Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.
His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.
When Nairn came to Catford in the mid-60s, the building that caught his eye was only two or three years old. Eros House, the Brutalist tower at the junction of Rushey Green and Brownhill Road, was designed by Rodney Gordon of the Owen Luder Partnership, and finished in 1962. Nairn loved it. Now that Brutalism is all the rage and terribly fashionable (there’s even a ‘Brutalist London Map’ retailing at around £8), it’s time for a second look.
Brutalism erupted in the 1950s as a sort of modernist rudeness, in rebellion against modernist politeness.
Modernist architecture of any kind had been rare in Britain before the War. Post-war, there was more ambition and creativity, especially in public building authorities such as the London County Council. Many of these architects and planners were on the left and saw their work, quite literally, as part of the construction of socialism. But – as Owen Hatherley has pointed out – their design inspiration came not from Moscow but from Stockholm, the showcase for a style of elegant modernist classicism which has variously been called ‘New Empiricist’ or ‘New Humanist’ or ‘Welfare State’ architecture. Stockholm Public Library exemplifies the style.
Here in London, similar forces were at work at the Royal Festival Hall.
If the Stockholm style was uplifting and consensual, Brutalism was rude and contrary. If the Stockholm style celebrated a people united in the pursuit of a better tomorrow, Brutalism celebrated a people arguing, pushing and shoving in the here and now. But perhaps what was most astonishing about Brutalism was its Britishness. Suddenly Britain, having been sullenly behind the modernist curve for decades, was at the cutting edge of a whole new school.
Despite this, the origin of the term itself – or at least the origin-story that I like best, the one that rings most true – is French. It derives from the French béton brut meaning ‘raw concrete’, rough concrete, concrete straight from the tin, concrete to scrape your knuckles on. Brutalism expressed a sort of bleak honesty about the act of throwing up a building, a ‘truth to materials’. It didn’t have a monopoly in this regard: the Arts & Crafts movement made the same claim. What distinguishes Brutalism from Arts & Crafts is that they chose different materials to be true to.
This raw material honesty was what Nairn liked about Eros House:
“ … rough concrete put through all its paces … done from real conviction, not from a desire for self-advertisement… The gaunt honesty of those projecting concrete frames carrying boxed-out bow windows persists”.
Fifty years on and Eros House is now the proud possessor of a Grade II listing, but I have to say that at ground level, when I visited, its pride wasn’t evident. It’s difficult to look proud with ‘To Let’ signs on your shop fronts.
Looking up, the original raw concrete intent has been muted by the addition of bland off-white cladding. The projecting concrete window frames which so excited Nairn with their gaunt honesty are still evident, but (to me at least) not terribly exciting.
Maybe the windows’ impact has been blunted by the cladding. Maybe I am simply unable to think myself back to a moment around 1960 when this gesture was genuinely innovative. Or maybe my sensibility is blunted by having seen too many mediocre tower blocks built since then, unimaginatively recycling the same idea.
I do however like the stair-tower.
Nairn doesn’t mention the stair tower, though Pevsner (also an Eros fan) gives it a nod of approval. For me, it works by playing off glass against concrete. The fluting in the glass gives it height, and works nicely against the horizontal and pitched bands of concrete, tracking externally the staircases within – truth to materials and truth to function too. The no-nonsense porch is also good, as is the unadorned raw concrete frontage above it.
By the way – why Eros House? Why this erotically-named tower in the middle of Catford? Is something phallic going on? Not really. It turns out that Gordon’s tower was named for the Eros Cinema which was demolished to make way for it.
The Eros Cinema was the last gasp of what had been Lewisham Hippodrome, originally a 3,000-seat music-hall, which hit hard times in the 1920s and was regularly reinvented thereafter – music-hall, cinema, music-hall again, cinema again. Badly damaged in the War, it limped through the ‘50s as the Eros Cinema before the whole site – including the rival Gaumont Cinema next door – was demolished in 1959 to make way for Brutalism. I suspect that the Gaumont was Catford’s respectable cinema while the Eros was somewhat less so, but I may be doing both of them a disservice.
Eros House was only one – and not the most famous – of the Brutalist projects erected by Gordon, Luder and their partners in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They put up the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth in 1966 – voted Britain’s most hated building in 2001 by Radio 4 listeners. And they put up Derwent Tower and Trinity Square in Gateshead, just across the Tyne from Newcastle. I lived in Newcastle and worked in Gateshead in the ‘80s, and both were local landmarks. Derwent Tower, a standalone stunning high-rise block of flats stranded by a sea of low-rise housing and industry, was affectionately known as the Dunston Rocket, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Trinity Square included the all-concrete multi-storey car-park made famous by the 1971 Michael Caine film Get Carter. By the ‘80s, I think most local people regarded it as an eyesore – but at the same time they rather liked the reflected glamour of its brief film career. Glamour was a rare commodity in Gateshead in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so if a multi-storey car-park was the only way to grab a bit, no-one was going to turn it down.
Tricorn Centre, Trinity Centre and Dunston Rocket were all demolished before the current nostalgia for Brutalism set in. Maybe if they’d survived they would now be vying for a listing, just like good old Eros House.