Despite Brutalism’s growing fan club, there was a time not long ago when large swathes of the population considered Britain’s post-war architecture as ugly. So when Historic England historian Elain Harwood was tasked with writing an encyclopaedia about the period back in 1997, the aim was to change those opinions.
That book, Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945-1975, has just come out but the approval ratings for post-war buildings have been on the up for a while.
‘The period has become much more widely appreciated and is very fashionable with designers, collectors and the large numbers of younger people who appreciate is as a unique era in its ambition and opportunities,’ says Harwood.
Now, the book’s goal is less about swaying public opinion and more to inform knowledge-thirsty architecture buffs. Harwood draws on the extensive research undertaken by English Heritage in the 1990s – when it was listing post-war structures – asking why certain post-war buildings take the form they do, and why each building was needed in the context of Britain’s welfare state.
Adds Harwood: ‘The welfare state that gave me so many opportunities growing up in the 1970s is important to me, so it seemed vital to bring the two disciplines together so that one would inform the other.’
She covers different types of buildings, from the residential Trellick Tower in Kensington to Coventry Cathedral and Liverpool Sugar Silo – with photographer James O Davies accompanying the writer’s findings with shots of each post-war icon.
Harwood’s favourite structure, though, is the University of Leicester’s Engineering Building – designed by architects Stirling & Gowan. ‘It combines ideas on modernism and constructivism from across the world with Britain’s engineering tradition and materials that were a response to British cities,’ she says.