When building preservation gets ugly (or beautiful)
Image credit: Alamy
Opinion is divided on the future of many Brutalist buildings. This begs the question, should they stay, or should they go?
Love them or loathe them, Brutalist buildings are architectural icons of modern cities. But many are crumbling.
Brutalist buildings aren’t meant to be brutal. In fact, their name arguably comes from modernist architects’ love of béton brut or raw concrete, which to Le Corbusier and co was the epitome of modern elegance. Brutalist buildings are perhaps best characterised by their minimalist, angular constructions that showcase their structural elements and building materials, such as concrete, brick, steel, timber, and glass, but the definition is even disputed by architects. What is certain is that these bold buildings were intended to fulfil a need for affordable housing following the Second World War and help regenerate bombed cities.
However, some people came to associate Brutalist buildings with totalitarianism. The architectural style dominates in parts of the USSR and, unlike the Berlin Wall, plenty of these austere tower blocks are still standing despite, in many cases, falling into disrepair. Experts have noted that no other style of architecture elicits such emotional reactions as Brutalism, with countless masterpieces being deemed ugly, oppressive, or downright depressing. Their reputation isn’t helped by featuring in dystopian sci-fi films such as ‘A Clockwork Orange’. In short, quite a lot of people would like to raze them to the ground.
One of the most common reasons for demolishing Brutalist buildings is that many are in a state of disrepair. “You’re talking about 50 or 60 years [since they were built]. Any building needs some serious maintenance at that point,” says John Puttick, director of John Puttick Associates. Damage to reinforced concrete structures is a common problem. This typically occurs when water and oxygen get into cracks and penetrate the steel in the concrete. This causes it to corrode, which can cause serious structural damage that can be difficult or expensive to repair.
Puttick, who was involved in the award-winning restoration and modernisation of Preston Bus Station, says renovating Brutalist structures can be hard, “because in a building where it’s just solid concrete, there’s nothing to hide behind. You can’t install new services behind a plasterboard wall.”
While Preston Bus Station is listed and valued by the local community, it may simply not be worth adapting and renovating less desirable buildings when it could be cheaper and less labour-intensive to replace them.
“Sometimes the right thing to do is to knock things down,” says Michael Stacey, professor of architecture and tectonics at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. This is because in some situations it may create less carbon demolishing a building and replacing it with a new structure that has been designed to be sustainable from the outset, than repurposing an inefficient building and running it for years. He points out that materials such as bricks and granite can be used and even concrete can be recycled to create Type 1 fill used in the construction of roads.
However, this is a contentious issue, and each project must be analysed on its own environmental merits. Firms including Arup have committed to conducting whole-lifecycle carbon assessments to find the most environmentally friendly solutions, whether that is refurbishment or demolition. It is estimated that fewer than 1 per cent of building projects are currently evaluated in a way that quantifies the scale and source of carbon emissions generated during their lifespans, so this step is essential if the most effective decarbonisation actions are to be identified.
But some campaigners set on saving the past argue there’s a lot more at stake than carbon, because these buildings are part of our history and groups such as the 20th Century Society are working to save them.
French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal aim to reinvigorate modernist masterpieces to improve the lives of the general public and respond to the climatic and ecological emergencies facing humanity. “Transformation is the opportunity of doing more and better with what is already existing. The demolishing is a decision of easiness and short term,” Lacaton says. “It is a waste of many things – a waste of energy, a waste of material, and a waste of history. Moreover, it has a very negative social impact. For us, it is an act of violence.”
While the issue of whether to conserve buildings with memories attached to them can be emotive, sometimes keeping them is a practical and eco-friendly choice. Whole-lifecycle carbon assessments incorporating embodied and operational carbon can sometimes add weight to the case for repurposing buildings. In fact, in a recent report, Arup and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development suggested that as much as 50 per cent of the whole-lifecycle carbon emissions from buildings come from embodied carbon – generated from the manufacturing and transport of materials and the construction process.
There are a variety of ways to make Brutalist buildings greener, from adding insulation to retaining just the foundations.
“If a building is spatially inappropriate, the question is, ‘what can we reuse?’,” Professor Stacey says. Demolishing and recycling everything but the frame and foundations of a building may be a solution to a building that really isn’t working, while saving some embodied energy. Another less radical option, which Stacey elaborates upon in his book, ‘Concrete: A Studio Design Guide’, is taking apart buildings made from precast concrete piece by piece and reusing these pieces to save embodied energy. “This is something that I think we’ll see a lot more of,” he adds.
