In London, neglected brutalist behemoths are being rebooted and given new life. The wave of savvy renovations is being led by a flock of eagle-eyed developers who wish to save – and capitalise on – these concrete urban structures’ dramatic shapes. This is not just a London-focused trend as more brutalist architecture around the world is being given a new lease of life. In London alone we counted contemporary renovations of Centre Point and the Economist Building as part of the movement. Can’t get enough of brutalism? Neither can we. Read this report of new developments at London’s Balfron Tower or visit Brussels where a brutal behemoth is being converted into a co-working space, while in the States a Marcel Breuer buidling in Connecticut is being reimagined as a hotel. Or scroll below, for some of the world’s finest brutalist architecture in London and beyond.

Brutalist architecture in London

Centre Point, 1963-1966, by Richard Seifert & Partners

exterior shot of Centre Point, originally designed by Richard Seifert & Partners

When completed in 1966, Centre Point represented a beacon of optimism within its original context of a run-down, post-war London, standing out for its avant-garde architecture and engineering. However, it remained underused for years until, in 2010, it was acquired by developer Almacantar, which enlisted Conran and Partners to bring the building into the 21st century. Now the design includes modern apartments, a lavish penthouse and a series of amenity spaces, including a pool and a private lounge/club house area with screening rooms and treatment rooms for residents and their guests. Photography: Luke Hayes

Economist Building, 1959-1964, by Alison and Peter Smithson

the Economist Building was designed by Alison and Peter Smithson

‘You’d originally sit with a typewriter on the windowsill, then swing round and write longhand at your desk,’ says Deborah Saunt, explaining the Smithsons’ tailor-made office space in the Economist Building for The Economist magazine. Saunt’s practice, DSDHA, won the competition to refurbish this London icon, a building that took the raw pragmatism of brutalism in another, very different direction. The best-known shots of the structure – three ‘roach bed’ Portland stone-clad towers around a central plaza – were taken by a young Michael Carapetian, a friend of the Smithsons who brought a cinematic, reportage-like quality to his images. The AA-trained architect recalls that he ‘wanted a day that was slightly misty and wet. It was the first time a new building had been photographed in the rain.’ The imagery cast has a moody, atmospheric light. ‘It wasn’t seen as shocking, but the building was respected for its ability to blend in with the rest of the street,’ he recalls. ‘The idea was to elevate the plaza above the rest of the street – a sort of utopian idea.’ Saunt says the practice envisaged the structure as a blueprint for a new form of urbanism, linked by walkways and quasi-public spaces. Her studio’s modest but comprehensive refurbishment strips away interiors that themselves were wholesale replacements of Smithsons’ careful original detailing. ‘We’ve made it a lot more harmonious, but have embraced their vision of architecture as a framework,’ she says. The revitalised building will see one of London’s most elegant public spaces brought back to life. Photography: Grant Smith

National Theatre, 1976, by Denys Lasdun

exterior of National Theatre

The National Theatre courted controversy from the outset, with the UK’s favourite architectural scourge, Prince Charles, casually dismissing the capital’s new cultural flagship as a ‘nuclear power station’. Sir Denys Lasdun’s rigorously composed concrete statement still looks at fresh as ever, thanks to an £80m refurb by Haworth Tompkins in 2015, not to mention the quality of the original design. With generous terraces that step down to the Thames and a monumental assemblage of interior volumes, spaces and stages, it remains one of London’s contemporary classics. The city is also home to Lasdun’s other masterpiece, the 1964 Royal College of Physicians, a Brutalist stage set of concrete and stone, rising up amongst the genteel stucco terraces of Regents Park. Lasdun’s Theatre refined the aesthetic that had already been established by the adjacent Hayward Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. These buildings still represent a substantial chunk of London’s cultural infrastructure and were built between 1960 and 1968 on the site of the Festival of Britain, alongside the remodelled Royal Festival Hall. Designed by a team of architects employed by the Greater London Council – including key members of the iconoclastic Archigram studio – this group of buildings represents concrete at its most diverse and distracting, a collage of textures and forms that rises up beside the river in a thrilling urban jumble. Much loved, forever threatened, but an integral part of the London experience. Photography: Ijclark

