How to love the brutalist architecture of Southbank Centre, with John Grindrod

Key Words:

Tuesday, May 15, 2018 - 09:00

John Grindrod is a writer, publisher, and author who grew up on ‘the last road in London’, on the edge of Croydon’s New Addington housing estate. As well as Shouting at the Telly, he has written several books on architecture, which reflect the landscape of his upbringing; from the concrete new-builds of Croydon (Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain) to where the city meets the countryside (Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt).

His latest book, How To Love Brutalism, is a passionate and personal book about John’s own love for the often controversial architectural style. Who better then – upon the reopening of our refubished and restored Queen Elizabeth Hall in April 2018 – to discuss our own brutalist venues?

Inevitably, for someone who has not only lived their life in London and its surrounds, but possesses a fascination that borders on obsession when it comes to concrete buildings, the brutalist structures of London’s South Bank are far from alien to John. Instead the author holds a connection with them that is as much personal as it is architectural.

‘I used to come to the South Bank a lot when I was a teenager. I used to escape from Croydon and sit and have a cup of tea under Waterloo Bridge at the National Film Theatre cafe, or go and sit in the Royal Festival Hall, or rummage in the book market. Therefore these buildings personally represent a sense of freedom, and excitement and escape.’

Queen Elizabeth Hall Reopening Press Selection 24
Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium following its refurbishment in 2018, photo by Morley Von Sternberg

Ahead of our interview John and I took a tour of the recently refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall, from the stage to the seats and everything in between. Once we’d finally found our way out from the labyrinth of backstage corridors and stairways that make the venue tick, I asked John if there was a particular aspect of the restoration that stood out for him?

‘I really like the refurbishment of the Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium; the seating the stage. The entire place feels much more coherent, it feels like a more modern, contemporary experience of going to a concert now.

‘One thing that happens to buildings over time is that they accumulate a lot of clutter, and you can see how much this incredibly complicated building has been decluttered. Stripping it back, and making it a lot cleaner has really helped; it’s got its personality back, by taking away a lot of the unnecessary details that had accrued over time.’

There’s a horrible fear that when something gets refurbished you’ll commit genericide, and everything will just become a sort of white cube. But it’s the quirks that make this building what it is; make it really attractive.
on the refurbishment of Queen Elizabeth Hall

Giving the buildings back their personality and returning the iconic spaces to their former glory had been central to the refurbishment project, and the brief handed to architects, FCBStudios. Sitting in the spacious, open Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer, a space which manages to feel both stark and welcoming, it appeared to my, admittedly unprofessional, eye as a case of mission accomplished. But did John agree?

‘There are some things that must have been quite hard considerations for the architects, you know, can we do this or can’t we? What can we get away with? What should we do, what shouldn’t we do? But it feels like things have been done really sympathetically, and they’ve amplified the shape and form of the building in lots of ways, which is really nice to see. There’s a horrible fear that when something gets refurbished you’ll commit genericide, and everything will just become a sort of white cube, and you could easily do that to this building, you could remove a lot of its quirks. But it’s the quirks that make this building what it is,make it really attractive, because there isn’t another building like it.’

Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium at the point of its completion in 1966. Photo courtesy of GLC Archive

To say there’s no other building like Queen Elizabeth Hall, particularly when seated just a stone’s throw from another brutalist icon in the form of Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre, could  seem a touch of hyperbole, but John is quick to elaborate.

‘The history behind the architecture here is really interesting, because there was this idea that the new structures shouldn’t overshadow the Royal Festival Hall. You’ve got these big things, the Royal Festival Hall and Waterloo Bridge, and both make huge statements whereas these buildings look inwards rather than outward, and so present a rather blank face to the rest of the world, which is quite unusual. They aren’t making a great dramatic statement; they are full of personality, but it’s on a smaller scale.’

That personality, that quirkiness can be credited to the minds of the groundbreaking architects who designed Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery – in particular Ron Heron, Warren Chalk and Dennis Crompton. These men were among the founders of the avant-garde collective, Archigram, ‘an almost prank architectural group’, as John puts it. Though Archigram’s projects were solely hypothetical, when it comes to Southbank Centre’s 1960s venues, its influence is certainly apparent.

‘You don’t normally expect architecture to be playful, it’s not a prerequisite, but here they’ve really enjoyed doing quite strange things, from the roof lights on the Hayward Gallery to the strange asymmetric geometry of the building. Rather than trying to flatten it out and make it more seamless, they’ve actually enjoyed the faceted nature of the building, and pushed that, so it’s ended up as a much more eccentric building than most arts spaces. It’s important not to get too pompous about this building, because it’s not a pompous building, to take things too seriously would be against the spirit of the building itself.’

Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall exterior, viewed from Southbank Centre Square, 1967. Photo courtesy of GLC Archive

Not everyone was enamoured by this playfulness however. When the buildings first opened in the 1960s the Queen Elizabeth Hall was ranked ‘the ugliest building in Britain’, by a Daily Mail poll. But, accepting that tabloid reactions will always offer a caricature of opinion, were these buildings really as shocking and unpopular to the people of late 1960s London as we perhaps presume them to have been?

‘In a lot of instances, the new civic centres being built in the centres of towns were replacing often grand Victorian buildings and so there was a bit of a shock for people. But at the same time people were getting amazing amenities, whether it was big shopping centres or town halls or libraries or universities or schools, built in dramatically different modernist styles, including brutalism, and so I think most were willing to give things a go'.

‘This site was quite different because it had already been cleared for the 1951 Festival of Britain, and you can see how successful this building was from the off. It was a very popular venue, and the people coming here really appreciated that the building seemed to reflect the avant-garde nature of what was being programmed inside. So here there’s a real synergy between the architecture and the function of the building.

