Monday, February 24, 2014

The Jonathan Meades television essay Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness

Having watched both parts of the Jonathan Meades television essay Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness, I remain entirely unconvinced by his arguments:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03vrphc

My reaction to these buildings before the programmes was "concrete monstrosities" and my reaction afterwards was "concrete monstrosities".

The Meades thesis seemed to be that such a reaction is based on ignorance.  That calling brutalist buildings concrete monstrosities is no different to 1950s and 1960s opinion formers calling 19th century buildings Victorian monstrosities.  Except that the 1950s and 1960s name callers were the same people who wanted to advance the cause of brutalism - the year zero created by the brutalists was an interruption to the historic continuum, not part of it (those who live by the sword shall die by the sword; personally I want every trace of brutalism eradicated and rejoice that Luton Bus Station has finally been smashed up).

Several times Jonathan Meades said that the collective buildings of the 1960s failed because of poor maintenance.  This is a half-truth.  The massive (private) Dolphin Square development in Pimlico proves that if you charge high enough rents collective residential blocks can be made bearable, even desirable. 

Collective state housing failed because it made people unhappy.  There was no acknowledgement of this in the Jonathan Meades documentary.  The views of the ordinary people were disparaged as "who are these people".

Instead we were offered the consolation of sublimity.  Brutalist buildings have value because they are sublime.  Excuse me Mr Meades, but this is not good enough.  To paraphrase Nadine Dorries, what has sublimity to do with the price of milk.  We are talking about housing for the aspirational C1 and C2 working classes here, families that want individual little "castles", with a garden where the children can play safely.  Sublimity as an ideological concept is associated with the old Turkish Sultans, and we all know what madness, cruelty and torture was encountered by most people unlucky enough to fall into the hands of the Sublime Porte.

Towards the end of the second programme Mr Meades became rather hectoring.  Opposition to modernism in general and brutalism in particular is not only based on ignorance but the worst kind of Little Englander prejudices (Poundbury singled out here).  This is of course the bogus Emperor's New Clothes argument - if you cannot see the quality you are an idiot (a regurgitated dictionary of slighting epithets was used to reinforce how stupid the anti-brutalists must be).

Most outrageous of all was the claim Mr Meades made that brutalism was originally welcomed by a grateful populace.  This is not true - indeed, we must call it an actual lie.  Even as they were being constructed, the majority view was hostile and popular culture of the time reflected this hostility.

In 1970 ITV broadcast a series of science fiction dramas entitled The Adventures of Don Quick.  I have searched YouTube for these programmes to no avail.  However, one episode was called The Higher The Fewer (written by Peter Wildeblood) Here Captain Quick and Sergeant Sam Czopanser land on Melkion 5 where the population live in 2,000 storey tower blocks. In this horrendous society the upper floors are for the privileged rulers (including no doubt architects and television presenters), the lower floors are for the workers (with the heat generated by the proles rising upwards to facilitate the comfort of the loftier apartments).  In The Higher The Fewer we can see a reflection of popular 1970s attitudes towards brutalism and all its evils - no-one wanted the buildings then and no-one wants them now.

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