Alexandra Road Estate, 1968-1978, by Neave Brown

archival shot of the exterior of the Alexandra Road Estate in London

Social housing at its most optimistic, aesthetically sophisticated and single-minded best, the Alexandra Road Estate snakes alongside a railway line in Camden, containing over 500 homes in a variety of configurations. Created by the late Neave Brown – then working in Camden Council’s Architecture Department – it went wildly over-budget and later found infamy as a location for dystopian films and television. Yet despite the controversy it continues to be a desirable place to live, with its shuttered concrete flanks rising steeply above a pedestrianised central street. Photography: Banalities

One Kemble Street, 1968, by George Marsh 

exterior shot of the top of One Kemble Street in London

This cylinder and box office block is a typical piece of Sixties grandstanding, almost entirely blasé about its immediate surroundings. These days it finds itself an integral part of the eclectic cityscape. Designed by George Marsh, one of the partners in Colonel Richard Seifert’s massive commercial architecture outfit, the circular building showcased Seifert’s trademark angular modular façade and muscular supporting columns. It was also the HQ to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority for many years. Photography: Tomislav Medak

Brunswick Centre, 1972, by Patrick Hodgkinson

the courtyard with apartments above at London’s Brunswick Centre

Patrick Hodgkinson’s original vision for Bloomsbury consisted of a vast trench of concrete dwellings and lecture halls, stomping across the remnants of Georgian London with Brutalist glee. The only chunk to be finished, the Brunswick Centre, is perhaps London’s sole megastructure, a concrete valley of houses arranged above a shopping parade and cinema. It took three decades before a programme of refurbishment and upgrade works covered the raw concrete in the paint Hodgkinson originally specified. Now a highly desirable and light-filled place to live, it offers an insight into the grandiose schemes of decades past. Photography: John K Thorne 

The Barbican Estate, 1965-1976, by Chamberlain, Powell and Bon

hero black and white aerial of The Barbican Estate1965-1976

For many Londoners the Barbican defines contemporary Brutalism. Yet behind the fortress-like construction of this 35-acre city centre site is a veritable oasis of greenery, culture, water and calm, all wrapped up in some of the most abrasive concrete finishes ever seen. The Barbican almost took as long to build as a city, with initial plans drawn up in the 50s and the final concrete slotted into place in the arts centre, which opened in 1982. The firm of Chamberlain, Powell and Bon oversaw this expansive piece of urbanism, which continues to define the highest standards of concrete design. Photography: Peter Bloomfield

Keeling House, 1957, by Denys Lasdun

Keeling House in East London was designed by Denys Lasdun

An earlier outing by Denys Lasdun, Keeling House in East London was intended to form a ’street in the sky’, replacing the low-rise back-to-back houses that had succumbed to war damage and old age. The cluster block form was carefully designed, with interlocking, overlooking apartments somehow combining both community and privacy, but it was rather less meticulously built. By the early 90s the block had fallen into disrepair; a pioneering refurbishment by Munkenbeck and Marshall gave it a new lease of life, adding penthouses on top and even securing Lasdun’s blessing in the process. Photography: John Lord

Trellick Tower, 1966-1972, by Ernö Goldfinger

hero exterior of Trellick Tower designed by Ernö Goldfinger

The Trellick Tower is the archetypal symbol of brutalism in West London, a bold cliff of shuttered concrete that overlooks the city’s western reaches. Despite a rocky start, the Trellick subsequently ascended to the status of cultural icon, adorning everything from t-shirts to coffee cups. Ernö Goldfinger’s generous design initially suffered from poor maintenance but today the building’s generous apartments are highly sought after, combining space, light and views, with services pushed to one side and contained in a slim adjoining tower. Photography: IK’s World Trip

