British Brutalism

Birmingham, Preston, and London, England, United Kingdom

Site and Significance

The term brutalism is derived from the French betón brut, meaning “raw concrete,” and refers to a style of late modernist architecture that emerged during the second half of the twentieth century. Brutalist architecture, characterized by bold geometries, the exposure of structural materials, and functional spatial design, was an expression of social progressivism and became a favored style for public architecture of the time.

Three British Brutalist Buildings

London’s Southbank Centre was deemed a visionary combination of performance spaces and art gallery when it opened in 1976, but lack of heritage status put the architectural complex at risk. Preston Bus Station is a daring concrete structure housing an integrated car parking, bus, and taxi facility that, upon its completion in 1969, was Europe’s largest bus station. Birmingham Central Library was a monumental hub in the civic center of the city and the largest non-national library in Europe.

Our Involvement

2012 World Monuments Watch

The inclusion of these three buildings on the 2012 World Monuments Watch underscored the risk to modern architecture around the world, especially to the underappreciated legacy of brutalism. The buildings were inscribed on the Watch to raise awareness of the significance of brutalist architecture in the UK and in the value of these sites in particular. The listing was also a response to the threat of demolition: at the time of the 2012 Watch, both Preston Bus Station and the Birmingham Central Library were threatened by demolition because of redevelopment schemes. It was hoped that inclusion on the Watch would prompt a dialogue about protection and alternatives for adaptive reuse.

Since the Watch

In 2014, the Southbank Centre was awarded a £16.7 million grant from Arts Council England for repairs and conservation, as well as funding from the Heritage Lottery fund. In April 2018, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios completed its restoration and redesign of the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room, and Hayward Gallery. The conservation-oriented approach also included joining with the National Trust to make the buildings' contribution to the brutalist movement better known. 

A £700 million real estate development project that would have demolished Preston Bus Station was abandoned in November 2011, following the announcement of the 2012 Watch. A petition calling for Preston residents to support the preservation of the building succeeded in collecting the required number of signatures, and a debate took place before the Preston City Council. In December 2012, the Preston City Council voted "in principle" against preserving the building, but in September 2013 the bus station received Grade II listing from English Heritage.

In 2015, after years of neglect, a design competition was held leading to the appointment of John Puttick Associates to restore the station. The rigorous intervention included the improvement of connectivity between the station and the rest of the city by prioritizing pedestrian accessibility and rearranging the waiting areas to face the new square. The careful approach resulted not only in the meticulous restoration of the site, but also in renewing the expression of civic pride that Preston Bus Station represented in its early days. In November 2021, John Puttick Associates was awarded the 2021 World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize, recognizing its thoughtful and detailed conservation of Preston Bus Station. 

Despite campaigning by English Heritage and advocacy groups such as the Twentieth Century Society, demolition of the Birmingham Central Library began in December 2015. Preservation advocates attempted to save some of the remaining structure, but by August 2016, the majority of the building was demolished.

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Last updated: November 2021.

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