, textures and materials to create functional buildings, designed with a specific purpose behind them or for a specific need. Features of a Brutalist building include the use of concrete as a building material, unfinished surfaces, huge forms and small, unconventionally shaped windows. The style originates from the work of French architect, Le Corbusier, with his use of ‘beton brut’ (raw concrete) and a philosophy of creating “machines for living in”. These are comfortable, sturdy constructions, easily put together and made from cheap materials, which were perfect for post-war Britain.

Buildings of this style often include blocks of flats and university buildings, examples of which are the Durham students’ union, Kingsgate Bridge as well as several of Durham University’s colleges including Trevelyan, St Aidan’s, Collingwood and Van Mildert. All of these buildings exhibit features specific to this movement with the students’ union being of particular interest as it is constructed out of an assortment of different rectangular shapes and made of grey concrete with small, seemingly randomly placed windows.

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Photograph: pualv via Flickr

Brutalist architecture is often considered to be ugly and is not something that most people would see as important to save for future generations. The National Trust’s campaign tries to get the public to see these buildings in a different light, particularly as the Trust itself is normally only associated with grand parks and stately homes – buildings in traditional styles which are considered to be beautiful.

It is important that we recognise these buildings and this movement as a part of our cultural and architectural heritage rather than branding them as an unnecessary, unattractive post-war mistake. They symbolise the start of a modern era with the use of new materials and bold shapes that contrast with the location in which the building is set. In demolishing these buildings we would, in effect, be erasing a part of our history and a style which has inspired more technically advanced and recent architecture. Even if retaining these buildings serves only to encourage experimentation amongst modern architects this must be considered to be a good thing.

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