Post-war concrete architecture, especially the hard-core Brutalist variety, is experiencing a previously unthinkable renaissance. Through Instagram and a stream of glossy coffee table books, the once-reviled concrete of ‘60s architecture is now on the agenda of more than just architecture critics. Brutalism’s wares now extend to mugs, tea towels, t-shirts and concrete pen pots. How long before the béton brut wallpaper that features as a backdrop to the Royal Academy’s Futures Found exhibition pops up for sale in the RA shop?
Is a renewed interest in the vanishing architecture of post-war Britain a bad thing? Clearly, the defining beliefs of that world – social progress, technological achievement and central planning expressed through often uncompromising modern architecture – still polarise debate.
These days, producing modern mass housing with the optimism and decency of its Modernist forbears requires a planetary alignment of procurement, resources and political will. It also calls for architectural intelligence and a certain militancy. As Lewis Mumford, the great historian of the city, wrote in 1938: “Instead of clinging to the funeral towers of metropolitan finance there is a need to create fresh patterns of political action, to alter for human purpose the perverse mechanisms of our economic regime.” It is a call to arms that still has relevance, as ultimately, the obliteration of the Modernist social project calls into question what kind of city we want and whether the power still exists to make it viable.