On Brutalism

Photo by Subflux: https://www.flickr.com/photos/subflux
Photo by Subflux: https://www.flickr.com/photos/subflux

One of the first things you notice when you come to university in Glasgow is the building that passed you by on the open days: Boyd Orr. Orr…ore…or? With such connotations of alchemy, alternation and mechanical process – the extraction of mineral from rock – you’d be forgiven for thinking this building might have that rare quality of metallic extraction. The glint of some loveliness got from the mined core of the earth – or at least some relic of its crust. Boyd Orr himself, as Wikipedia tells me, was a Scottish teacher, doctor, biologist and politician, who also bagged himself the Nobel Peace Prize for work relating to wartime nutrition. Fitting, perhaps, that this man who dabbled in the arts of healthy eating would give his name to a building that some have found physically repulsive and ugly – if anything, unhealthy.

Still, nutrition involves mining particles of food for their usefulness. Finding all the vitamins as a geologist might take ore from a rock. There is something abject about all this: wrenching nature inside out, textually taking apart her insides with the bland incisiveness of a knife (the linguistic thrills of science course-books). The molten loveliness of erosion, rocks, temporal process – we can reduce them to names and building blocks.  And so we have Boyd Orr, that building of much usefulness and much disgust. The beast of a building that somehow you find yourself in, day after day, traipsing up the stairs for lectures, waiting for someone to give you their jewels of information. You came here thinking you’d be living the Harry Potter high-life in the extravagantly gothic main building, chased by ghosts and granted with turret views. Instead, you end up four floors up in a building that sends its gross sneer across the otherwise lovely architectural landscape of the West End.

Source: theglasgowstory.com
Source: theglasgowstory.com

Whatever you might say about Boyd Orr – with its dirty-white panels, greying windows and greyer walls, with the greenish mould that creeps up its underside like seaweed on a rock and the ugly stark jut of its body against the surrounding skyline – you must say that it is a fine example of Brutalist architecture. The heyday of Brutalism was the period between 1950 to the mid-1970s, a reaction to the modernism of the early twentieth-century. Most examples of Brutalism tend to be found in governmental or institutional buildings (university libraries, shopping malls, high-rise housing), whilst corporate buildings have always favoured a more glassy, futurist chic. The thing that strikes you first about a Brutalist building is its sheer expression of, well, concrete. It hits you with the blunt materiality of a prison or fortress, and you know, it does take a while to get used to going inside. Sometimes it seems impossible that such a monolithic block is carved out inside with such things as canteens and toilets and classrooms. Part of its statuesque aura relates to its positioning: right on the corner of University Avenue and Byres Road, where the surrounding buildings are much smaller or indeed older (and prettier for that matter). There’s no getting away from this eyesore, this monument to an industrial modernity that seems now to be receding in the mise-en-abyme of contemporary metallic panelling, plexi-glass and plastic coating.

Edinburgh's Scottish Parliament Building. Photo by UncleBucko. https://www.flickr.com/photos/unclebucko
Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament Building. Photo by UncleBucko. https://www.flickr.com/photos/unclebucko
Glasgow School of Art. Photo by gillfoto https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillfoto/
Glasgow School of Art. Photo by gillfoto https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillfoto/

Like the rest of Glasgow’s culture, its architecture is a tale of two cities. There’s the legacy of our colonial history, with flourishes of opulence on every corner; but there’s also the leftovers of 1970s ‘slum’ housing, the crumbling tenements where once upon a time (and, unfortunately, perhaps still today) a whole family would share a bedroom and washing was done at the ‘steamie’. In one street you might have a bizarre Art Deco number next to some crumbling sandstone tenements, or a gleaming new-build sprung up alongside Victorian houses with massive (single-glazed and listed) bay windows. There’s the black-and-white nostalgia of the Gorbals and then there’s the grandiose Park Circus, sat atop Kelvingrove Park looking out with picturesque views over the city. There’s the famous Carpet Factory, the Rennie Mackintosh Art School, the various churches, mosques and synagogues with their unique homage to Roman and Eastern styles. There’s the uncomfortable fact that much of Glasgow’s beautiful marmoreal and sandstone glory is built on the slave trade. We also have the bug-like SECC resting next to the Clyde as if we were in Sydney, the Royal Concert Hall that crowns the top of Buchanan Street, the new Hydro that more than anything resembles a UFO. It’s definitely a city of eclectic architecture. While we might not have the equivalent architectural (and indeed financial) notoriety of Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament building (which in my family alone has been called ‘horrible’, ‘interesting’, ‘a waste of money’, ‘too modern’ and ‘more of an art gallery than a parliament’), we were in 1999 designated the UK City of Architecture and Design, beating the likes of London, Liverpool and of course, Edinburgh. You only have to reflect on the response to last year’s Art School fire to recognise how seriously we take our physical landscape and architectural heritage (even if it is often covered with ad posters and graffiti).

