What's Beautiful About Brutalism?

Trellick Tower, Golborne Road
London W10 5NY

Listed: 1998
Grade: II*
NHLE entry: Listing details for Trellick Tower

The term 'Brutalism' was coined by radical young architects in the 1950s. It became one of the watchwords of an exciting new era of prosperity and optimism that began with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and the end of rationing.

New shopping centres, offices, schools and universities were all needed in this land of social opportunity. One of the biggest problems was housing, both for a growing population and to replace existing damp, overcrowded dwellings. Although North Kensington in London had been condemned as a slum in the 1920s, now large numbers of new centrally heated houses and flats - with car parking, shops and a nursery - were required there.

The scheme had to be big for the economies of scale that would make it affordable - for both the Greater London Council who would build it and the tenants who would rent there. To make room for houses as well as flats, the main block had to be tall - 31 storeys with a boiler house on top. That meant using reinforced concrete.

Where does the name 'Brutalism' come from?

In France, concrete is called béton brut, which gave this type of architecture its name. However, there are also analogies with the Art Brut movement in French painting, which celebrated the raw and primeval.

In 1948-52, the architect Le Corbusier built a big block in the French city of Marseilles called the Unité d'Habitation, consisting of flats, shops, a roof-top nursery and sports facilities. A significant influence on the Trellick Tower design, it was intended to fulfil all its occupants' daily needs. Careful pouring and pre-casting concrete in moulds offered finishes that were as textured as rough stone or as fine-grained as marble.

Ernö Goldfinger

The architect of Trellick Tower, Ernö Goldfinger, knew Le Corbusier. At different times, both of them had trained in Paris with Auguste Perret, an architect and builder who knew how to make concrete as beautiful as stone.

With Trellick Tower, Goldfinger combined the vision of Le Corbusier with the quality of Perret and added a few quirks of his own. The shops and nursery were placed on the ground floor for easy access. Fed by oil, the boiler house was pushed skywards to the top of a service tower that kept noisy lifts and chutes separate from the flats. Thus Goldfinger split up the functions of the block and expressed them, unlike at Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation, where all the functions were concealed in a single block.

Trellick Tower's proportions are classical and its concrete finely finished with tactile, curved corners. The complex concrete mouldings were created in situ, using formwork, with the simpler sections of cladding formed of pre-cast slabs with factory finishes. This was man making stone - such was the optimism of the times. The result is dramatic, but the building's proportions and the care taken in its construction also make it beautiful. And, for the first time, the residents of North Kensington got proper bathrooms.