Born and raised in Middlesbrough, graphic designer Peter Chadwick grew up in a town surrounded by concrete. His fascination with Brutalism began with a glimpse of the Dorman Long Coke Oven Tower, a monolithic structure with a single row of narrow windows and the company name printed in stark lettering on one side. “Uncompromising and faceless, the structure fuelled my imagination,” he says. “I didn’t realise it was possible to build something so tall and so imposing using only concrete.”
Now, after decades researching Brutalist buildings around the world, Chadwick has compiled a book celebrating the divisive architectural style. This Brutal World features hundreds of black-and-white images of apartment blocks, chapels, theatres, galleries and hospital buildings from Sheffield to Nepal and Tokyo. Many were built in the 1960s and 70s but there are plenty of contemporary examples too, highlighting Brutalism’s influence on architects from Thomas Heatherwick to Zaha Hadid.
“Theres a definite visual language [among newer buildings featured] that link to the older Brutalist canon,” says Chadwick. “When you look at some of Zaha Hadid’s work for example, beyond those organic futurist shapes there’s some very solid concrete legs, or a sort of faceless concrete wall that looks like a fort … there’s all these little architectural details and hints that are taken from Brutalism,” he adds.
Images are arranged not by chronological order or location but visually, grouping shapes or unusual features. There are spreads showing conical buildings and taller towers as well as some startlingly futuristic structures and a page devoted to concrete staircases. Examples were chosen based on the quality of photographs and the building’s design and Chadwick has sourced some beautiful, futuristic and innovative examples, some world-famous and others, lesser-known.
In his introduction, Chadwick describes the book as both a loving homage to Brutalism and a visual manifesto: “I want to take the opportunity to reinvent and reappraise the term Brutal. To celebrate the very best of the traditional canon of Brutalism, bring to light many virtually unknown Brutalist architectural treasures that I have come across in my real and virtual travels … and also to propose that Brutalism lives on in so much contemporary architecture of the late twentieth and early 21st centuries,” he writes.
Once a symbol of a Utopian vision for a brighter future, Brutalist buildings in the UK have been much maligned in recent years – the term ‘Brutalism’ has been used by politicians as a byword for run down and neglected estates and the imposing style has become, for many, associated with urban decay.
Chadwick admits not all Brutalist buildings were beautiful – in his foreword, he notes that post war structures thrown up alongside Victorian terraces in London looked “as though they had descended from another planet to colonise earth” – but at the time, they were progressive and optimistic. Many of these buildings were well-designed and spacious and offered a comfortable and modern home for people who had never before had an indoor toilet or bathroom.
The style has struggled to shake off its negative connotations but Brutalism has enjoyed something of a surge in popularity of late – the National Trust has been running Brutalism tours and recently held a pop-up opening of a flat in Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower. This new found affection could be in part due to a growing backlash against uninspiring glass skyscrapers springing up across London and beyond, suggests Chadwick. It might also be driven by London’s housing crisis – with first-time buyers increasingly unable to afford Victorian flats or new builds, many are looking to Brutalist buildings and discovering housing that is surprisingly well-made.
Many of the UK’s Brutalist buildings are at risk of disappearing, but books like Chadwick’s offer a permanent reminder of a style that once represented a vision of the future, not just in Europe but in Asia, the Middle East and South America. It’s also a style that has inspired not just architects but designers, photographers, novelists and musicians, as highlighted in quotes from Bowie, JG Ballard and Jarvis Cocker, which are scattered throughout the book.
Chadwick began photographing Brutalist buildings when he moved to London and has built up a vast archive of tens of thousands of images. (The book features found imagery as Chadwick says his cropped images and close-ups weren’t suitable for the publication). In 2014, he set up a Twitter account and a website to share his images, named after 1980s track This Brutal House (a project we covered on the CR blog). A few months later, he received an email from Phaidon.
Now the book has been published, Chadwick says he plans to launch a new version of the site allowing people to upload images of Brutalist buildings around the world. He is also recruiting graphic designer friends abroad to document buildings in the towns and cities near where they live. “I want graphic designers to do it because I think they take pictures in a different way to photographers – they’re looking at things from a compositional point of view,” he says. “I’m not a good technical photographer but I’m good with shape and composition.” Images will be moderated for quality but the idea is to create an online community for fans of Brutalism, celebrating the beauty and power of a “compelling” architectural style, he says.
This Brutal World is published by Phaidon and priced at £29.95