Brutalist Conflict

Brutalist Conflict

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Paul Jagger, Partner, and Helen Walker, Conservation Architect, Farrell and Clark, discuss the importance of recognising heritage and refurbishing listed 1960s ‘Brutalist’ buildings.

There is growing pressure to protect our post war built heritage through the formal ‘listing’ process. In the case of many concrete so-called ‘brutalist’ buildings this is often in conflict with the thoughts of the public.

In our experience as architects, not only is there a public lack of understanding about the importance of these buildings, but also amongst professionals in the conservation field. What are the critical issues associated with listed post war buildings and how do we deal with them? When altering buildings with an obvious historic pedigree there are clear, well established approaches. Sensible alterations and extensions can usually be amicably agreed providing everyone plays by the established ‘rules’.

When dealing with 21st Century structures this rule book goes out of the window and it becomes a question of subjective judgement as to what should be conserved and what not. What defines the special character of the building? With the introduction of mass produced (and in some cases poorly manufactured) building elements – do these still contribute to the significance of the heritage asset?

We have over 15 years experience, refurbishing Chamberlin Powell and Bon (CPB) University buildings. They devised the tartan grid approach to their spine buildings to create flexible large scale accommodation to meet the needs of the expanding 1960’s higher education sector. Universities space requirements have radically changed since the 1960’s demanding a reinvention of these buildings. In the spirit of the CPB design intent there is a strong argument for a fundamental restructure of their buildings to keep them relevant

When the buildings were constructed they utilised leading edge techniques and materials. They are examples of highly industrialised construction in contrast to the more specialist, artisan techniques found in many traditional listed buildings. Upgrading components from the 1960’s as they deteriorate is a challenge. They have no value as examples or workmanship, their only value is as part of the original aesthetic.

A significant and challenging example involves the approach to replacing original windows. A strong feature of CPB buildings is the narrow vertical module of steel framed single glazed windows which infill between the bold concrete horizontal framework. At the time of construction these windows would have been a technically advanced solution. Replacing them with a replica version is neither viable nor in keeping with CPB’s original aspirations for a technically advanced building. Modern window systems inevitably have wider sight lines which have a significant effect on window proportions and the overall aesthetic.

Our experience is that by following the safe conservation approach of keeping faithful to the original design may actually have a negative impact on the overall quality of these impressive buildings. Perhaps we should follow the CPB approach and look to utilising the most technically advanced solutions possible and not attempt to slavishly replicate a design which was a response to systems available over 50 years ago?

We are in a new era of conservation requiring a new set of rules for modern listed structures.

www.farrellandclark.co.uk

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