Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The A to Z of Aberdeen - B

B is for Brutalism.

A corruption of Le Corbusier's term 'béton brut' (raw concrete), 'Brutalism' is the name used to identify a group of architectural styles common in the latter part of the 20th century. But Brutalist buildings are not exclusively built with exposed concrete (building materials can also include glass, steel, stone and even brick). Rather, the term characterises that modernist style where a building's functional structure is legible in the entirety of its form.

Often willfully misunderstood, this modernist aesthetic has fallen from fashion to such an extent that we might run the risk losing these buildings out of spite or intransigence and are in danger of failing to recognise that Aberdeen is lucky to host several splendid examples of this much-maligned style.

Many times, the ambition of Modernist architects vaulted over the ability of their buildings' custodians to recognise and marshal that vision through to the medium and long term. Much has already been lost, much is at risk and reactionary scorn is often blindly poured upon buildings which have true merit.

Of particular worry to us is that, elsewhere, Brutalism is being re-appraised and is becoming recognised as important, significant and good. But here in Aberdeen in some cases we are failing to notice the true value of this recent heritage. You've got to give architecture time. Tastes change.

For instance, the Denburn Health Centre is falling into blight, its plazas deserted, overgrown and vandalised.

This complex, with its community facilities and residential block, has aspects in common with its big brother - The Barbican Centre in London. The Barbican, it's importance and quality now recognised, has recently gained Grade 2 listed status (equivalent of our Grade B). Today, it's stately walkways, hanging gardens and standing, flowing, cascading water create the epitome of the modernist's dream - a rational zone for people; a residential area and a cultural gathering place; a truly 'civic' zone in the heart of the metropolis. Humanity's natural environment.

Here at Other Aberdeen, we don't have any particular favourite style or aesthetic, but what we do appreciate is quality, authenticity and integrity. Of particular note as examples of Brutalism which have high degrees of all three of these aspects are our municipal-built spectacular slab-block city-centre residential towers. As Bill Brogden notes in his Architectural Guide:
Like residents of other high blocks in Aberdeen, the people who live in Virginia and Marischal Courts do so quite happily and comfortably and, despite their size, the blocks contribute positively in the scenographic ending of Union Street. They do not sit ill on Castlehill.
Indeed, when we visited, the children's playground and adult picnic tables at the base of these blocks were well used with family and community atmosphere very much evident, to our envy and chagrin. There's nothing like that sort of community feel in Pitmuxton.

"They do not sit ill on Castlehill" with their thrilling sky-bridges.

So, we are delighted to note that these buildings are currently undergoing a programme of renovation, but we are slightly less delighted to note that the accent exterior panels, consisting of granite chunks the size of your head embedded in concrete slabs, are being painted a uniform dove-grey. From a distance, the slab-block towers look splendid in their new livery, but up close, something has been lost.


We are also pleased to see that some new Brutalist buildings have recently been built in Aberdeen, notably Union Plaza off Union Row and the Hilton Hotel on St Andrew Street. We also note an excellent rennovation on Blackfriars Street. These buildings appear to have authenticity and integrity on their side.

Time will tell whether they also have quality...

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