When you envisage the architecture of Britain, what comes to mind are buildings such as the striking Gherkin, prestigious and sprawling stately homes and iconic architectural feats such as the 2012 Olympics Aqua centre, but one thing that people do not normally consider when contemplating great architectural feats is the Brutalist architecture of 1960s Britain.
The great expanses of concrete that are frequently considered to plague York’s campus, (Vanbrugh college anyone?) would hardly be on the top of your list of buildings to visit. Yet as of 25 September this architecture will be considered worthy of a National Trust tour, with locations such as the Southbank Centre opened up to public tours. As the National Trust explains, these buildings will be the Trust properties of the future.
This opens up the debate as to whether these controversial buildings should be protected and admired, or whether the likes of Vanbrugh College and Stonebow House, described by architectural critics as “sheer visual misery” and often considered one of York’s greatest eyesores should be demolished to make way for a more modern and contemporary design.
It must be acknowledged that Brutalist architecture was never intended to be elegant. It is not a misguided intent at architectural grandeur, but a statement on residential architecture. For example, Alison and Peter Smith of the Tower Hamlets created the housing estate as an experimental solution to post war public housing demands and the Smiths have stated that it was intended to be ugly as they saw ugliness as an authentic British trait.
Another integral, yet often overlooked aspect of Brutalist architecture is that it was publicly funded, and the architects were often anonymous, working in the public sector and in local governments, a rarity in today’s age. These spaces are also highly politicised as long term tenants are being removed from housing such as the Balfron Tower in Poplar, designed by Eren Goldfinger, in order for these sought after postcodes to be renovated into desirable housing ready for private sale. Brutal architecture, designed as a solution for public housing demands is becoming a site of social cleansing as existing tenants are removed to the urban outskirts.
While it might sound entirely logical to strip York campus of its 60s eyesores, its constantly freezing Vanbrugh accommodation, its silverfish infested kitchens, we may be being slightly naïve to simply call for the demolition of York’s pebble dashed history. A university born in the 60s shouldn’t sever its roots to the 1960s architecture that is literally its foundations.
The Brutalist architecture of York and its University represents the unsung, and largely anonymous architects of the 60s, the experimental architecture which has long since been dismissed and the history of the urban landscape that exemplifies post war Britain. Brutalist architecture has a place firmly in the heart of York, symbolising the transition from medieval town to modern city that York has undertaken.