Lovely Ugly : The legacy of concrete in Brutalist architecture

Some of my earliest memories as a child are of the concrete-dominated streets of the Sottish new town of Cumbernauld. Memories of going to see Star Wars at the age of 3-4 in what seemed to me to be a subterranean concrete dungeon, has left a lasting impression on my imagination. As did visits to see my Grandmother in her top floor flat in the Nitshill high rise, with its graffiti, dingy lifts, dark halls and decrepit shops. At the time it felt like a damp and ugly labyrinth.


Cumbernauld Town Centre

These vivid memories have also played a part in my choice of subject matter when it came to producing images. Glasgow was not short of concrete underpasses and high rise building. The grey drab weather-soaked surfaces were both ugly and strangely beautiful in a certain light, both at night and during the day.

This was a while before I learned of the post-war legacy of brutalist architecture as a world movement for rehousing the masses, heavily influenced by Utopian modernist design ideas (again borrowing heavily from the Bauhaus).

It was a form of architecture that Glasgow embraced with open arms, and has been as controversial here as elsewhere. Since then the city has been doing its best to forget the post war period, with the demolition of prominent city landmarks like the Red Road and Whitevale flats.

There has been recently a change of heart however with the coming renovation of the crumbling masterpiece St. Peter’s seminary in Cardross, on the outskirts of Glasgow.

St. Peters Seminary, Cardross

St. Peter’s Seminary, Cardross

Recently I photographed some interiors of the Whitevale flats, and the small cramped rooms and stairwells felt more like a vertical prison than a residential building. This combined with recent visits back to Cumbernauld reminded me how lucky I was to have escaped at an early age.

Still, the surfaces and shapes of concrete architecture still evoke a strong emotional response in me. Buildings like the National Theatre in London, the Ballardian atmospherics of underpasses and the creativity of designers like Le Corbusier still hold a fascination for me. They still feel like the landscapes of nostalgic science-fiction.

These are often lonely spaces, blank surfaces and alienating environments, yet many of these buildings have endured and have generated a global appreciation for their inventive approach to design.

Such ultra-modernist forms are endlessly fascinating to me, and no doubt I can still trace this back to early childhood memories. Memories that will no doubt help shape any design work I am involved with from now on.


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