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. The inclusion of three British buildings on the Watch underscores the risk to modern architecture around the world, especially to the underappreciated legacy of brutalism. Characterized by bold geometries, the exposure of structural materials, and functional spatial design, brutalist architecture was an expression of social progressivism and became a favored style for public architecture of the time. Often monumental in scale, these structures symbolize an era when government had both the resources and the political will to contribute major civic buildings to the public realm.
When it opened in 1976, London’s South Bank Centre was deemed a visionary combination of performance spaces and an art gallery, but lack of heritage status puts the architectural complex at risk. The Preston Bus Station is a daring concrete structure housing an integrated car parking, bus, and taxi facility. Upon its completion in 1969, it was the world’s largest bus station. Birmingham Central Library is a monumental hub in the civic center of the city and the largest non-national library in Europe. Both the station and the library are threatened by demolition due to re-development schemes.
These three buildings, dramatically sited, are uncompromising in their stark use of concrete and powerfully sculptural forms. They brought a sense of the monumental to the British urban landscape at the time of their construction and remain architectural icons. Over the past decade the Twentieth Century Society has been a constant advocate for these three buildings, but none has achieved protective national status. With two scheduled for the wrecking ball, there is an urgent need to raise awareness, appreciation, and local pride in the significance of brutalist architecture in general and in the value of these particular sites. It is hoped that inclusion on the Watch will prompt a dialogue about protection and alternatives for adaptive reuse.
Since the Watch
The inclusion of British Brutalism on the 2012 World Monuments Watch spurred a lively debate about Brutalist architecture through editorial pages, blogs, and social media. In Preston, a campaign to save the bus station resulted in Grade II listing of the building in September 2013. Following the Watch, a £700 million real estate redevelopment project that would have demolished Preston Bus Station was abandoned in November 2011. A petition calling for residents of Preston to support the preservation of the building successfully collected the required number of signatures, and a debate took place before the Preston City Council. In December 2012, Preston City Council voted “in principle” against preserving the building, but listing of the old station will make it harder to demolish the building and construct a new bus station in its place.
Birmingham's Central Library is scheduled to be demolished starting in 2013, after a newly constructed library opened in September. September 2013