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.


Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.


Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 

“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL