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A New View Of Brutalist London

December 2016Words by Mr Adam Welch

All photographs by Mr Simon Phipps. De Beauvoir Estate, Dalston N1, Burley Associates for LBC Hackney, 1965–75, unlisted

The ongoing hold of mid-20th-century modernism on the popular imagination means that, for a lot of people, “good” or “tasteful” contemporary architecture means the same thing: artful simplicity; an open-plan design; big windows; lots of natural light. The concrete housing estates of 1960s and 1970s Britain are not often viewed with the same dewy-eyed fondness. But such structures, commonly brought together under the tag “brutalist”, have been undergoing a reappraisal in the past few years, according to photographer Mr Simon Phipps. “Brutalism has been having a moment for some time now,” he says. “There seems to be a newfound genuine enthusiasm and willingness to re-appraise brutalism by a new generation, some of whom weren’t even born when many of these post-war buildings were being constructed.” He attributes this enthusiasm to “both the compellingly dramatic architectural image presented by brutalist buildings and the social message they represent”. “Social housing,” he says, “allowed council tenants to live anywhere in the city in housing that was modern, well-designed, spacious by today’s standards, and most importantly affordable – something that is resoundingly lacking today.”

Dunboyne Road Estate, Gospel Oak NW3, Neave Brown for Camden Architects’ Department, 1971–77, grade-II listed

In his new book Brutal London, Mr Phipps expounds upon his clear passion for brutalist architecture, in a collection of his own black–and–white shots of such properties as the Thamesmead development in London (where Mr Stanley Kubrick shot many scenes of his 1971 film A Clockwork Orange) and the Barbican Centre, as well as many under-appreciated properties such as Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, Tower Hamlets, or the Cotton Gardens estate in Kennington, Lambeth. The book, arranged in boroughs with accompanying maps, functions as something of a walking guide to London’s best brutalist buildings, accompanied by thoughtful notes from Mr Phipps that offer convincing, and somewhat romantic interpretations of these buildings’ austere geometry and physical narratives. Entering the Triangle Estate in Islington, he says, is “rather like passing through the ramparts into the inner keep of a medieval castle”. The Lockner Estate on Kingsland Road, Hackney, is “reminiscent of De Chirico’s metaphysical paintings”. If it sounds like something of a labour of love, it was. “There were plenty of areas of which I had little knowledge and the intensive experience of navigating and making fresh discoveries while exploring these new geographies was one of the many pleasures of making this book,” says Mr Phipps. “Much of the photography needed to fill the gaps in my existing collection was done over a period of four months alongside researching and writing the text and the book being designed – quite a frantic time!”