Beauty in Brutalism

Simon Phipps, born in Leeds, is an artist based In London. He is a graduate in sculpture from the Royal College of Art and a renowned photographer of post-war modernist architecture. He is the author of four books: Brutal London, Finding Brutalism and Concrete Poetry: Post-War Modernist Public Art.

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Ellie is a writer interested in exploring space, design, photography and consumption in the context of broader political and cultural moods. She is currently working on a PhD on how shopping centres of the 1970s changed the urban landscape.

The photographer Simon Phipps moved to Milton Keynes as a teenager, when his architect parents secured jobs at the Development Corporation. ‘They were there to design this marvellous new city – this utopian vision, but not a lot of it existed when we moved there.’

At the time, it was ‘mostly still countryside’ with a few estates here and there, and a grid plan to divide the new town into squares. It was to be bold, but not quite as ‘off-the-wall’ as the original, but rejected, plans for Pooleyville, a ‘plugged-in’ monorail city.

The shopping centre hadn’t been built when Simon arrived in Milton Keynes but, as he explains over the phone, its arrival would mean a place to hang out and bring exciting destinations with it, including the first McDonalds outside of London. Before the shopping centre (or the Shopping Building, as it was first known) opened in 1979, there was Brent Cross. Opening only a few years prior, the sprawling concrete shopping centre on the outskirts of London was flanked by the North Circular, A41 and M1; it was the first out-of-town, American-style shopping destination in the country.

Only 14 junctions down the M1, however, the Milton Keynes shopping centre would be the country’s biggest. But with its ‘Mies van der Rohe rigour,’ Simon sees it as being rarefied rather than gluttonous in its consumer-driven purpose. It was completely different to other shopping centres that felt like dingy “Aladdin’s Caves” (to paraphrase Chief Architect of the MKDC, Derek Walker).

‘those utopian ideas with which the city had first started.’

Simon ultimately left Milton Keynes to study sculpture at the Royal College of Art, but continues to be enthralled by how the city changes and takes shape each time he returns. In particular, he loves seeing the flourishing maturity of the planting around the city centre. Through the planting, the structure of the grid roads has softened, and the landscape has blended into a more suburban feel – something that is testament to the MKDC’s commitment to realising ‘those utopian ideas with which the city had first started.’

One of the dangers, though, is maintaining – or even retaining – the radical approach to creating such a ‘coherent vision.’ As time goes on, elements of the MKDC’s ambitions are slowly eroding away. The revoking of the rule that no building be higher than the trees

(‘a great idea in a city like Milton Keynes where planting is so important’), for example, is gradually overshadowing an iconic skyline.

Milton Keynes Bus Station – Simon Phipps
Milton Keynes Bus Station – Simon Phipps

Simon has seen for himself how the utopian ideals of the post-war vision are easily undone. His black and white photographs of brutalist Britain capture a period of optimism and community, now buried under almost half a century of privatisation and individualism. From his images of Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in London, standing tall, defiant and proud, to the swooping curvature of Preston Bus Station, he brings aesthetic dignity to an architectural period that was lambasted almost as soon as the concrete set.

But for every critic of brutalist architecture, there’s an admirer – or almost 40,000 of them on Simon’s Instagram account, @new_brutalism. For his most recent book, Brutal North, though, he didn’t include photographs of buildings that have since been demolished; ‘There wasn’t much point in sending people to see buildings that don’t exist anymore.’ Even then, a number of those that did make it into the book are under threat of demolition or ‘insensitive refurbishment’.

Book Cover of Concrete Poetry
Book Cover of Concrete Poetry – Simon Phipps

Though Simon doesn’t think the pace with which post-war architecture is being removed has changed too much, years of neglect and decline have created something of a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ of desolation. Years of poor maintenance by successive landlords, governing bodies and underfunded councils created the perfect storm for estates and entire areas of cities to become rundown over time. ‘[They] become known as sink estates, and then once their reputation becomes doomed, […] suddenly everyone goes, “Well, these are terrible places. These are slums and we’re going to have to demolish them.”’

The predicament we face with post-war architecture is not unlike the way Victorian architecture was treated in the mid-twentieth century onwards. There’s the danger now that we’ll end up making ‘the same mistake that the planners in the ‘60s did when they destroyed great swathes of Victorian architecture. We’re doing the same thing now when you destroy post-war modernist architecture.’

