There are lots of different reasons, it's complicated!
The term ‘brutalist’ actually comes from the French word for “raw”, and was used by Le Corbusier to describe his choice of material, béton brut, or raw concrete. But just because a building is concrete doesn't necessarily mean it’s brutalist.
One of the best definitions of brutalism I've heard was from Alan Powers, head of the 20th Century Society, who said that it’s about “the thingness” of things. So, if you’re going to make a building out of concrete you really celebrate that it’s made of concrete. You don’t hide it under something else. You think of the best way of showing off the material in the construction. It’s about the rawness and integrity of the material, and because of Le Corbusier’s obsession with raw concrete, in the general imagination brutalism has come to be associated with concrete.
One reason people are coming to appreciate it now is because of a generational shift. For a lot of people who were around when brutalist architecture was being built, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there is a kind of trauma attached to its construction. Many of those people associate brutalist buildings with the old buildings that had been there previously, that they had an emotional or aesthetic attachment to, or the sheer traumatic inconvenience of their construction. Motorways were being built, town-centres were being massively reconfigured, and people were worried that everything would disappear and be replaced by brutalist architecture. It was a bit of an architecture scare.
“People were worried that everything would disappear and be replaced by brutalist architecture.”
Not only that, but ‘Brutalist architecture’ as a term also tended to be what people called other more basic flat-pack blocks of flats that were built during the 60s and 70s, what we call system-built high-rises. These buildings were called brutalist because they were primarily made with concrete.
There are a lot of concrete buildings that were built in the 60s and 70s that weren't brutalist, but were instead a cheap flat-pack solution to a problem of housing shortages. Something like Ronan Point would be a good example, a poorly constructed system-built high-rise that partially collapsed in 1968 after a gas explosion. Brutalist buildings don't tend to be constructed using these system building techniques, they are bespoke rather than off-the-peg, which is why they often look so extraordinary, like Trellick Tower, for example.
If you’re of a younger generation, and you weren't around when all the negative stories happened, and you’re just presented with the end product, you can judge it with more of an open mind. As a result, there’s been a re-appropriation of brutalist buildings by a younger generation, people who are looking at these buildings without all of that baggage attached, and so can judge whether they like them or not.
“People are very keen to erase our post-war history, whether it’s the welfare state, the NHS, or brutalist buildings.”
As well as that, there actually aren't really that many truly brutalist buildings in existence, and so the few that remain need to be protected. They're now the things that are under threat, the buildings that might get knocked down. This makes us more protective of them, to preserve an aspect of our history that could get swept away.
We live in a period where people are very keen to erase our post-war history, whether it’s the welfare state, the NHS, or any of the things we were lucky enough to benefit from in the post-war settlement.
There is an heroic element to this architecture to match those momentous times. Their emergence coincided too with the space age, so there is often a rocket-ship aesthetic going on with these buildings, where they have exaggerated fins or angular designs like a lunar module. But the ambition they represent is also testament to the fact that people were willing to do such gutsy designs and plan on a really extensive scale to make life work better for everyone, rather than just designing for a very exclusive few.
Park Hill Flats in Sheffield was council housing, social housing on a massive scale, and it was also brutalist. Although some of these buildings could be incredibly luxurious, like the National Theatre, a lot of them were social housing.
Also, it’s an area of national pride. Architects working in Britain were very much at the forefront of brutalism, and that should also be celebrated. These included Alison and Peter Smithson, Erno Goldfinger, Basil Spence, and Chamberlin, Powell and Bon who designed the Barbican.
It was inspiring. Council architecture departments would drive off in their Morris Minors around the country to look at places like Park Hill, and take those ideas back to their place of work and work out how to create their own mini Park Hill in Bromsgrove or Croydon.
That’s why you see brutalist elements repeated in unusual places all over the country in churches or town halls or social housing.
But all of this ambitious architecture coincided with a scare going on in Britain at the time. People were worried about losing the heart of their towns, and brutalist architecture got the brunt of the blame.
In fact, it was roads that caused the main amount of destruction in towns and cities in the 60s and 70s. The car, much more than brutalist architecture, was responsible for the post-war destruction of cities, and because flyovers and bridges tend to be made of the same material that we associate with brutalism, brutalism took the blame.