Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Brutal, Indeed

Alexander Adams offers an interesting defence of Brutalism, which is currently the subject of a series of events by the National Trust, entitled Brutal Utopias. I do not always agree with Jonathan Meades. But I always watch him, because he takes his audience seriously. Last year, his BBC Four programmes on Brutalism were very much in that spirit.

However, his subject, like Modernism generally, was still not theologically suitable for the Catholic ecclesiastical commissions that it received in the immediate post-Vatican II period, since it did not express, for example, that continuity with the Middle Ages which is expressed by Gothic architecture, or that continuity with the Catholic Reformation which is expressed by Baroque architecture, or that Petrine Unity of Eastern and Western Churches which is expressed by Byzantine architecture.

Moreover, his residence in Corbusier's Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles may blind him to the real problem with British Brutalism, namely the simple unsuitability of unclad concrete to the climate of these Islands.

There was what I might call a certain cognitive dissonance, if I ever used that term, about his scorn for the "provincial councillors and planners" who either resisted or demolished Brutalist buildings, when the latter was of course only possible because "provincial councillors and planners" had commissioned, or at the very least permitted, them in the first place.

He seemed to revile local government while cheering on its historic role in housing, and he seemed unable to criticise it, as such, in London, where exactly the same things had happened. He condemned those demolitions and non-constructions, too. But he did not blame the councillors or the planners for them. Whom, then, did he blame, and why? The Age of Demolition has been the age in which local government has been eviscerated. The Age of Construction was the age in which local government was mighty and strong.

I ought to hate Brutalism. For more than the significant meteorological reasons, it was wildly unsuitable to certain uses and places to and in which it was put. There was outright corruption in relation to certain projects, not least here in the North East, and by no means only in relation to the political party that was made to carry the can.

But Meades was right about so very, very much. How the hippies became the Thatcherites, without any kind of reaction against their former views, but rather as the logical and inevitable outworking of them. How people originally wanted to live in the new municipal housing developments, with their bathrooms, their inside lavatories and their central heating; it is breathtaking, but correct, to consider that in the late 1950s there were still people in Britain, in the Severn Valley, living in caves. The urban slums rivalled anything in the developed world, and not a few things in the undeveloped world, at the time.

Meades considered that cooling towers made the East Coast Main Line interesting as one passed through the flatlands, and any lover of what was then still that last great publicly owned British railway, that social-democratic steel backbone of the Union, was and is fundamentally on the side of the angels, whether or not an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society would wish to be.

The cooling towers also speak of secure, high-waged, high-skilled, high-status employment, and that at once guaranteed by the State and guaranteeing the energy independence that is integral to the national and parliamentary sovereignty which is itself, with municipalism, the democracy in social democracy. The social part is indeed the mastery of the earth and of the elements in the service of human demographic, economic and cultural expansion, as well as that expansion itself.

Meades has also written of his enchantment with Durham, after he spoke on the atheist side of a debate here some years ago. That debate was held on Palace Green, between the Cathedral and the Castle. I have never known anyone to visit that World Heritage Site and fail to fall in love with it. I cannot imagine how such a failure could be possible.

A short distance from it, and blessed with phenomenal views of it, are the Hill Colleges. I hope that Meades also had an opportunity to take a look at those. He would have loved them, too. And they speak of an age of dazzling expansion in educational opportunities within the inheritance of excellence.

The hatred of Brutalism is starting to look like the thin end, the cutting edge, the soft target identification, of the hatred of social housing, of confident municipal autonomy, of public ownership, of public transport, of full employment, of educational expansion, of coal-fired power stations powered by our own vast reserves of coal, and therefore also of everything from national and parliamentary sovereignty, to the Union, to the economic basis of paternal authority.

It is starting to look like the thin end, the cutting edge, the soft target identification, of the Sixties Swingers' ungrateful hatred of the great Labour Governments of the past. For, as well as loathing Harold Wilson fanatically, they associated the Attlee Government with their despised parents as much as they did the War. That despising, that loathing, that ungrateful hatred, became Thatcherism, and then it became New Labour.

Brutal, indeed.

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