Viva Brutalism! Architectural Preservation For 20th-Century Slabs

Prince Charles believes brutalist buildings are like "monstrous carbuncles," but there is a frenzied architectural movement afoot to save these concrete blocks.

Preston bus station, still standing
Preston bus station, still standing
Peter Praschl


BERLIN â€" The buildings of the "brutalist" era, which flourished from the 1950s to the mid-1970s, are now about a half-century old, and they're undergoing a revival of appreciation. But whether we actually need to keep them around is a question many are asking, and the answers are rarely favorable. After all, brutalism is by most accounts the most reviled architectural style of the 20th century. Too big, too solid, too brutal.

Even those who accept that this style once represented modernism must acknowledge that the aesthetic isn't congruent with today's domination of climate-neutral, sustainable, resource-considerate habitats, by thin skyscrapers and embrasure-like natural stone facades.

Brutalists had many arguments in their defense at the time. Their buildings wanted to manifest reality, to show the building materials openly, to be an ethical statement. But that was the flaw. Most people probably believe that architectural ethics should firstly demand that the building not collapse on top of the people inside it.

Most people don't really care if a multi-story parking garage or a library embodies ethical values. And if communities really need gigantic bus stations, courts or libraries, then they should look like Versailles imitations or a postmodern mixture of materials â€" like anything other than a slab of concrete that looks like it just found a space in town and expanded. No one needs honesty from architecture.

Brutally graceful? â€" Photo: Anthony Perez

That's why many brutalist buildings have been demolished over the last few years, suggesting that an entire architectural era was destined to be ground into dust. One of the most prominent advocates of this mentality is Prince Charles of Wales, a man who once likened modern architecture to "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend."

In 1987, he even made allowances for the Nazi Luftwaffe, Germany's air branch during World War II, saying that they at least did not leave anything uglier than rubble behind, unlike brutalist architects. It must be said, though, that these architects at least built residential areas in which many English people live reasonably cheaply and comfortably.

Not all bad

The attacks on brutalism are nearly always unfair. It may not be obvious to everyone at first glance, but these buildings were designed to benefit people. They were designed to celebrate democracy. Government buildings, libraries and cultural centers built in the brutalist style were supposed to stand out rather than fade into the background.

Their aesthetics, which often ignored the boundary between architecture and sculpture, were a conscious gesture of presumptuousness. Brutalists rejected the idea that public buildings should be modest in their use of materials. Their buildings were meant to last for eternity, and they thought that the enemies of progress would quiet down at some point.

But they didn't, and that's frankly because of the mistakes of brutalism. Its very name, whose genesis is unknown, was poorly chosen. Why should people accept architecture that was "brutally" forced upon them? For many, the style has become synonymous with any contemporary architecture that they don't like. But not every building that has been called brutalist is indeed part of the genre.

Many brutalist buildings were built during boom eras, designed with the confidence that budgets would always be generous enough to maintain them. But the oil crisis, mass unemployment and public budget cuts prevented this from happening, and many were left without proper maintenance. If a building from the late 19th century begins to falter, it looks romantic. But if a concrete building has cracks, it looks positively dangerous.

Brutalism's ambition to build for the masses, for the general public, was another drawback. Its critics saw is as an unwarranted appropriation of prime property. The left also saw it as insolence. They lived in lovingly restored old buildings or in houses with solar panels and had become accustomed to eating raw food â€" but raw concrete, no thank you.

Humane buildings should now be low-energy houses or should at least look like a piece of Hundertwasser art, critics believe. And that's how supporters of brutalism were eventually left with just a single argument in their favor. Brutalism, they argue, is historically and culturally important and therefore deserves to be preserved.

Brutalism in Brazil â€" Photo: Seier & Seier

Even though many of these buildings landed on lists of "most ugly" and "most worthy of demolition," the argument goes, they nonetheless are historic evidence that should please, please, please not be blown to kingdom come. And it's this line of reasoning that finally resonated.

The Preston Bus Station, built in 1969 in Lancashire, England, was saved from demolition by an online petition, despite the fact that public officials had already decided to raze it. Many others were just as lucky.

The preservation movement for the brutalist style is gaining momentum by the minute, mostly due to the Internet. Tumblr groups, such as "Fuck Yeah Brutalism," collect photos that demonstrate how daring, optimistic and rich the gestures of the concrete architects really were. Facebook's "Brutalism Appreciation Society" has more than 27,000 members. And the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt has planned a major brutalism exhibition for 2017.

It almost seems as if these buildings were built to appear on Tumblr and fashion shoots, or as backgrounds for dystopian films. Perhaps these concrete giants have found their cultural mission, becoming the background for the self-expression of the present they were always meant to be.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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