From the off, the people coming here really appreciated that the building seemed to reflect the avant-garde nature of what was being programmed inside… there’s a real synergy between the architecture and the function of the building
on the initial reception of Queen Elizabeth Hall

‘Remember, these buildings came just 16 years after the Royal Festival Hall but this building is entirely different, and they do represent completely different ambitions. You’ve got the very clean, quiet, beautiful lines of the Royal Festival Hall, which has an almost Scandi 1930s feel to it, compared to the angular jazzy freeform expression of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery. They’re entirely different visions of modernism and the future and how we could live and they’re both utopian dreams, but in quite a different way.’

Queen Elizabeth Hall
Queen Elizabeth Hall from the Riverside Terrace in 2018

This notion of brutalist building projects being born as utopian visions is particularly interesting when compared to their subsequent perception. Within a decade, the same estates and buildings which had been intended to offer a brighter vision of the future would be depicted as dystopian landscapes by artists and filmographers, from Stanley Kubrick’s use of the Thamesmead Estate in A Clockwork Orange to our own Queen Elizabeth Hall appearing as a Draconian prison in an episode of Doctor Who.

‘I think there’s something about the epic vision of these utopias that tips over very easily into dystopia if you want to represent it that way. These writers and artists and filmmakers, they’d all grown up during the Second World War and are aware of, and are able to see, the downside of utopia and utopian visions - with it having been, to an extent, a fascist architecture and ideology. If you’ve grown up in that situation, when you see people then trying to map out a really positive big utopian vision in the post war period, it’s hard not to transfer those thoughts and feelings onto these entirely unrelated but new buildings, which represent another attempt at changing the world in a huge fundamental way. As such it’s as much a sensibility of the artist as it is the actual buildings and the architecture.’

So in many ways it is simply coincidental that it was brutalism which became the go to architecture for such dystopian projections?

‘I feel that regardless of the architecture that happened after the Second World War - say we’d gone into a neo-Baroque form of architecture - we’d have still had to see it on a giant scale, because of the amount of rebuilding needed. And then the artists and filmmakers would’ve just represented neo-Baroque as the dystopian future, because this was the architecture of the time, and it was being done on a vast scale because it had to be. It was this scale I think that provoked a lot of those dystopian representations.’

Queen Elizabeth Hall 1967
Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer in 1967. Photo courtesy of Higgs and Hill Ltd

This juxtaposition of depictions of brutalism – the utopian idyll against the dystopian construct – are, albeit to an extreme, representative of the way in which brutalism has often been received. A style for which it is often accepted there is less a middle ground, more a no man’s land, between loving it and hating it. A mindset forged perhaps in mass-publicised perception, from that Daily Mail poll to Prince Charles’ dismissal of the National Theatre as ‘a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting’.

‘I think there’s a lot of people who felt they needed to be given permission to like brutalism, or who did like it, but didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, or couldn’t really articulate it. Now, because there are people out there noisily celebrating this stuff, and organisations like the Southbank Centre celebrating their architecture, that has made it a lot easier for people to say they like it.

‘But yes, lots of people hate it and fair enough. There are lots of buildings I hate – I don’t always like all brutalist architecture. Some buildings I love, some buildings I think are maybe in the wrong place, or their architects went too far, or not far enough. It is presented in a black and white way, when actually people’s responses to it are a bit more complicated. Some people might hate concrete housing, but love a concrete arts centre; people have quite a nuanced reaction to the architecture in terms of what they think is or isn’t appropriate.’

Queen Elizabeth Hall Reopening Press Selection 04
Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer ceiling detail following refurbishment in 2018, photo by Morley Von Sternberg

Are we then seeing something of a renaissance for brutalism at the moment? And if so, what is it that has fuelled this new love for old concrete?

‘There’s definitely been a resurgence of interest in brutalism and I think smartphones and social media have enabled this; that people can take photos without ostentatiously taking photos. I used to take pictures of buildings in Croydon and people would look at me as if I were mad. Now you can do that quietly on your phone. You can then share that with people who are really interested, whereas before it was quite hard finding other people who were also interested in your geeky obsession, whatever it was. With Twitter or Instagram its made it a lot easier to find those people.

It’s important not to get too pompous about this building, because it’s not a pompous building, to take things too seriously would be against the spirit of the building itself.
on the spirit of Archigram

‘It’s also really heartening to see that places like the Southbank Centre and the National Theatre have been carefully restoring their buildings and appreciating the architecture they’ve got. Interestingly there were lots of proposed schemes for the refurbishment and rebuilding of the South Bank over the last thirty years that were really unsympathetic to the idea of keeping these brutalist buildings or looking after them, and instead sort to change them completely.

‘Fashion plays a massive role in how people respond to these buildings, and these things do come in waves. There’s been a huge brutalist resurgence, but then that will go away again. I don’t think it will necessarily die down to what it was like in the 1980s, it just won’t be as fashionable as it is now. Then at some point in the future it will come back again. That’s why the fact that these buildings are being looked after now is really important, because otherwise we lose amazing structures and you can never get them back again.’



The show must go on(line)

Sadly, for everyone’s safety, our venues are currently closed. But you can still get your Southbank Centre fix online. We will continue to share inspiring and thought-provoking arts stories through our website and social channels.

follow us on Twitter
follow us on Facebook
follow us on Instagram

As a charity, we rely on ticket sales for a huge chunk of our income. But now they’ve stopped. And it's a huge worry to us, and the people we work with. We all need the escape of art and culture; it can inspire and unite us. So please – if you can afford to – consider a donation to the Southbank Centre today, to help us be there for you in the future.

How to Love Brutalism by John Grindrod is published by Batsford and illustrated by Brutal Artist.

find out more

interview by Glen Wilson

you might also enjoy