St Agnes Kirche
Brutalism, a brief reflection.
It often seems as though Brutalism itself was created especially for London. The harsh sunless autumns that come by each year, with their pensive showers, seem to add a certain atmosphere and ruminative aura to the concrete megaliths that remain dotted across the city. Whenever I manage to glance at these buildings, mid-rainstorm or in the early hours of the day, it’s almost impossible to ignore the sense of the surreal that emanates from them. Their facades, stand ominous and steadfast within even the bleakest of weather conditions of smog, mist and clouds of the harsher months. Even in summer, when the days are longer and life seems to return, they provide a reminder of the metropolis that we exist within, and more importantly, the ideas of the future that have been immortalised in stone.
These colossal, rigid and rugged structures—The Barbican Estate, Trellick & Balfron Towers, Thamesmead Estate, The Hayward Gallery, Alexandra Road Estate to name but a few stand as testaments to a time when ideals concerning aesthetic, functionality and purpose errd firmly within the radical- within the individual, as opposed to the mass or the easily reproduced. In a time now, when it seems as though all that architects can focus on are affordable luxury high-rise developments, destined to be either vacant or grossly overpriced for their lifetimes, these structures represent a sentiment and spirit that has largely been lost to time. These buildings— whether rented or owned; shared or visited, are vessels which need to be interacted with, enjoyed and marvelled at now, more than ever. They have helped define and cement all that we know as metropolitan— as urban, as forward thinking; as London itself. When you think about it like that, compiling all of the achievements and service that these respective architects have provided, trivialities concerning personal tastes (Brutalism famously divides opinion in Britain) are nullified— whether you like these often dissonant, ugly and strange buildings becomes eradicated by the fact that they are essentially architectural fossils, and their existences are something not to be taken for granted.
Having spent a good deal of my childhood in the shadow of Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in Ladbroke Grove, it’s impossible to think of West London, with its complex of rail and motor networks without imagining the presence of the looming concrete building. For all of the changes that have come about since its completion; all of the celebrations of music, film and television that has incorporated it, it still stands. Towers, as a means of housing are by no means unique (i.e. Medieval Bologna had around one hundred and eighty examples at one point, of which remains two), but seriously, gaze up at such a building, and if you don’t feel a sense of awe and confusion at the skill needed to make such a thing, you aren’t human. It is no wonder that Brutalism as re-emerged as an almost, cult, in London— in which worshippers pay homage to these architectural deities.
On the subject of worship, another example of Brutalism that had a profound effect on me was in Kreuzberg Berlin— St Agnes Church by Werner Düttmann. Surrounded by sensibly planned roads, sleepy apartments and a U-bahn viaduct, it makes a powerful mark within a relatively sleepy neighborhood, in a way that seems surprisingly organic. In comparison to London, Brutalism too seems made for a German city but most examples are to be found in the West of Berlin, and even then their distribution and frequency seems few and far between, although there are some brilliant examples.
For me though, St Agnes in particular was a gentle eye-opener of many things— that Brutalism need not be colossal or imposing to be powerful, but also that unlike many movements and trends that have since emerged in architecture, that Brutalist buildings provide scope for transience in purpose. Düttmann had originally created it to replace a church of the same name that was destroyed in the Second World War, and in doing so created a truly transcendental, wholly unique space that later went on to be reborn as König Galerie. Because I lived so close to the gallery and couldn’t get a job for love nor money, I was able to visit it a number of times during my time there. It’s smooth, segmented stand-alone tower and epic skylit atrium, makes it easy for it to be seen as a place of worship— yes, but maybe more some futuristic, alien religion as opposed to any earthly example. If you ever manage to visit it, look closely at its intricacies; the way its flawless stone floors align with the neighboring colossal coarse walls, with unashamed gaps and crevasses, that make it feel perfectly imperfect. The way in which natural light is invited within narrow, fleeting strips throughout its upper entirety, leaving its facades of raw stone and subsequent content or art, to gently glow.
Brutalism undoubtedly teaches us many things about human consciousness; our ideas of functionality, of aesthetic and creativity and how they have evolved— have grown, have withered or remained indifferent in some cases, but we must re stoke these embers of thought that aren't simply bound to mass production or uniformity, or else Brutalism will truly be the last true radical movement of our time.