Photo by Susan Casey https://www.flickr.com/photos/susancasey/
The Gorbals, 1968. Photo by Susan Casey https://www.flickr.com/photos/susancasey/

Anyway, back to Brutalism. The key word related to its style, aside from concrete, is perhaps ‘function’. Stripped to its core elements, Brutalist architecture involves repeated ‘modular elements’ which are grouped together to form the whole. This is the raw fragmentation of modernism, here transformed into something with instrumental purpose, something solid that seeks to counteract the airy dissolution of modernity. ‘All that is solid melts into air’, Marx said. With Brutalism, the response is to make things as solid as possible. How ironic that Marx predicted a revolutionary dissolution of oppressive social structures, whilst the ‘proletariat’ in question remain literally trapped inside buildings which encase them in a physical manifestation of the very (metaphoric) solidity which binds them socially – the hard class structure, the poverty cycle and so on. And perhaps also ironic that some of these buildings were erected at a time when industrial labour was entering its decline in Britain and elsewhere, especially in Glasgow towards the end of the 1970s, as Thatcher came to power and that mineral source of wealth and opportunity (going back to ore of course) – mining – was dissolved from the national economy.

There is also the uncanniness of paradox attached to the fact that when one observes a Brutalist building, it is often difficult to discern its function due to the sheer vastness of its functionality. This relates back to what Edmund Burke in 1757 defined as ‘the sublime’:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature […] is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.

Burke was talking about the sublime as it was caused by scenes of nature: mountains, chasms, forests that seem to stretch on forever. However, as urban landscapes increasingly eat into our countryside, it seems fitting that we might consider the vastness of their proportions – or indeed, their ugliness – a kind of sublime in themselves. What else do we feel than a kind of passionate ‘horror’ as we find ourselves faced for the first time with buildings like London’s Trellick Tower and Barbican Centre or India’s Palace of Assembly? All those pattern-like repetition of squares resembling a Kantian ‘mathematical sublime’, whereby an overflow of signifiers stretching out into tedious infinity bears the threat of all meanings, distinctions and associations collapsing into one long metonymic chain leading to nothing but more signifiers. It’s enough to give you a headache, and quite ironic that Boyd Orr is next to the equally hideous though somewhat-smaller Mathematics Building.

Trellick Tower. Photo by Martin Hearn https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinhearn/
Trellick Tower. Photo by Martin Hearn https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinhearn/

Central to Burke’s idea of the sublime is the notion of the pleasure associated with terror: as we gaze at something which overwhelms us, we find ourselves staring into the abyss of meaninglessness, on the sheer precipice where representation itself collapses. St. Augustine suggested that the ugly was that which embodied formlessness in its lack of beauty. This aesthetics of excess or hideous terror appears curiously inappropriate for a style of building whose very purpose was built on form as function. We might think of Frankenstein’s monster, whose ugliness stems not only from the fact that he is composed of the flesh of dead cadavers, but also his sheer pointlessness – the fact that he is a ‘blot upon the Earth’, as Mary Shelley has him lament. Might we consider the likes of Boyd Orr a horrible, monstrous ‘blot’ upon our sacred streets? Or is this more than a question of mere aesthetics?

As Romantic poets readdressed the Neoclassical distaste for the gross pointlessness mountains (favouring, as Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest perhaps best exemplifies, a view of nature as ordered and harmonious) by fetishising the psychologically disruptive experience of the sublime (in the way that Coleridge, de Quincey et al also favoured the psychologically disruptive experiences of opium), today’s generation are raising Brutalism to idolised status rather than rejecting it as a mere eyesore. Sure, you will have the many students who moan about Boyd Orr’s appearance on their campus, but you will have an equal number of enthusiasts on the likes of Tumblr posting Brutalist architecture onto their blogroll, alongside your Banksys and softcore erotica and fan-fiction all that other Tumblr jazz. Stark black and white photographs record an almost antiquarian fascination with the aesthetics of these buildings and their value as some relic of a solid past we can’t quite get back to in our shiny era of crazy postmodern architecture.