Brutalist architecture globally

Zvonarka Central in Brno, Czech Republic

Zvonarka Central in Brno, Czech Republic

Brno’s Zvonarka Central Bus Terminal has been a key Brutalist architecture landmark in the city since it first opened in 1988 - and is among the country’s most notable remaining examples of the genre. But years of intense use and high maintenance costs had resulted in a tired, decaying building in dire need of a refresh. Now, the Brutalist bus terminal has been given a new lease of life courtesy of architects CHYBIK + KRISTOF, who in 2011 embarked on a self-initiated journey to restore the famous building to its former glory. The design team worked with the station’s private owners and raised awareness through social media to instigate a discussion about the station’s future, securing the necessary funding for the redesign works in 2015. ‘Demolitions are a global issue,’ explains co-founding architect Michal Kristof. ‘Our role as architects is to engage in these conversations and demonstrate that we no longer operate from a blank page. We need to consider and also work from existing architecture – and gradually shift the conversation from creation to transformation.’ Photography: Alex Shoots Buildings. Read more

Van Wassenhove House, Belgium by Juliaan Lampens

Van Wassenhove House, Belgium by Juliaan Lampens

Those, like us, who have a soft spot for crude concrete architecture, will love the work of Juliaan Lampens (1926-2019). The powerful concrete roughness of the Belgian architect’s volumes is inescapable when you walk past two of his best known buildings, both near Ghent: the Chapel of Our Blessed Lady of Kerselare, in the village of Edelare, and the Van Wassenhove house in Sint-Martens-Latem. However, digging a little deeper into Lampens’ life and work, it quickly becomes apparent that there is more to his architecture than brutalism by numbers. Belgian curator Angelique Campens has been studying Lampens’ work since her university years and knew him well. The architect had a reputation for being reserved, keeping his business to himself to the point of avoiding contact with colleagues. He didn’t even travel much, reveals Campens. ‘But he had a lot of books. He admired Oscar Niemeyer and was influenced by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.’ He may seem to have lacked the desire for architectural pilgrimage, but Lampens practised non-stop from his base in Eke, East Flanders, from 1950 until his last work was built in 2002 – creating a legacy of about 50, mostly residential, projects, including the chapel and Eke library. Lampens was born in 1926 in De Pinte and grew up in nearby Eke, the son of a cabinetmaker. After working as a technical draughtsman, he studied architecture in Ghent and set up his own firm straight after graduation, kick-starting it with commissions from his father’s middle-class clientele. While following a more conventional design style at first, he nurtured an interest in modernism. ’His visit to the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels was a turning point for him,’ Campens explains. ’Shortly after that, his designs changed drastically. He thought that Le Corbusier was too sculptural, and Mies too structured, but he wanted to combine the two.’ Photography: Misha de Ridder. Read More

Armstrong Rubber Building, aka the Pirelli Tire Building in the USA by Marcel Breuer

Armstrong Rubber Building, aka the Pirelli Tire Building in the USA by Marcel Breuer

Iconic examples of landmark architecture might not typically be found along major highways, but this is exactly where this brutalist architecture masterpiece, designed by Marcel Breuer, has cut a recognisable figure since it was completed in 1970. Located in New Haven, Connecticut, just off of the Interstate 95, the main north-south highway running along the east coast of the United States, the concrete behemoth was first created for the Armstrong Rubber Company, a tyre manufacturer – making its location apt. Originally designed to house the company’s administrative offices as well as a research and development space, Breuer’s sculptural concrete building is interrupted by a void of negative space. This was intended to help buffer and reduce sound for the offices above from the research labs below. It was finished with a façade created from pre-cast concrete panels that offer shade and protection from glare, while creating a dynamic visual tension. The building, which was bought by Pirelli in 1988 as its North American headquarters, was added to Connecticut’s State Register of Historic Places in 2000.Photography: Bruce Redman Becker, FAIA. Additional writing: Pei-Ru Keh. Read More

