London’s brutalist estates are back in fashion – but there’s a downside

The Barbican Estate. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve recently seen countless articles and heard growing numbers of friends and colleagues confess a sort of nostalgia for brutalist architecture. It sounds weird that a once much-hated, modernist design reserved strictly for squalid living on council estates – squalid at least in the middle-class perception – should be growing trendy in academia, with champagne socialists and more generally among the middle-class who want a slice of London living at a fraction of the cost of a Victorian terrace.

It’s easy to the see the appeal. Instead of moving out further into the suburbs, or instead of buying a “studio” flat where your bathroom is also your kitchen, you could be looking at a two bedroom flat with maybe a little outdoor space for the same price.

A lecturer recently described to me a desire for brutalist privacy and anonymity. Having lived in a Victorian terrace and endured hearing the too-human noises from above and below, she could now see the appeal of thick concrete walls and the separation that living in a block of flats paradoxically brings. And of course there is something coldly beautiful about these harsh concrete designs, created by the welfare state for homing large numbers of people after World War II.

It is no coincidence then that these new occupants now flooding the estates so often seem to be designers, artists, academics, or architects themselves;  nor that these spaces have increasingly become a part of the cultural zeitgeist with books like Crash and films like Goodbye, Lenin! centring round these urban concrete landscapes.

Perhaps our desire to move into these wonderfully functional spaces is just a further symptom of the aescheticisation of the necessities of life in the city. We start to view these concrete hard places that are so necessary to modern living as objects of middle-class desire and commodification. We’ve all seen and probably much-admired converted warehouse spaces that have transcended the industrial to become apartments, bars or restaurants. Surely this is just an extension of that same impulse?

But there’s a more sinister side to this trend. Instead of the new academics, artists and progressives replacing old industries, they are replacing the very people the homes were designed for. Many estates were built by the welfare state and let by the council to city workers. But this quickly changed with Margaret Thatcher’s “Right to buy” housing policy. It is sad to see there are almost no tenanted flats remaining in these brutalist estates.

As tenants decided to buy their flats, it meant that they could be sold repeatedly for rapidly growing prices. In the Barbican today  – admittedly, not an estate built as social housing – penthouses are selling for more than £4m, and the clearest sign of the gentrification of these estates is that the buyers are mostly purchasing their property with cash. It would be impossible to attain a mortgage of that scale without being among London’s highest earners.

Moving into these estates is certainly not going to fix London’s housing crisis. While the temptation for square footage, thick walls and concrete quietness is definitely alluring in the face of overpriced, noisy and cramped living, can we afford to displace existing inhabitants in the name of a niche trend for Brutalist architecture?

With London’s population growing by roughly 100,000 a year, we do need a solution. But a solution should not evict those tenants who need affordable housing within the city the most.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that the Barbican was built as social housing. We've since corrected this.


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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.