Brutalism: Big it up for Meades

Jonathan Meades is a vital figure, a sort of a Christopher Hitchens for architecture, with a dash of Ian Nairn, but considerable wallops of Suggsy, and a undertone of some late 18th Century person (wonderful to think it might be JM’s admired Burke himself). I very much approve his appreciation of Brutalism, though I would go further and wider….

It is true, as JM says, that plenty of Nazi architecture was monumental but only in a trivial, imitative way, as was some of the Fascist architecture Andrew Graham Dixon skirted by the other night in his Italian show on TV. The Nazis didn’t really get Rome, and especially didn’t get Rome’s love of Greece. And he is right, JM I mean, to think that Hitler’s bunkers were some of his best things. And, yes, as Meades supposes, the late and lamented Tricorn in Portsmouth must be thought to have grown out of something more German than nice and local – anti-Napoleonic – by way of fortification.

I am timid in these matters. I fear that it is possible I have a shallow nature: I thrill too easily, but in a flirty way, to the really good, bad and ugly – to the Sublime. I may be guilty of enjoying it as one might a fairground ride. I fear that I do not have a nature which is strong or courageous enough to properly enter into a full understanding – perhaps into the proper loathing – of the Brutal. I am no Meades: I love the eyebrow windows of Olde Englande and the bungaloid seaside scene. I like the Festival Hall, with its air of Rowland Emett, nearly as much as I like the National Theatre, with its whiff of concrete (which Denys Lasdun confessed to finding quite erotic). Nor do I quite share JM’s dislike of anything polite in architecture: his jolly and perhaps half-meant flicking away of the “human scale”. I made a pilgrimage to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille last summer (where, I gather, JM has his lair or eyrie) and thought it looked rather jolly and democratic. It was, as it were, the human scale en masse.

But I fear one must bite the bullet. The Escorial has dreadful solidity about it and so does the nearby Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos. The former, we can shiver at with a nice disdain for the religiosity of its owner, but the latter poses a far harder problem. I have made two visits to it, and I think I might as well call them pilgrimages. One can make a pilgrimage to the Belly of the Best, and not as one visits Nazi concentration camps, which one does solely to have borne witness. I think one visits that rock cathedral to see darkness, sure, and to bear witness to the people who were forced to build it, but also to savour the horrid magnificence of some manmade things. I have, for instance, and forgive the swank, loved the order of the Finnish geological bunker for nuclear waste and don’t mind adding that I also loved the tremblingly frozen disorder of the wrecked  reactor Number 4 at Chernobyl. Besides, I recall: architecture is not just about what its creators intend. Even more than most art, it is what we make of it. Fascism can’t blight art, and especially not architecture, and I can dedicate my appreciation of extraordinary places to whomsoever I please. Architecture may well be making public statements of affinity, but when I visit it, I am not, or can choose my own.

The cave-cathedral near Madrid is the hard end of Brutalism, and I take much more ease – but not taking-one’s-ease easiness – in visits to the small bleak Cistercian fortresses of spirituality of Senanque, Le Thoronet and Silvacane. These are places where I feel the love, but it is important to remember that this isn’t happy-clappy stuff: the early-medieval monk knew penitence, and monasteries were penitential, even penitentiaries. Actually, I also think they are fortresses in a slightly more literal sense. St Bernard was a knightly soul and there is something chivalric in all his works. Chichester Cathedral, one of the loveliest buildings in the world, hangs on to penitence even as it performs the extraordinary miracle of massive simplicity taking flight: Brutalism found its wings there, with no hint of militarism and not much of guilt.

I have made various forays into Balkan and Scandinavian Brutalism, and I am glad JM makes the Hanseatic and the Northern in general a theme. Bit by bit, one learns to like Bourbon massiveness almost anywhere, as it refracts the Norman. But when there is that dimension of the more primitive, pre-Norman Norse, with mighty foreheads and helmets and beards, especially against massed brick or rock quarried from skerries, arranged to so as to create columns and foursquare curves, and Gotham City comes to life in the politest countries on earth, one remembers that they didn’t always affect an endless childhood of niceness, but knew and wanted to express their inner von Trier. Even Hans Christian Andersen is much better seen against the scowl and vigour of Brutalism than rebuilt in Lego.

I am not sure if it is an irony, but there is enormous pleasure to be had in the new towns and monuments of Stalin’s Soviet Empire. From the sparkling, almost marzipan monuments of Kiev to the old Russya Hotel in Moscow, and Huta Lenina steel works and dormitory town near Katowice in Poland, these are Brutalist, surely, even though some – a few – are brilliantly pink and yellow. I have made pilgrimages to those, and I think it would be great mistake just to make of them an exercise in squeamish Kitsch. I cannot say I love all of them, but I love being amongst them.


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Publication date

26 February 2014