Photo by Tom Donald: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clearwood/
Photo by Tom Donald: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clearwood/

But is there an ethical problem underlying this fetishising of some Brutalist buildings? They are, after all, often the homes of many people living in relative poverty. Sometimes, these buildings are just down the road from areas of affluence and architectural extravagance. I don’t need to mention specific areas for you to think of places in Glasgow, because there are certainly many. It’s a problem related to the way that urban decay is appropriated as a kind of dark backdrop upon which a white, middle-class guy sorts his life out. There’s always been the ethnographer’s dilemma of how ethical it is making a living out of describing poor conditions without doing anything about it politically or practically. I suppose what I’m getting at though is that there’s something a bit more uncomfortable about using these buildings as ‘cool’ aestheticism, a mere viewing-spot on the blasé scroll of online photography. Still, I don’t think there are clear answers to this; and maybe it’s good to share images, because sharing raises awareness.  You just have to keep in mind the whole problem of ‘poverty porn’, and the notion that by glorifying certain buildings you are also glorifying a particular experience of poverty, however unintentional your actions.

Photo by  https://www.flickr.com/photos/22087304@N07/
The Red Road flats. Photo by <p&p> https://www.flickr.com/photos/22087304@N07/

Indeed, this perhaps is what made me so uncomfortable about last year’s plans to demolish the iconic Red Road tower blocks and transmit the demolition live as part of the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. While it is of course good that the Games involved building new, much more accommodating and safer houses to replace these crumbling relics of Glasgow’s past, I don’t agree that it should’ve been broadcast to add a ‘bang’ to the Opening Ceremony. London gets magnificent fireworks for the Olympics, we get…glorified demolition? Destroying a symbol of poverty doesn’t destroy poverty itself, however easy it makes it look. Luckily, these controversial plans were scrapped in the end after much public opposition (which just shows again how much Glaswegians care about their physical environment and the social consciousness within it). Regeneration is underway with the Games’ legacy and of course it is a great thing, but there is no need to sanctimoniously erase history in front of the world to show that you’re doing it.

jg-ballard-high-rise

This points to the whole issue of Brutalism’s somewhat brutal decline since the 1980s, especially in Britain. Vocalised distaste from public figures, the association with urban decay, problems with graffiti, cramped living conditions and its starkly cold, almost totalitarian appearance, all contributed to this decline. Another contribution to this decline perhaps came from British Literature’s concrete guru, J. G. Ballard, as his novel High Rise (1975) documents a dystopian, Lord of the Flies situation where the closed conditions of a high-rise building lead to a swift degeneration of the residents lives. The enclosed spatiality of place itself gives rise to a carnival of savagery and violence, where primitive desires are unleashed in this isolated environment. The opening line perhaps gives you a good indication of where Ballard is going with this novel: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.’ There is a strain of dark humour running through the text, as well as the shock value of its exposure of human nature placed in its urban limits. You get the sense that Ballard secretly revels in both the sheer surreal ugly inhumanity of it all, whilst critiquing the politics of urban planning that might one day lead to such a scenario.

Overall, I’m not sure where my position on Boyd Orr lies. There are days where I’m walking to uni along Highburgh Road and when Boyd Orr looms out of a cloudy winter sky my spirits sink like a puddle of snow slush. But there are times when you can’t help but notice the strange beauty of copper-coloured sunlight flashing upon its windows at dusk, as if a thousand eyes were staring out of those cold, impersonal walls. I think there’s value in preserving these buildings, not just because they possess a kind of chic urban sublime, but because they remind us of the ideals our society once held, even if they were misguided, flawed or impossible. I suppose I’d rather stare at the stark reality of an ugly monster, a decrepit Boyd Orr, than lose myself in the illusory surfaces of the glassy Wolfson Medical School, or the kitsch blue and green panels of the neo-Brutalist Fraser Building. I’d rather a chunk of dull glowing ore than a perfect rhinestone…

fraser_building_030411_aw
The Fraser Building opposite Glasgow Uni Library
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