Heritage bodies seem to have recently discovered a new architectural style that they are focussing on protecting. The raw concrete brutalist buildings of the 1980s are now being seen as objects to worship.
In Sydney, the National Trust and the Heritage Council have led a campaign to list the brutalist Sirius building to make sure it is not demolished as a result of its sale to the private sector. Now another brutalist building, the Bidura Children’s Court and Remand Centre in Glebe, has been discovered by the National Trust and the Council of the City of Sydney who are campaigning for its heritage listing.
One concrete tower that demolished a heritage building did get through the system and it was roundly criticised by the National Trust as being unsympathetic. This was the Sirius building which, while serving as social housing, was in its built form an expression of what the community didn’t want. Decades later, it is being worshiped as a Brutalist icon.
The seeds behind the grand schemes to demolish the heritage of the Rocks and build a new modernist series of towers was Le Corbusier’s Vosin Plan of 1925 to demolish much of the old buildings of Paris and build a brave new world of concrete towers with open spaces and aerial bridges.
In an article titled The Street written in May 1929, Le Corbusier criticised the streets of Paris, writing “The street is no more than a trench, a deep cleft, a narrow passage. And although we have been accustomed to it for more than a thousand years, our hearts are always oppressed by the constrictions of its enclosing walls.”
He went on to say, “The street wears us out. And when all is said or done we have to admit it disgusts us.”
I believe the seeds of Brutalism were sown by Le Corbusier’s anti-street approach to modernism, so that a new order was established that was not constrained by streets that asserted architectural sculptural form as being more important than the public domain of the street. This has led to aggressive Brutalist buildings that present blank concrete walls to the street or in some cases protrude into the street. The Brutalist Government Office building in Launceston Tasmania thrusts into the main street to force pedestrians to walk around it. Alex and his Droogs would have enjoyed this example of civic disobedience.
There are some Australian examples of the Brutalist style of architecture that have been successful, but these have been well away from urban streets. The Ku-ring-ai College on Sydney’s North Shore sits on a bushland ridge in a wild and rugged sandstone setting and the relationship of the site and the building works well. But there are no urban streets near the Ku-ring-ai College building.
Brutalism seems to have come from a punk rock, anti-establishment approach that attacks the traditional public realm defined by streets. The current interest in making Brutalist buildings into heritage items is also coming from an anti-establishment approach that will ultimately lead to unfriendly urban environments.