The first time I went to London I was 16 years old. It was a long weekend, going down from Yorkshire with my parents and some family friends. We were rubes. We didn’t know what anything was and we didn’t even particularly know what we wanted to see. We knew the names of some familiar places: Greenwich, Birdcage Walk, the Tower of London and we went to all of them. We walked ourselves into the ground. And somehow - I think we must have taken a boat ride along the Thames - we ended walking around the Southbank, including the Hayward Gallery, which I now realize had only been completed the previous year. Below are some rather badly processed black and white pics I took on that visit.
I liked the Hayward, I think, because it seemed new and modern and different, though I certainly had no idea the architectural style was called Brutalism, whether old or new.
My dad, on the other hand, was horrified. He was a joiner, and by then a foreman for the council on various building sites around Sheffield. He looked at the finish of the Hayward, with the impressions of wood grain in the concrete, and what he saw was “shuttering,” familiar enough from his own work – wooden planks used to make a form that was filled with concrete, when you were making a foundation or a trench. It was the kind of work you gave to joiners who turned up at the site and weren’t skilled enough to do anything else.
The idea that you’d leave this visible on the outside of a finished building was just incomprehensible to him. Of course he was also well aware of Sheffield’s Park Hill flats, another bit of Brutalism, and he found them pretty horrifying too. He died long before they became fashionable and desirable, and he’d have found that incomprehensible too.
As you see from my photographs, there was an exhibition of Pop Art on at the Hayward when we were there – but I couldn’t tempt any of the others inside.
One way or another I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the years walking in and around the Hayward, going to exhibitions, working there briefly as a security guard. And during a particularly grim period when I taught creative writing to fashion students (terrible in all the ways you’d imagine and in some you couldn’t even conceive of) I used to go walking there after work, in an attempt to decompress. Somewhere along the line I did realize, having read my Rayner Banham, that this was indeed an example of Brutalism, possibly even New Brutalism.
When I first started living in London I also spent a certain amount of time in the Barbican, on the way to and from exhibitions, films, concerts, and so on. But it was an odd thing, the Barbican felt far stranger, for more alien, than the Hayward. It didn’t feel like the “real” London.
I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that when you’re at the Hayward you can look out and see various familiar London sights – the river, St Paul’s, Tower Bridge. Once you’re inside the Barbican (and finding your way in through that hideous fume-filled tunnel can be quite a challenge), it’s as though you’re in a separate, hermetic world. You could be anywhere.
Well, we’re all fans of Brutalism these days and the Barbican is a place where a lot of people like to be. So when I was in London last month, I went along there so see how it felt these days. It felt fine. And there were absolutely swarms of people wandering around taking pictures, including a whole art school class it seemed. Of course they, by which I probably mean we, found plenty to photograph. We all know what the beauty of Brutalism looks like.
And in many ways it’s a great place to walk, or at least drift. Finding your way when you’re in a hurry can be a bit of a nightmare, but if nothing else, once you’ve penetrated the fortress you’re entirely protected from traffic. This is a place for walkers not cars.
There’s something called the “High Walk” which takes you along the top level of the complex, and you walk along some fairly inscrutable corridors, and I dare say “pedways,” where you’re likely to be one of only a very few people. It’s interesting and intriguing, and definitely photogenic, and filmic in a noirish kind of way but it’s not exactly friendly or comfortable. We could argue about whether the experience is literally brutal, but it’s certainly bleak and maybe threatening. This looks like a location where bad things can happen. You wouldn’t want to be walking up there alone at night, in the shadows, with all those echoing footsteps and blind corners. Or maybe you would. In the daytime however it’s quite exhilarating.
My visit to London wasn’t meant to be a Brutalist vacation but somehow it turned into one. I ended up spending a couple of nights staying in the St. Giles Hotel, on Tottenham Court Road.
I’ve walked past it hundreds of times and never paid much attention to it,. But now, looking through Brutalist eyes, it appeared to be some some kind of Brutalist masterpiece, taking up a whole block: huge, angular, solid but somehow sprightly. The rooms are small but I think they all give views over London, views that are inevitably framed by concrete. Who’d have it any other way?