Victim of brutalismâ€™s fall from grace
By Edwin Heathcote
Published: August 22 2008 19:43 | Last updated: August 22 2008 19:43
Whenever a structure wins the accolade of â€œBritainâ€™s most hated buildingâ€, or crowds bay beside a demolition as at a public architectural execution, the victims will be brutalist buildings.
Brutalism is one of Britainâ€™s two contributions to modern architecture. The other is â€œhigh techâ€, the engineering aesthetic of metal and glass that has, in effect, become the style of the City , the emblem of modernity. Brutalism, an aesthetic based on bulky cliffs of concrete, remains locked up in its filthy, rain-stained bunker, dismissed as modernismâ€™s idiot relative, reviled, unpopular, a manifestation of everything that went wrong with architecture. One of its finest British proponents was Rodney Gordon, who has died aged 75.
Gordon remained unknown beyond architecture circles. His brief, flashy career largely happened in the office of Owen Luder in the 1960s, meaning his name was rarely associated with a building. In that time the office designed a handful of astonishing, sculptural buildings, nearly all of which have been, or are being, destroyed. The finest was the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth, a terrific essay in sci-fi concrete that was left to rot by an unsympathetic council and chain stores that would rather have been somewhere else, somewhere with a bit less . . . character. Opened in 1966, its fiercely modelled form embraced a shopping centre, a nightclub and apartments. By the 1980s its apartments had never been fully occupied because of problems with damp and malfunctioning services, the nightclub had degenerated into a shabby casino and the top of the multistorey car park had become the south coastâ€™s most popular spot for suicides after Beachy Head. It was demolished in 2004.
The Trinity Centre Car Park, at the other end of the country in Gateshead, was the venue for another rooftop fall, this time fictionalised in Mike Hodgesâ€™ sparse and brilliant 1971 gangster film, Get Carter. The director used this enormous, haunting structure for the bleak confrontation in which Michael Caineâ€™s Carter kills Bryan Mosleyâ€™s corrupt developer by dumping him over the side of the structure. The building, now revered by a rump of film fans and architecture aficionados, survives but is to be demolished to make way for a Tesco store.
The nearby Derwent Tower, a social housing tower block known as the Dunston Rocket, rises from a landscape of gasometers and industrial detritus, looking perfectly at home. It is, needless to say, under threat of demolition.
It is a sorry legacy for a talented architect and it highlights the shortcomings of a culture quick to condemn, despite evidence of the fast pace of change in aesthetic fashion.
Gordonâ€™s career was unconventional. The son of well-to-do Jewish immigrant parents (his father was Polish- Russian, his mother Chilean), he was born on February 2 1933 in Wanstead, east London, and spent his youth in a Chelsea that was becoming the heart of the cityâ€™s bohemia. He studied medicine at University College but, inspired by the contemporary structures of the Festival of Britain on the South Bank in 1951, switched to architecture, first at the Hammersmith School of Building then at Londonâ€™s Architectural Association, then Britainâ€™s most dedicated and intellectual centre of modernist design.
Graduating in 1957, he went to work at the London County Council Architectsâ€™ Department, on its way to becoming the biggest architecture office in the world, a proving ground for Britainâ€™s most thoughtful and radical architects. He is credited with the design for the curious Michael Faraday Memorial, an op art stainless steel box that still stands in Elephant and Castle, concealing an electricity substation. This, too, is under threat as the area is redeveloped.
His real career began when he joined Luderâ€™s office in 1959. The partnership created some of the finest and most recognisable buildings of an era that remains the most controversial in British architecture. This burst of creativity lasted only seven years. Disillusioned with what he saw as the increasingly commercial direction of the office and what the office saw as his disengagement, Gordon left, forming a succession of new practices. He settled into a role as a design architect, leaving the latter stages to others and leaving him more time to fly gliders, ride motorbikes and drive fast cars.
His partners referred to him as a â€œplayboyâ€, rarely seen in the office beyond initial stages, with little of the responsibility or tenacity necessary to succeed on his own. He revelled in the technology of speed, and something of that delight can be seen in his final major building, one of the few survivors.
Located at 66 St Jamesâ€™s Street, this bronze anodised aluminium-clad monster continues to enthral and repel passers-by. It displays Gordonâ€™s skill in handling form and mass and his consistent ability to surprise, its rocket-like verticals referring tongue in cheek to the cylindrical turrets and towers of the Victorian building it replaced. The St Jamesâ€™s Building stands a few yards from the least-hated remnant of brutalism, Alison and Peter Smithsonâ€™s urbane Economist Building. It was the Smithsons who coined the expression brutalism, a cocktail of the French bÃ©ton brut (raw concrete), the primitivism of art brut and the robustness of the English word itself, which appealed to a radical generation eschewing bourgeois aesthetics and middle-class manners.
During the periods of harshest public opprobrium, Gordon did not emerge from obscurity to take credit for the buildings â€“ he did so only once they began to be admired by a younger generation of architects. The gap between his death on May 30 and its news leaking out this week was due to his unrecognised name. Now Gordon is being revived as a figurehead for a lost period of British architecture, an era in which every other element of culture, from pop to op art, is constantly celebrated and reassessed.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008
Nothing like a gangster getting out of a Delorian in a brutalist car-park to sum up the era.