In the fourth part of the series I spoke to architectural historian Barnabas Calder. These are the types of conversation I enjoy the most, because, though we may think we know a little bit about subjects like this, we really don’t. My discussion with Barnabas was eye-opening, and though I still haven’t opened my heart to Brutalism quite in the way Barnabas has, I most certainly look at concrete in a very different way.
Firstly Barnabas, where are you from and what was your education?
B: I’m from South-West London, between Richmond and Putney. I went to St. Paul’s and from there I went to Worcester College at Oxford.
I’m assuming you didn’t do architecture? How did you get into architecture as a subject?
B: No, I did History. At university I had a choice of ‘special subjects’ within the history degree, and there was one on English Baroque architecture. I had always liked buildings and been ignorantly interested in Gothic architecture, so I decided to give the Baroque a go and I absolutely loved it. I spent a lovely summer with friends driving round a lot of different English Baroque country houses and churches – I’ve never really stopped building-bothering since.
What do you think architectural history brings, in terms of being able to talk about culture and society, which other types of history don’t?
B: I’m not going to bash other types of history, but one of the great things about architecture as a way of taking the temperature of a period of culture is that it is so expensive. The fact that it’s so expensive, and so important therefore, means that people don’t by and large say things in architecture as frivolously as they do in some other media. So when a period gives its attention to a project like St. George’s Hall, it does so because a lot of people have decided it’s important enough to back, and to give substantial sums of money to, and the city itself has cleared a site for it. This means it’s not a kind of individual whim – interesting but hard to generalise from – it is in itself a major social movement in just that one building. That kind of expensive slowness of architecture is, I think, one of the things that makes it such an exciting and important measuring point for human activity.
I’m getting the sense that it’s an expression of a time-period that’s not taken lightly.
B: Architecture is the worm-cast that’s left behind by power. Liverpool has a very clear set of markers of its massive importance from the eighteenth through to the first half of the twentieth century. Liverpool is no longer one of the world’s most important trading cities, as it was when it was the major transatlantic port for Europe, and yet the architecture keeps a record not only of the total sum of wealth and power that was once here, but of individual institutions’ roles within that. So by looking at the architecture closely you can break it down into quite a precise set of indicators of what mattered about the city, and what was exciting about the city, in a way that is a particular pleasure of architecture because you just get it walking around the streets – you don’t have to bury yourself in difficult texts to start to get a real sense of what a city’s about.
What was Barnabas Calder as a student like?
B: I wandered around looking at buildings a lot. I also really enjoyed the Medieval History parts of the course – I found the whole detective story of periods with limited sources really rewarding. You find yourself trying to puzzle together, from very slender evidence, a much bigger story that you know must be there, but the three pieces of evidence you have could indicate a very small story just big enough to encompass those three pieces of evidence, or they could be fragments of a massive story. I had a thoroughly enjoyable student social life – I sang in a chapel choir which was very good fun. I took some photographs (some included in this interview).
How do you see the interactions you had with your fellow students and tutors having changed when you went to university in the late 90s?
B: The thing that I notice is the remorselessness of current communications technology, which means that your phone will buzz and wake you up when you’ve finally gone to bed (laughs). It’ll be something that may or may not be relevant but it’ll switch your brain back on. It’s neither intrinsically better nor intrinsically worse than things were before, but it’s very different in some important ways. I am, in almost every respect, massively positive about the internet as a resource for serious scholarship as well as lightweight information. The one thing I think is difficult at the moment is that, because the internet will provide you some basic information on things quite easily, a lot of very much better material is put into its shadow. So, because you can easily get at a slightly weak account of some aspect of history, people are less prone to do a proper journal search and find the really good things, particularly if they are in non-digitised journals. Books as well. Wonderful books sit neglected while people try to puzzle together the same story from weaker sources, which is frustrating. When my sister, who is three years older than me, went to university, there was one computer in her college and you were given an email address, and, if you wanted to, you could go and send an email from this one computer in the library. By the time I was leaving university, six years later I suppose, almost everybody had a mobile phone, there were landline phones in everybody’s rooms at my college, and enough computers to mean that pretty much everyone was writing their essays on a computer. We were probably one of the first years to be doing that.
So when you started you were handwriting essays?
B: I didn’t because I write astonishingly badly. My handwriting is just terrible (laughs). It’s lucky for me that we now live in an age where we can type everything because I always struggled with anything that required handwriting. In my previous job, I used to hand mark essays, and I used to have to hold a session at the end of the marking process where students would bring me their essays so I could read my comments out (laughs). I always typewrote essays and when I first had a computer I found it massively liberating. The subjects I enjoyed most were essay subjects where I could just sit there and pound out the essay on a keyboard, I always found that so much more satisfactory because you can restructure.
