Are ugly buildings worth saving? Obviously ugliness is an aesthetic judgement, but there is little doubt that much of the brutalist concrete architecture of the post-war years excites scorn in some people. (If you don’t know what I mean, think of London’s Barbican.) Perhaps this is the legacy of failed town planning experiments that made use of ‘systems built’ housing estates and high-rises from the 1950s onwards. Or even disasters like the collapse of the Ronan Point block in 1968.
In fact, it may surprise you to learn that several post-war prefabricated structures are actually listed buildings: in fact, the Barbican is amongst them. It should astonish you less that English Heritage claims that the listing of these is its one responsibility that incites most public protest. (There is much public confusion as to what listing involves: it doesn’t mean preserving a property unchanged, and many listed buildings have been successfully adapted to new functions.)
Brutalism in Britain
A splendid example of this type of brutalist post-1945 listed building is St. Peter’s Seminary (now derelict - perhaps testament to Britain’s declining Christian traditions) in Cardross, Glasgow. Other notable instances are Trellick Tower in London; Park Hill in Sheffield; and Point Royal in Bracknell. In many cases, the conservation of these areas has met with incomprehension from their own residents. Wales, on the other hand, seems to have relatively few of these buildings listed in comparison to its neighbours.
We must remember, though, that several of these buildings are fine examples of the work of individual architects – the Trellick Tower was designed by Ernõ Goldfinger, one of the major figures in modernist architecture, for instance. Equally, they are testament to the adventurous attempts by governments and local authorities to solve the UK’s post-war housing shortage and provide more humane housing conditions for the British populace. The question is whether that is enough to treat them as an essential part of the heritage of Britain’s built environment.
Taking it further
Our new online course, Heritage, whose heritage? (A180), covers some of these debates. Another offering that might interest you is Cities and technology: from Babylon to Singapore (AT308). Scottish history is covered in our collaborative courses with Dundee University. We’re also pleased to present some free learning material about the city of Glasgow.