‘Successful’ Brutalist buildings that work well can be retrofitted with new insulation or glazing to boost their efficiency, he explains, citing Guy’s Hospital in London as a good example. The concrete was in “very bad shape” since it was constructed in 1974, so in 2014, the building was insulated and clad in attractive aluminium rainscreen panels. “Basically, they put a warm tea cosy around the hospital, and then protected it with aluminium,” Stacey explains. He believes the new cladding will pay for itself in energy savings in just 13 years.
“Lowering the operational energy required to run a building and helping to meet carbon targets is good for everyone – it doesn’t matter is you’re running a hospital, arts centre or a house,” Stacey says.
Brutalist buildings can be retrofitted to meet higher environmental standards while retaining their original aesthetic. For example, Marcel Breuer’s Armstrong Rubber building in New Haven, Connecticut, is being transformed into a 165-room hotel using energy produced on-site to boast net-zero energy credentials.
Projects such as the refurbishment of Balfron Tower – an iconic 26-storey residential building in London, and Puttick’s award-winning work on Preston Bus Station, show it is possible to renovate and increase the lifespan of concrete buildings while keeping their original looks and purpose.
Preston Bus Station has been warmly received by local people, and Puttick thinks that perceptions are changing when it comes to Brutalist architecture. Popular Instagram accounts such as The Modern House and Brutalist London are celebrating modernist buildings, with the hashtag #Brutalism notching up more than one million posts.
While it’s still likely that some unloved tower blocks will face the concrete cull, whole-lifecycle carbon analysis may save some more Brutalist buildings, no matter how ugly or unpopular. It’s possible the analysis will lead to new buildings with super eco-credentials as well as imaginatively restored and repurposed Brutalist structures. Puttick points out that even revered Victorian and Regency civic buildings often have environmental and access issues. “The challenge is being creative in how you address these problems and repurpose these buildings in the future,” he says.
Professor Stacey is pleased architects and planners are more sensitive about the cultural value of buildings, but says: “What I don’t want to do is allow the heritage system to take the life out of city revival.” He believes it’s imperative that buildings and cities serve the needs of the people who use them. Puttick agrees. “If these sorts of structures are to be retained for the future, then you’ve got to have some give and take, and be creative with them so that they’re relevant,” he says.
If restored well, Stacey says concrete can easily last 120 years, even in harsh climates, and extending the lifespan of buildings plays an important environmental role. With materials like self-healing concrete and technologies including cathodic protection, prolonging the lifespan of buildings is easier than ever before. And new technologies could be used to resurrect iconic buildings that have fallen into a state of disrepair, like St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, Scotland. “It’s probably my favourite concrete building that I’d like to see brought back,” Stacey muses.
With each difficult decision made about whether to refurbish or demolish crumbling concrete giants like St Peter’s, historians will hope the outcomes – which affect our modernist heritage – won’t be too brutal.
A top (deck) example
The refurbishment scheme for Preston Bus Station kept much of the original design including historical details, but updated features to make the building more efficient and useable. For example, the double-height glazing was replaced as well as the heavy sliding wooden doors, which were always difficult to use. “We bought in automated doors to rectify that problem and so you could have a modern system where you can’t just run out into the bus parking. Now, the doors are activated when a bus arrives,” explains John Puttick, who was involved in the project.
In order to restore the building, the team had to replace and replicate the distinctive concrete façade, which had collapsed, as well as other concrete features. “In the case of Preston Bus Station, concrete is used in different ways in different places... so there wasn’t one solution that was used in every case,” says Puttick. The team was sensitive to aesthetics created by the different forms of concrete and tried to recreate them while also improving them. For example, a new coating was applied to the large, curved soffits. “In the case of the big exposed aggregate columns, there was some debate because the coating product that would have given the longest protection is pretty opaque. Nobody thought that was the right solution, so in the end, a coating was applied to them, but it’s transparent, so they look like they did before but are better protected.”
The team also restored and repurposed some of the original hard-wearing fixtures and furniture. “The barriers you would wait behind were Iroko, as well as the door handles and a lot of the doors. We really benefited from having all this hard-wearing timber. We either kept in place and restored it, or reused it,” Puttick explains. Some of the original wooden barriers have been turned into stylish benches.
The layout of the original bus station was also altered. “It was really well designed, but it favoured vehicles instead of people,” Puttick says, describing the original as an “island in a sea of bus parking”, accessible only by subways or a bridge. “One key challenge was to reverse that relationship to prioritise people coming to the building and connect it to the city centre... but in a way that didn’t undermine the existing architecture and was sympathetic to the existing building.” This was done by creating a new square on one side of the building, linking it to the bustling high street. Architects also changed the layout of the interior and in turn the sequence of spaces that a person must move through to get on a bus.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.