I know it’s a very bland question to ask, but have you got any particular spots in Liverpool that are, in an architectural sense, underrated?
B: The single best building is very well-rated and gets all the attention it deserves pretty much – St George’s Hall. It is absolutely remarkable and stands out even in a city this good. If you want something underrated, and only here for a limited time more, there’s the old building of the Liverpool Royal Hospital, which is absolutely tremendous – it’s so muscular. I also like the tunnel vents of the Kingsway Tunnel.
A common opinion I perceive is that buildings of the kind you’ve suggested aren’t popular. Is the ageing process anything to do with that, because, looking at them, it doesn’t seem like people look after concrete very well.
B: They don’t look after stone necessarily either, but most people have such positive associations with stone that they will look past damage, decay and dirt. I was giving a talk last week about 1960s architecture, which is my research specialisation, to an audience of people who didn’t particularly like it. They were saying that stone was so much nicer and concrete gets so dirty – the next day I was walking along Bold Street noticing quite how filthy a lot of the stone is! (Laughs) A lot of it is uncleaned from the industrial soot, so that only the rain washing it, since the cleaning up of the air, has produced the odd light streak on a building that is otherwise essentially black. These people were there because they were enthusiasts of Liverpool architecture and they gave me a very fair and kind hearing – it wasn’t a hostile occasion – but I was very struck by this observation that concrete gets dirty when stone has all the problems that concrete has except that, in most cases, it’s more friable in the first place. So, I think there’s a huge question of perception about the sense that concrete gets streaky and decays. People always say to me that the thing they don’t like about the National Theatre, which was my PhD subject, is that the concrete is streaky – it’s completely pristine, they are absolutely hallucinating the streaks on it! (Laughs)
Do you think there’s a culture of preservation in this country, in that we like to retain things that are old that were not necessarily worthwhile in their time, simply because they are old?
B: Not massively, no. The total of quantity of building going up has increased something like exponentially over the last two centuries, since the Industrial Revolution. The effect of that has meant that the total quantity existent by 1800 is a very small part of the nation’s building stock. It absolutely shouldn’t mean that you can’t pull down anything if you’ve got something important to do or something better to do, but I think the caution about demolition is basically sensible. The interesting thing with building preservation is that the legislation specifies that you should be less selective the further back you go or, to put it in a slightly fairer way, more selective the further forward you go in time. So, by 1945 and onwards, the listing criteria are very tough and only exceptional buildings get listed. A considerable majority of the country’s buildings were built after 1900 and a majority of those since 1945. Yet buildings since 1945 represent only 0.2% of the total listed buildings in the country. Unless you believe that the buildings that have gone up since 1945 are in some intrinsic way inevitably inferior, then the number of listed buildings from that period needs to rise because, at the moment, it’s the tiniest proportion of listings for the largest proportion of buildings. You can see where the thinking comes from: while there are more of them around, there feels as though there’s less urgency about it, because if you lose a good concrete university building there are plenty more good concrete university buildings. The problem with that attitude is that there are those of us who think it’s one of the great periods of architecture ever anywhere. For us, whilst they are not protected, there is this sort of unhappy middle ground between the clear-cut catastrophe of demolition and the perfection of a good building being well looked after. There’s a huge middle ground of little bits and bobs of changes, and they are often made by managements who have no sympathy for, and little understanding of, the architecture. They slap paint onto concrete where they shouldn’t, like the poor old Sports Centre next door, they put up signage that’s very wrong, and they replace windows in a way that completely changes the aesthetic. They re-landscape in badly thought out ways, they try and soften buildings where the whole strength of the building is that it’s hard. They clean up the aesthetics with their begonia-planting, soft, suburban aesthetic preferences, and ruin the building in the process. The problem is, of the buildings that aren’t listed, which is almost all of them, you’re not just getting some lost and the others kept, you’re getting almost all of them trashed and that’s why there’s a need for much more post-war listing.
Is there a correlation between the politics of an era and what is being built during that era?
