In her 1970 essay, What Images Return
, Muriel Spark recalled a short stay in Edinburgh's North British Hotel (now The Balmoral) on the corner above Waverley Station where Princes Street meets North Bridge. As her father lay dying in the Royal Infirmary on Lauriston Place a mile or so away, Spark reflected on the nature of her home city, the place where she believed that 'I could not hope to be understood… nevertheless, it was the place where I was first understood'. As Spark occupied a hotel room 'really meant for strangers', looking 'out of the window oftener and longer than usual', she reflected on the beautiful uniqueness of Edinburgh.
Whilst David Torrance once rightly suggested that, for many city-dwellers, 'familiarity may not breed contempt, but it certainly fosters complacency', many will be familiar with what Spark called the 'sense of civic superiority' of Scotland's capital city, in which Edinburgh-born people were 'definitely given to understand that we were citizens of no mean city'. To have Castle Rock, 'a great primitive black crag', rising up from pre-history in the middle of 'populated streets of commerce, stately squares and winding closes, is like the statement of an unmitigated fact preceded by "nevertheless"'.
For all of Edinburgh's attractive and picturesque landmarks sandwiched between the Rock, Arthur's Seat and Calton Hill, Edinburghers and visitors alike have often, understandably, shunned its Brutalist landmarks in favour of celebrated closes, turrets, steeples, spires, and uniform sandstone. Argyle House at the foot of Castle Rock and the Castle Terrace car park have not necessarily shared the same warmth that is felt for the University of Edinburgh's Brutalist Main Library, designed by Sir Basil Spence and still in continuous use over half a century after it first opened.
For many, one of the most famous Brutalist buildings in the city, New St Andrew's House, the now-flattened administrative centre of the Scottish Office in the St James' Centre, rightly shared the 'monstrous carbuncle' epithet that the Prince of Wales once applied to an extension of the National Gallery in London. To the Edinburgh Evening News
, the St James' Centre, which irreversibly altered the Edinburgh skyline along Leith Street, was nothing more than a 'collection of cheapskate concrete monstrosities', the construction of which was 'perhaps the biggest crime perpetrated in the area'.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that, but for a few exceptions, most of those who grew up surrounded by raw, muscular, angular, concrete Brutalism develop a passionate and lasting hatred for it. The style's reputation for high-rise unattractive buildings which aged badly was not helped by the fact that councils and urban planners turned to Brutalist constructions to build public housing, schools, offices and community centres as frequently as they relied on Private Finance Initiatives in the 1990s and 2000s to replace them. From police stations in Greenock, to car parks in Edinburgh, to bus shelters in the Outer Hebrides, and even the main stand of the 'San Siro of the Borders', Netherdale Football Stadium in Galashiels, Brutalist buildings cropped up across the length and breadth of Scotland in the 1950s and '60s.
As councils sought to replace overcrowded unsanitary slum housing in the late 1950s and early '60s, high-rise and high-density modernist schemes were often seen as a functional and aesthetically noteworthy alternative. As the convenor of Glasgow Corporation, Edward Clark, once observed of the Red Road Flats in the north-east of the city, their construction was motivated by the Corporation's desire to allow folk to live in 'decent surroundings with all the modern amenities that they have so long desired'. A number of Scottish councils even followed the example of Greater London Council's Pimlico School, choosing Brutalist buildings to house new comprehensive schools after the Scottish Office's Circular 600
instructed local authorities to 'further the reorganisation of secondary schooling in Scotland on comprehensive lines'.
With the growing need for social housing after the Second World War and the creation of the New Towns after 1946, it was supposed that benign top-down intervention by the British state would create a fairer and better provided-for society, Clement Attlee's 'New Jerusalem'. However, despite the socially transformative mission of this strain of post-war architecture, the common conception of Brutalist housing schemes – such as Edinburgh's Cables Wynd House, Leith's 'Banana Flats', which became a Twitter sensation in March when its inhabitants took to open windows for a communal rendition of Sunshine on Leith
– is flavoured by Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting
and remains one of dark and damp corridors filled with suspect characters and rife with drug abuse.
Whilst its critics saw concrete as a cheap, albeit tough material, reflective of post-war scarcity and capable of being replicated on mass across the country, the construction of Brutalist buildings still required skilled and highly specialised craftsmen and extensive planning. Its most vociferous proponents stress that Brutalism can be a highly expressive architectural style, which relies on an appreciation of both the sheer scale of these constructions as well as the different textures of rugged materials.
In the now-derelict St Peter's Seminary in Cardross – which Hayden Lorimer once suggested, not entirely unfairly, looks 'not unlike an NCP car park that has been badly led astray' – a modern concrete shell was softened with glass to let in light and interest was added with wood panelling and wooden stairs as well as wooden balustrades, pews, lecterns and window frames. Once thought of as one of the most significant buildings in Scotland, declining numbers entering the priesthood and the Second Vatican Council's instruction that priests should be trained in the communities in which they were to serve brought about the closure of the Seminary in 1980, just 13 years after its completion. For Professor Alan Dunlop, in spite of the lamentable state St Peter's finds itself in now, the building is 'as important as Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art' in the pantheon of Scottish architecture.
Whilst Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, has given the green light for developers to demolish what he calls 'some of the mistakes of the recent past' down south, with a proposed easing up of 'Permitted Development' planning regulations, campaigners and conversationists have stressed the need to save important examples of Britain's post-war Brutalist heritage from the bulldozers. Whilst Jenrick stresses his desire to flatten 'empty derelict… often poorly constructed' and out-of-character Brutalist constructions, some believe that we should pride ourselves on their pioneering and modernist designs and forgive their sometimes-unappealing aesthetics.
One example of these Brutalist principles of size and shape guiding the Scottish skyline today is the V&A's new museum and gallery in Dundee, which opened to critical acclaim in September 2018. Perched on the banks of the Tay, the V&A is made up of two inverted pyramids connected at the top of the building, whilst its exterior, which is clad with 2,500 concrete panels, is intended to evoke Scotland's rugged north-eastern coastline. When it opened just over two years ago, its designer, Kengo Kuma, suggested that his vision for the building attempted to 'translate this geographical uniqueness' into bricks and mortar to give the impression that 'the earth and water had a long conversation and finally created this stunning shape'.
Perhaps the success of the V&A offers some hope for the survival of Scotland's less exalted Brutalist buildings. Whilst their aesthetics divide opinion and their faults and structural weaknesses make for lengthy and costly maintenance, they are concrete and steel embodiments of an important moment in Scotland's recent history when scarcity and social idealism intertwined. As Teddy Jamieson once suggested, 'with a housing crisis, bland anonymous new architecture and the upwardly mobile moving into homes once designed for working-class people' (like the Balfron Tower in London), we have lost something special – utopian homes built for working-class people. Instead of consigning Brutalism to the bulldozer, Scottish heritage would be better served by restoring its most important examples and adapting them for today's needs.
Tom Chidwick studied history at Queen Mary University of London. He is currently writing a book on political history