Flying Saucer, Sharjah

Flying Saucer, has been given a new lease of life, via a renovation courtesy of the Sharjah

The ‘Flying Saucer’ is one of Sharjah’s key Brutalist architecture landmarks. The round, striking building, which was originally constructed in the 1970s and opened in 1978 as a mixed use structure, was acquired by the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) in 2012. Then in a state of disrepair, it has now been given a new lease of life through a thorough renovation by the foundation and architect Mona El Mousfy of SpaceContinuum Design Studio. While the structure was originally conceived to house a one-stop-shop restaurant, newsstand, tobacconist, gift shop, patisserie and delicatessen, after the restoration and redesign, the Flying Saucer is reimagined as an art and community space with a café, library, courtyard and activity spaces. Photography: courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Read more

Boston City Hall, 1969, by Michael McKinnell of Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles

Boston City Hall, 1969, by Michael McKinnell of Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles

Few buildings have been more controversial than those belonging to the brutalist genre; and Boston City Hall is no exception. When its concrete block volumes were unveiled on the 10 February 1969, the launch was underscored by as much fanfare as criticism. Yet, it has now become a much-loved landmark of contemporary architecture, recognised as one of the brutalist movement’s most significant expressions. And the striking building has just marked the 50th anniversary of its grand launch. Designed by Michael McKinnell of Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles, the Boston City Hall was part of the area’s greater government complex redesign and was created following an international competition. The structure is dramatic, featuring cantilevered elements and a highly articulated concrete facade that is instantly recognisable. The Boston City Hall in Massachusetts, USA, by Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles  has recently celebrated the 50th anniversary from its opening. Photography: Mark Pasnik, as published in ‘Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston’ (Monacelli Press) Read More

San Francisco home, early 1960s by architect Joseph Esherick

San Francisco home, early 1960s by architect Joseph Esherick

An early 1960s San Francisco residence by architect Joseph Esherick has been brought to the 21st century by Richard Beard Architects and The Wiseman Group. The team worked with the original midcentury home’s brutalist architecture, implementing contemporary interiors to accommodate the owners’ art collection and make the home suitable for a family of five. ‘[We wanted it to be] respectful of the heritage but looking to the future,’ says architect Richard Beard. With the home’s main brutalist space, the atrium living room, featuring exposed concrete and a high, skylight ceiling, Beard admits that making it feel ‘cozy’ was challenging. Yet the architecture team balanced preserving the building’s original character and architectural intention with making changes. ‘The character of the house is and was defined by a number of distinctive details and materials,’ explains Beard. ‘Those we preserved, and enhanced. It would have been a shame to turn the house into just another lovely suburban home. What was odd was the compartmentalised plan. At a time when open plans were becoming an innovative architectural approach to composition, this house was comparatively segmented. We carefully opened a few things up, to give a more expansive feeling through the home.’ Photography: Jose Manuel Alondra. Read More

Eduardo Leme House, 1969 by Paulo Mendes da Rocha

Eduardo Leme House, 1969 by Paulo Mendes da Rocha

When art dealer Eduardo Leme was a boy in São Paulo, he used to look out with endless fascination at a striking modernist house two blocks away. It was the home of Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha. When Leme saw a ‘For Sale’ sign outside another da Rocha concrete bunker-style house in the city, he decided to buy it. Known as Casa Millán, it had been built in 1969 for another art dealer, Fernando Millán, and was in serious need of a facelift. Leme called on da Rocha himself to fix it up and a friendship was formed – which resulted the architect building Leme the São Paulo art gallery he owns today. As for the updated residence, ‘the concrete gives the house a very informal feel’, says Leme. ‘It’s the sort of place where you feel at home in shorts and a T-shirt.’ The relaxed vibe is added to by the fact that the house overlooks a quiet local park teeming with monkeys and super-sized vegetation, and has a swimming pool in the garden. Photography: Douglas Friedman. Additional writing: Emma O’Kelly Read More

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