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.
The Remand Centre is not a pretty building, as you would likely expect with a prison, but it is located amongst the Victorian era buildings of inner Sydney. It did not even work as a prison, with 30 escapes within three weeks of its opening in 1983, and it was closed in little more than two years after it was opened.
To help its campaign to protect the Bidura building, the City of Sydney commissioned a heritage report by consultants who compared the concrete remand centre with London’s South Bank theatres and the Barbican Centre. I was recently in London and had a close look at the South Bank and the Barbican, and I believe both fail in terms of their interface with the public realm. They present cold, grey, aggressive blank walls to the public in a city that is often grey and wet. I walked the street edge of the Barbican Centre that takes up a full city block and found a continuous series of blank concrete walls and then exposed car parking levels.
Amazingly, the public street then went into a tunnel a hundred metres long with the Barbican above. The actual uses when you get into the Barbican may well be of value but its public interface is a shocker. The South Bank buildings are a bit more sculptural from the public domain, but again are grey blank concrete walls. The theatre is actually closed with large yellow signs that announce a refurbishment under the banner “Let the Light in.” Clearly there are moves to soften the appearance and to connect with the outside world.
Brutalism, as its name implies, seems to have deliberately set out to be unfriendly and to be aggressive. This is understandable for a prison like the Bidura Remand Centre or the Katingal isolation building in Long Bay Prison, but in other locations it looks like the designers were setting out to shock the community.
This is certainly the case with the Brutalist architecture at Thamesmead outside London as featured in Stanley Kubrick’s film “A Clockwork Orange” that celebrated the punk era of anti-establishment street gangs. The film’s star was punk Alex who led a group of thugs called “Droogs” that even spoke in a different language. The backdrop of the Brutalist housing in Thamesmead helped Kubrick position the gang as being against the normal comfort of traditional architecture. Clearly it was the aggressive architecture that supported the aggressive nature of Alex’s Droogs.
Sydney has a number of Brutalist buildings in addition to the Bidura Remand Centre and the Sirius building, including another prison-like structure in the Sydney Police Centre that takes up a full block in Surrey Hills. Just like the Barbican Centre in London, I have walked the four street frontages of the police centre and it ain’t pretty! The south side is blank concrete walls, the east side is blank concrete walls, the north side has the entrance but it does not feel like a welcoming hotel lobby entry but more like the entry to yet another prison.
The much discussed Sirius building in Sydney’s Rocks has been linked to the Green Ban campaign to save the heritage fabric of the Rocks when the state government threatened to demolish the whole precinct and modernise the area with a series of tall concrete buildings with massive podiums and aerial bridges. It was understandable that the National Trust and others were outraged and campaigned to protect the historic fabric of the area.
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.