B: Yes, I think there’s always a connection between politics and architecture, and there are always two ways of telling it. So, if you tell something like the story of the decades after 1945, the quick and easy version is that the Welfare State was being founded and the country was at its most social democratic, under both Tory and Labour governments. The result was lots of commissions for things like university expansions, hospitals and schools. That’s, broadly speaking, a useful simplification. When you drill into it a bit more you can get a lot more nuance into that about the ways in which the ongoing power of a very well-embedded establishment also manifests itself through Modernist architecture. If you take the Barbican in London, for example, it looks like a classic Welfare-State housing estate – it was built on that legislation – but it was never subsidised so it cost three times as much to live on as other estates built on the same legislation. It was built in order that the Corporation of the City of London shouldn’t have to be merged with the Labour-led London County Council. The Corporation’s managed to dodge most of the council reforms of the previous centuries to remain very opaque, very medieval in its structures, and able to govern itself with a very clear economically right-wing independence. The Corporation needed to increase its population because a residential electorate was looking like an important criterion for continuing to exist, so they built themselves an estate. They built it to look like an exciting Modernist council estate, but they deliberately ensured that they didn’t subsidise it, and didn’t claim government subsidies for it, so that it didn’t end up with ‘ordinary’ people living in it who might vote in left-wing councillors.
You’ve got a new book coming out called Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism, would you care to explain what the book is about?
B: It’s a both a history and a personal hymn of praise to a set of buildings that I really like, and that I think are underrated at present. They’ve come back into fashion quite a lot in certain circles, it’s not controversial in an architecture school to like that kind of thing anymore. My book looks at eight of the best Brutalist buildings in Britain, exploring their histories, their construction and why they are so wonderful.
When did you start building-bothering Brutalist buildings?
B: The moment I really fell for it was during an MA that I did at the Courtauld Institute on Medieval Architecture. I was walking past the National Theatre twice a day every day and I was just increasingly struck by the extent to which, firstly, it was a beautiful thing, and secondly, it had all the same qualities that I most admired in Medieval and Baroque architecture of real muscularity and strength. My latest reframing to myself as to why Brutalism is quite so amazing is that it is the period on the increasing energy curve where architects had the most capability because they had cheaply available concrete and steel, which allow you to do things you simply can’t do in brick, stone or wood. So, they had these amazing materials – big windows also available cheaply – they had a very, very advanced building industry that is seriously underrated by most people. They had a huge number of exciting commissions available because the world was changing very fast under the impetus of that energy wealth. They also didn’t yet have what we have now, which is the guilty awareness of how damaging it is to use that much energy. Contemporary buildings are pulling back in again and huddling together with themselves for warmth, they have great thick insulated walls, and heavily-glazed windows. The 1960s were this perfect moment where they had all the capabilities of modernity and high energy, with the total confidence and positivity of people who thought they were doing the right thing. Artistically, that makes it extraordinarily vigorous, exciting and energetic. Since then, there’s been so much more self-doubt, apologetic-ness and over-complexity. The reason that things like the Cypress, the Roxby and the University Hospital Building are all so punchy is because it wouldn’t occur to them not to be – ‘Look, we can finally do this, we can build these amazing facilities for important purposes, what’s then not to feel positive about?’ It’s only in the subsequent decades that, for all sorts of reasons, that’s fallen back in on itself and the world is less positive about what it’s doing.
For those who don’t know what Brutalism is, how would you define Brutalism?
B: I would define it as being the heavy concrete architecture of the late 1950s to the 70s pretty much worldwide. It is not a totally uncontested definition because the word originates in the early 1950s for a slightly different kind of architecture and then gets shifted across. That’s how I would define Brutalism as a general style, though. It’s no longer possible to build Brutalist buildings in the 1960s sense because they were under-insulated. At the time, this wasn’t an issue because energy was cheap and was getting cheaper, and no one realised how much harm it was doing to burn oil and coal. One of the key things about Brutalism is that it shows structure and construction so clearly that all you have in the final building really is the structure and some glass – that’s the ideal Brutalist building. Nowadays, you’ve got to have a frame, then some insulation, then some more insulation, then some waterproofing, and then something to protect the waterproofing – that is so un-Brutalist in its spirit. Brutalism was a period where you could read exactly how it was constructed, what it was made of, and how it stood up from the materials you saw on the surface. You can see even the marks of construction in the surface of the concrete – where were the moulds it was poured into? What kind of moulds were they? Was it made here or in a factory? All of that you can read straight off the surface of a concrete building. Now, all you read is that the architect chose such-and-such a cladding. There’s a visceral quality to Brutalism that’s completely irretrievable in contemporary architecture.
You can pre-order Barnbas’ book Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism at Amazon and his Twitter handle is @BrutalConcrete.