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  • Richard Farr

The brutal irony of brutalised Brutalists

In this article in the Guardian on the subject of famous “Brutalist” buildings under threat from demolition, I note with interest and satisfaction the imminent demise of Dunelm House, the spectacularly ugly Student Union building at Durham University.


When I was there as an undergraduate in the late 1970s, I did not yet have the term Brutalist in my vocabulary. I only had, like most people I knew who had not undergone the special indoctrination program known as Architecture School, an inarticulate sense of outrage and loss. Here was one of the most exquisitely beautiful sites in the whole of a city that Nicky Pevsner had rightly called one of the most beautiful in Europe – vandalized by the addition of an inarticulate heap of industrial concrete. Student Union as cross between a cheaply built prison and a collapsing-into-the-river rubbish processing facility – oh wait, perhaps it was meant to be commentary?

Note that the debate currently taking place over the historical and aesthetic value of the building itself, if any, misses half (or 99%) of the point. To tear it down would be to restore something else that was destroyed, something the architects in their characteristic hubris never noticed: the sublime original beauty that is this particular stretch of the River Weir.

Hallelujah, then! Out with the old, in with the older and better! Except that of course the university is going to replace, not just remove, and probably with something even uglier and more offensively insensitive. If history is any guide, the words “international design contest” don’t bode well. The problem with prestige competitions is that they attract people who want, well, prestige. The River Weir doesn’t want prestige. It cries out, silently, for someone with the humility to treat its history and aesthetics with love and respect they deserve.

Modernists – ah, ya gotta hate ’em! Architecture, rather generally, is set up not to get it about the aesthetics of the non-human. Read the chapters on those well-known fascists Le Corbusier and Lenin in James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State. Nature is there to be controlled, dominated, or preferably obliterated.

As an aside, the Guardian continues its long tradition of brutalist modifying clauses. Pity the plight of this architect, at least:

Long threatened by the wrecking ball, architect and activist Sami Aloulou this month said …

Read the article and see if you can find another example!


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