Grey concrete vs pink saccharine dreams

What to think of all the postwar concrete buildings around us? Recently, I came across an interesting article by Nicholai Oroussoff in the New York Times (18/3/09) dealing with this issue. He talks about the Robin Hood Gardens, a massive housing project completed in1972 in East London. Today, it stands as an icon of the concrete brutalistic era. Many people agree that in its current state, the Gardens look repulsive. The views differ, however, discussing how to deal with this. Some want to demolish the “ugly mastodont”, whereas others see the beauty of the concrete in a desperate need for restoration.

Robin Hood Gardens, London. (Photo: joseph_beuys_hat)

Robin Hood Gardens, London. (Photo: joseph_beuys_hat)

Oroussoff suggests a generation gap in the opinions:

“For an older generation of architects these buildings embody the absolute nadir of the welfare state. Destroying them would be an act of mercy. But for younger architects the aggressive concrete forms that gave the movement its name are a welcome antidote to the saccharine Disney-inspired structures of today.”

Myself, I went through 10 years of early school life in a concrete brutalist building. It’s of course difficult to determine how much our schools’ architecture affects our early lives…

A brutalist school: University of Pittsburgh Law School (photo: industry_is_virtue)

A brutalist school: University of Pittsburgh Law School (photo: industry_is_virtue)

…One thing is for sure, however; the building did not fill my adolescent head with empty promises or design hype nonsense. It was there, the walls were grey and concrete, no illusions. Nobody promised me a rose garden.

Copenhagen business school, interior (photo:access.denied)

Copenhagen business school, interior (photo:access.denied)

Looking at some of the contemporary schools, fighting for attention and students, promising them “disney saccharose” comfy sofas or free laptops, I am silently thankful for my years in a simple brutalist school!

A recent exhibition Funhouses in Hayward Gallery, London deals with this very issue. Here’s a quote from IconEye’s William Wiles article & interview with the artist Matthew Darbyshire (born 1977):

Lurid colours, wonky mirrors and wiggly handrails … public architecture under New Labour has adopted the design language of the seaside funhouse, says Matthew Darbyshire.

icon What got you thinking about funhouses?

Darbyshire : […]I spent a month or two walking up and down the South Bank and the hub, the Southbank Centre, and looking at all these public-access buildings like City Hall, the Tate, Coin Street Community Centre and around the London Eye, and they’ve all got this iridescent noughties palette of lime green and sexy pinks. There was a sort of plague of interaction and accessibility, quite positive social efforts to try and include people, but I am questioning these efforts. It is effectively a compromise on the artists’ part and on the [part of the] curators if you have to fulfil these aims and objectives and fulfil other people’s agendas.[…]

I find this debate very interesting. Which do you prefer?  Should we restore the old, raw concrete and appreciate the style? Or should we embrace the newer, more “fun”, or “disney-like, saccharine” curves? Obviously, if you say neither, you are welcome to leave comments…

Orestad High School, Copenhagen, Denmark (photo: fotologic)

Orestad High School, Copenhagen, Denmark (photo: fotologic)

Link to another hanba post dealing with the brutalist utopias: Steven Holl’s Utopia

Funhouse is at the Hayward Project Space until 12 July http://www.haywardgallery.org.uk/

Upcoming: Not into grey nor pink? The next post will be about an exhibition called “The future architecture is green” in Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen. 🙂

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5 responses to “Grey concrete vs pink saccharine dreams

  1. Looking at Robin Hood Gardens, my immediate impression is one of beauty which pampers expertly to the vintage minimalism preferences of my own personal aesthetic.

    I know that sounds awful and probably pretty pretentious but it’s how I feel. Nonetheless, to be honest with you, there is room for pink and gray in my head space, however nauseating the pink can be at times, I can’t help feel they are two sides of the same coin. There is room for the cartoon characters of my youth, candy floss at the amusement park, hidden away in boxes and on bookshelves inside the gray edifice of the rather beautiful photograph that accompanies this post.

    Without turning this into an argument on binaries, surely we need the whole architectural rainbow spectrum to exist? There’s a reason there’s a Robin Hood and a garden in the title, the British irony speaking to an inner sense of well-being and simultaneous nausea I can’t help but feel this whole argument taps into?

    When I was younger, I got the overall distinct impression that things that look pretty on the outside are ugly inside, and vice versa. However, now, I’m just not so sure that works as well as I thought it did. Therefore, I really don’t think anything should be demolished until this argument is resolved.

    (“However, I do feel any hazards to safety need to be fixed up as soon as possible,” says the nerd to the architect.)

  2. Looking at Robin Hood Gardens, my immediate impression is one of beauty which pampers expertly to the vintage minimalism preferences of my own personal aesthetic.

    I know that sounds awful and probably pretty pretentious but it’s how I feel. Nonetheless, to be honest with you, there is room for pink and gray in my head space, however nauseating the pink can be at times, I can’t help feel they are two sides of the same coin. There is room for the cartoon characters from when I was a kid, candy floss at the amusement park, hidden away in boxes and on bookshelves inside the gray edifice of the rather beautiful photograph that accompanies this post.

    Without turning this into an argument on binaries, surely we need the whole architectural rainbow spectrum to exist? There’s a reason there’s a Robin Hood and a garden in the title, the British irony speaking to an inner sense of well-being and simultaneous nausea I can’t help but feel this whole argument taps into?

    When I was younger, I got the overall distinct impression that things that look pretty on the outside are ugly inside, and vice versa. However, now, I’m just not so sure that works as well as I thought it did. Therefore, I really don’t think anything should be demolished until this argument is resolved.

    (“However, I do feel any hazards to safety need to be fixed up as soon as possible,” says the nerd to the architect.)

    • Hi Biibus! Thanks for the comment – and thanks for pointing out how observing things through binaries is a crude and sometimes misleadingly simplistic.

      Nevertheless, here I discuss mainstream architecture; Like you, I would like to see more different philosophies reigning together, but like in so many other things in our world today, the mainstream trends are the loudest voices. Postwar it used to be the grey, now it’s the “pink”.

      It’s funny, actually, how during the past decade or so – when there has been so much wealth available to express the spectrum of possibilities in between grey and “pink”, the reigning paradigms have still been quite strict.. Countless trendy glass boxes have been erected, and you see “lurid colours, wonky mirrors and wiggly handrails” all over. There are countless exceptions to the mainstream, of course, but when you look at the city centers in the west, it’s the disneylike “pink” that has the ball right now. What we can do is to 1) fight against them wanting to demolish the grey 2) try to introduce other values and ideas than the mainstream.

      nb: i guess it’s obvious by now; by saying “pink” i refer not only to the color itself, but the whole “saccharine” genre.

  3. (P.S. How embarrassing, my editing process for the world to see! Who blogs in drafts?)

    • don’t worry, biibus! the story now had 2 comments instead of 1 – it looks cooler on the stats! 😉 i’m so happy you took time to comment on my post. 🙂 /h

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