Guest Article: New Brutalism and the RIBA Library Photographs Collection

By Robert Elwall, assistant director at the RIBA Photographs Library | 07 June 2010
a black and white photo showing the stairway corner of a multi-storey car parl made out of concrete

(Above) Car park, Trinity Square shopping centre, Gateshead (1968). Architects: Owen Luder Partnership. Photographer: Sam Lambert. RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Culture24 has teamed up with the RIBA Library Photographs Collection to bring you a series of features highlighting some of the hidden treasures of the collection. RIBA Assistant Director Robert Elwall explains the evolution of Brutalist architecure in the 1950s and 1960s and how the period’s leading architectural photographers responded to it.

The 1950s was an ‘angry’ decade in the arts. Uncompromising playwrights such as John Osborne and artists such as those belonging to the Independent Group epitomised the growing disillusionment with traditional English Society.

In architecture their activities were paralleled by a new breed of hard-nosed critics such as Theo Crosby at Architectural Design and Reyner Banham and Ian Nairn at the Architectural Review but above all by the rise of an innovative, hard-edged movement, New Brutalism.

This emerged as a response to the perceived failings of post-war modernism as seen especially in the whimsical populism of the Festival of Britain (1951). To a younger generation of architects, among them Alison and Peter Smithson, Colin St John Wilson and James Stirling, the Festival and the ‘Contemporary’ style it spawned represented a bastard offshoot of modernism infected with those worst of English vices, compromise and sentimentality.

In its place these architects espoused a tougher, more uncompromising aesthetic which revelled in exposed materials and surfaces. One of the first manifestations of this new approach came with the design of Hunstanton School by the Smithsons in 1954, which was heavily influenced by the works of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

In some respects this was atypical as New Brutalism largely took its cue from the béton brut (raw concrete) creations of Le Corbusier such as the Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles (1952). The term itself was developed and popularized by Banham, firstly in an article published in the Architectural Review in 1955 and then in his book The New Brutalism: ethic or aesthetic (1966).

For Banham the movement’s main attributes were a ruthless logic; the clear display of structure; the valuation of materials for their inherent qualities ‘as found’; and memorability of the building as image.

a black and white photo of a corner of a multi storey car park made out of concrete

Car park, Tricorn Shopping Centre, Portsmouth (1965). Architects: Owen Luder Partnership. Photographer: Sam Lambert. RI BA Library Photographs Collection

This latter suggests New Brutalism’s photogenic qualities and, just as striking, the shadow-etched, white concrete walls which had proved irresistible to Architectural Review’s official photographers in the 1930s, Dell and Wainwright. So a new generation of photographers including Richard Einzig and Henk Snoek now rediscovered concrete’s dramatic potential.

This can be well seen, for example, in the series of images taken by Sam Lambert of Portsmouth’s Tricorn shopping centre and Gateshead’s Trinity Square shopping centre designed by Owen Luder in 1965 and 1968 respectively.

Lambert was one of the period’s leading architectural photographers with his imagery appearing regularly in both Architectural Design and the Architects’ Journal and his coverage of both buildings renders perfectly Luder’s unsparing exploitation of concrete’s raw power.

Lambert’s photographs now have added value as the controversial Tricorn has been demolished while Gateshead has been partly demolished. Fortunately the latter’s car park has been captured on film playing a key role in Mike Hodges’s classic 1971 movie Get Carter.

If photography helped promote New Brutalism, it also added its genesis. Though he himself deplored the fact, the photography of Eric de Maré was highly suggestive in this respect. His photographs of early industrial structures such as warehouses, factories and canal-side buildings, whose chief characteristic he described as “geometry unadorned”, were hugely influential not least on James Stirling.

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