Why Brutalism Was About More Than Buildings

July 2017Words by Mr Adam Welch

The word “brutalist” is usually used to describe the austere, concrete social architecture of Britain in the mid-20th century. As we’ve remarked previously on The Daily, it’s become a bit of a trendy term in the current era. In particular, 2016 saw a slew of books dedicated to the topic, from Mr Barnabas Calder’s Raw Concrete (William Heinemann) and Mr Peter Chadwick’s This Brutal World (Phaidon) to two books called Brutal London (one a novelty book of build-your-own brutalist buildings, the other a walking guide to Brutalist buildings in London, which we reviewed here). In 2017, there’s more in the offing, including architect Mr Simon Henley’s thoughtful Redefining Brutalism (RIBA) and Finding Brutalism: A Photographic Survey Of Post-War British Architecture which is published by Park Books this November.

So, the architecture angle is pretty much covered, then. But that’s what makes Mr Ben Highmore’s new book The Art Of Brutalism something of a refreshing offering within this niche field. Focusing on the works of artists such as Messrs Eduardo Paolozzi, Nigel Henderson, William Turnbull and Richard Hamilton, Ms Magda Cordell, and husband and wife architects Mr Peter and Ms Alison Smithson – early members of the so-called “Independent Group”, which met at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) between 1952 and 1955 – Mr Highmore makes the case that, rather being a mere prelude to the onset of pop art in the 1960s, brutalism was an artistic movement in its own right. According to Mr Highmore, though brutalist art – like pop art – brought the imagery and ephemera of mass media into the realm of fine art, it was far less reverent to such subject matter, more symptomatic of a mechanised post-war Britain that had been ruined, and was being rebuilt.

“If there is one overarching mood that characterises this period for the brutalist milieu, it could be described as haunted-optimism”