British Brutalism

Birmingham, Preston, and London, England, United Kingdom

2012 World Monuments Watch

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 World Monuments Watch in 2012 underscored 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 put 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. At the time of the Watch listing, both the station and the library were 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. The Twentieth Century Society has been a constant advocate for these three buildings. With two scheduled for the wrecking ball at the time of the 2012 Watch, there was 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 was hoped that inclusion on the Watch will prompt a dialogue about protection and alternatives for adaptive reuse.

Since the Watch

In Preston, a £700 million real estate redevelopment project that would have demolished the 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 February 2015, the Royal Institute of British Architects held a design competition for the renovation of the historic structure on behalf of the Lancashire County Council. The winner of the contest was announced in August 2015. The project is currently in the planning phase and is slated to cost £23 million to complete.

Despite the preservation campaigning of English Heritage and advocacy groups such as The Twentieth Century Society, demolition of the Birmingham Central Library began in December 2015. The destruction has been partial so far, but work on the site will continue until fall 2016. Preservation advocates have been able to reapply for listing since January 2016, and have expressed a determination to do so in attempt to save what remains of the structure.

Last updated: July 2017.


Join us in safeguarding significant places.