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Modernist and Post-Modern Architecture and Lego, High Tech Architecture and Meccano, and Brutalism

February 19, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Have been thinking about the history of theology and how each different generation is at once myopic and also reacting against what came before. Where changes in ideas seem indistinguishable from what you’d find in architecture or art or music, it is useful to be aware of the relevant developments in these fields of human endeavour, as juxtaposition to unwavering biblical truth.

We love our buildings here in Britain, so architecture-talk has always been a great ice-breaker (post-talking about the weather). I spent the New Year with someone employed by Zaha Hadid and my host last week used to work for Arup, which meant a great many evenings and mornings talking shop and pouring over architectural plans.

Modernist and Post-Modern Architecture and Lego
Happily, there’ve been quite a few programmes on the BBC recently on the topic. The Culture Show – 2013/2014. Episode 23: Lego – The Building Blocks of Architecture posited that Lego has changed the way we view architecture. Lego was created in Billung after World War II, when governments were looking to rebuild communities. Town planning was a big subject then. Where most (boys’) toys were usually about destruction, the constructivism of Lego fit the mood of the late 1940s.

That was also the era that educationalists started to advocate learning-through-play, and Lego and other construction toys did indeed inspire a generation of architects: Frank Lloyd Wright was influenced greatly by Fröbel Blocks, Le Corbusier (whose vision of low-cost utopia resulted in flat-pack pre-fab constructions) allegedly by Lego, and on the “High Tech” spectrum where the guts/mechanics of the place are obvious – Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano (Le Centre Pompidou) and Richard Rogers again (The Lloyd’s Building) by Meccano.

Lloyd's Building Lloyd's Building
Lloyd's Building

Lloyd's BuildingThe Lloyd’s Building, London

Even the post-modern Number One Poultry (which makes me think of a giant chicken) by James Stirling looks like it was put together like a toy block.

The programme also featured a short interview Bjarke Ingels (designer of the Islands Brygge Harbour Bath) who spent a childhood building secret rooms in villain lairs from Lego now spends his time solving the age-old problem of making interesting buildings from pre-fab blocks. It is necessary to put buildings together quickly in Denmark because of the high labour cost and the wet weather.

Lego also has the ability to bring communities together. Olafur Eliasson‘s Collectivity Project involved dumping three tonnes of white Lego blocks in a square in Tirana, Albania. The citizens were then invited to play with them, to metaphorically (re)build a city from scratch. By doing so, they learned to negotiate space and build structures together.

King's Cross St. Pancreas in Lego at Waterstones Picadilly King's Cross St. Pancreas in Lego at Waterstones Picadilly
King's Cross St. Pancreas in Lego at Waterstones Picadilly King's Cross St. Pancreas in Lego at Waterstones Picadilly

After bemoaning recent Lego products as branded and complicated – more like a jigsaw than a creative toy and commenting that the company had been heavily compromised by commercial ambitions, The Culture Show suggested Minecraft as a worthy successor – rather than just one structure, it was about building a world, an environment, individually and collectively and that could be shared by all.

Brutalism
Having spent much time in the City of London, in Barbican, and along the South Bank, have come to be rather fond of Brutalist buildings.

Brutalist Architecture on the Southbank Brutalist Architecture on the Southbank
Brutalist Architecture on the Southbank Brutalist Architecture on the Southbank

Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, Southbank, London

Brutalist Architecture on the Southbank
Brutalist Architecture on the Southbank
Hayward Gallery, Southbank, London

In addition to BBC Four’s archive collection on Post-War Architecture, (spot Singapore in the unintentionally hilarious Andrew Sachs-narrated “Architecture at the crossroads: Doubt and Reassessment (1986)“) a new two-parter has just broadcast: Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry (now on BBC iPlayer). In it, Jonathan Meades argues for brutalism in the slightly offensive, bellicosely belligerent, self-ironic British manner not unfamiliar to fans of Top Gear.

Broadly, he challenges conventional ideas of the beauty of buildings. There is no reason why a building has to be “pretty”. It should convey a mood rather than a style. Victorian Modern Gothic conveyed horror and weight. It provoked outrage in its day and was accused of being ugly, clumsy, disgusting, impure, odious, barbaric. Why should buildings be friendly? Why should landscapes be friendly – we dont’ want to be chums with geological formations, we don’t crave matey waterfalls. We don’t need “human-scale” buildings that are tame.

Such received ideas (he points an accusing finger at Lytton Strachey) about sensual taste are mindlessly accepted by the masses. In certain eras, this precise laziness is what allowed aristocrats to flourish. By 1983 there was a general change of taste and the public widely relished the harsh weirdness Modern Gothic. A century had passed so that people were not influenced by the preferences of their grandparents. Yet, the public did not see the similarities in mood with brutalist architecture. Brutalist structures were called “concrete monstrosities” and accused of promoting everything from family break-ups to paedophilia, arson, benefits fraud, pre-teen pregnancy, incest, cannibalism, and war.

Brutalist Architecture on the Southbank Brutalist Architecture on the Southbank: National Theatre
Brutalist Architecture on the Southbank: National Theatre Brutalist Architecture on the Southbank: National Theatre
National Theatre, Southbank, London

Jonathan Meades thought that brutalist architects were artists, misunderstood. The architect was now not a servile technician but an artist – he created not what he was told to, but what he regarded was necessary. For the first time since 1860s, here was something with guts and go. It did not need to be pretty, for nightmares stick around longer. In fact, the job of the arts is to trouble us and the job of science is to soothe us. Focus groups mercifully had not been used for prospective urban planning, because the consensual cannot help but be feeble. Unfortunately, there were now elected representatives with high reach excavators and explosives at their disposal who would say “I don’t know much about architecture but I know what I don’t like”.

Brutalism did not take its name from the brutality of expression (even though much of it came from war bunkers and towers) but the use of brut (raw) concrete. Unfortunately, even though (or because!) the signifier came before the object, this label for concrete structures stuck.

Can’t wait for Part 2 this Sunday!

  1. cupboard space
    February 19, 2014 at 10:44 am

    there is a wahaca at the queen elizabeth hall now?? (thank you for views of the hayward i have not seen before!)

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