Instead, it’s important to retain architecture of all eras because it’s through this process that you ‘create a richness of townscape and a fabric.’ Each period has its own significance, and each period will influence subsequent architectural design. Take, for example, the influence of both Mies and the 19th-century arcades of Paris and Milan on the vision for Milton Keynes’s shopping centre. Being able to witness and experience an amalgamation of different periods lends itself to becoming an ‘encyclopaedia of architectural styles,’ through which ‘anyone can learn to appreciate it’.

Brutal London Book Cover by Simon Phipps
Brutal London – Simon Phipps

Thoughtfully integrating architecture into the landscape creates a rich urban experience, Simon says. A consideration that often gets lost now, when a building is knocked down only to be replaced by ‘some kind of gaudy piece of architecture by some starchitect who will give your town or city prestige for having a building by them.’ The same can be said for public art, something Simon focused a book on in 2018, and something that Milton Keynes also has a remarkable (and overlooked) collection of.

Public art thrived in the post-war period, espoused as a form of social betterment in an age of the democratisation of art and culture. ‘They were integral to the vision of how these spaces, communities and social interaction would work. They were there to provide focal points.’ Though, much like the architecture contemporary to it, a lot of post-war sculpture has been the victim of the bureaucracy and privatisation that followed.

Much of this public art has been ‘vandalised, poorly maintained, just been removed – disappeared,’ Simon says. Or even, ‘insensitively repositioned, because a lot of them were site specific, so to suddenly uproot it and put it somewhere else, it loses some of its value and meaning.’ In a way, the maltreatment of these sculptures is an example of how utopian and radical visions of the post-war and new town era are entangled. Not all the public art and the spaces it occupies around Central Milton Keynes is owned by the council, making restoration an arduous, lengthy process that is rarely straightforward and transparent.

Getting the balance right isn’t always easy, as the case of Netherfield shows. Netherfield was one of the earlier developments in Milton Keynes, and it was one of the few estates that had been built by the time Simon moved to the new town. The task of designing Netherfield fell to four young architects fresh out of the Architectural Association – Mike Gold, Chris Cross, Ed Jones and Jeremy Dixon (‘known as the Grunt Group which had something to do with the way they responded to people in lectures’). They were, as Simon puts it, ‘basically given a whole grid square to design’.

Their plan for the estate was inspired by a grand Georgian vision, embodied in John Nash’s Regent’s Park terraces, which they ‘transmogrified into these ultra-rationalist, modernist houses that would become the equivalent in Milton Keynes.’ It was a hugely ambitious vision and one that Simon admits didn’t quite translate into a tangible reality. One problem, besides complaints of subpar construction, that has haunted Netherfield since the beginning is the rigid uniformity that the Grunt Group sought to impose.

Sydney jones library 07
St peters seminary 04
Carlisle Civic Centre

In 2017, Simon collaborated with artist and researcher Darren Umney on the project ‘Every Building on Langland Road’, a play on Ed Ruscha’s photographic series ‘Every Building on Sunset Strip’ (1966). The premise was to photograph every house on this particular road in Netherfield, and in the process capture the ways people have modified their individual house that make up an ‘incredibly uniform, rationalist style marching through the landscape.’ Some have had added stone cladding, others have been adorned with mock-Tudor beams, creating what Simon calls a ‘quite strange, post-modern mixing of styles.’

Viewing the Langland Road series in its entirety gives a sense of the breadth of the undertaking, both Simon’s and the architects’. The houses cut through the landscape, in defiance of, and harmony with, nature. This juxtaposition is something that Simon deals with deftly. There’s something tender about the way Simon photographs architecture that is, by name and appearance, brutal. And it suddenly makes a lot of sense when he explains the influence of Milton Keynes’s underpasses on the way he organises an image.

‘I used to cycle around a lot and I always loved the emerging vista you’d get coming through a darkened underpass which would frame the view coming through the other side,’ he explains. Growing up, and seeing the city grow up itself, in such a short period of time, shaped the way the way Simon looks at architecture – watching, first hand, as ‘buildings emerge from the foundations into a fully-formed thing.’

Reflecting on the influence that Milton Keynes has left on him, Simon admits that ‘these things never seem apparent when you’re actually growing up.’ It’s only afterwards that such connections occur. And though much of the late-modernist/post-modern architecture that came into being in Milton Keynes rarely falls into the brutalist category that now defines Simon’s work, the influence is clear. ‘The underpasses have left an indelible mark on me.’

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