“A brickbat flung in the public face” – the failed Brutalism of Edinburgh’s St. James Centre

Jonathan Meades, in a recent column on the neglected merits of postmodernist buildings, wrote that “Today, 40 years after brutalism dissipated in an assault of bien-pensant hostility and oil crises, few weeks pass without a new book or blog hymning its sublimity, energy and gravity. It is, of course, all a bit late. Much of the finest work has already been destroyed.” He’s right: lengthy is the list of perfectly serviceable – and at times masterful – late-Modernist buildings to have collapsed under the weight of collective disdain. During the later years of the twentieth century, ‘carbuncles’ were lanced, ‘concrete eyesores’ dislodged and the architectural legacy of Brutalism slowly (but not completely) eradicated from the body of British architecture.

We are hardly in unfamiliar territory here. The plight of Brutalist buildings is well-documented. Likewise, the subsequent  re-assessment and re-appraisal these buildings have enjoyed is, as Meades observes, not difficult to miss. Brutalism is suddenly fashionable. Popular blogs breathlessly laud its aesthetic principles, films by prominent directors take it as their subject (or rather lacklustre cinematic adaptations of excellent novels do) and long-neglected housing estates are subject to (questionable but illustrative) ‘renovations’. The reasons behind this – and the ramifications of it – are myriad, and doubtless dealt with better elsewhere. This is not my purpose.

In an atmosphere of what can appear at times a permanent and rigid division of opinion – philistine Tricorn-defilers on one hand, wide-eyed Trellick-fetishists on the other – it seems necessary to say: back to the buildings themselves! It is far too easy to think of aesthetic movements in the abstract, conceiving of them in terms of recurrent themes or prominent features. This is a dangerous trap to fall into – architecture is not a set of principles. Architecture is what is built. The merits of architecture must be primarily considered in terms of the material specifics of buildings – what it is like to enter a building, how it feels to walk around it, what it looks like from the street, the mode of living which it facilitates. Certainly the broader trends of an era or a movement are perfectly subject to analysis, and in such a case it is sometimes necessary to think in generalities, but if it is not grounded in built specifics – in tangible examples – then such a debate is worthless. It would be like a literary analysis without any quotes. Defenders of the school of Brutalism (myself included) would do well to remembers this as much as its detractors. The hopelessly misguided ‘Brutalism Appreciation Society’ group, popular on Facebook and inclined to heap praise on anything that even vaguely mimics the language of modernism, is a particularly irritating example of the ill-considered adulation which dogs Brutalism’s renaissance. All that glitters is not gold – all that is concrete is not unfairly condemned.

With this in mind, I want to turn to a building which, in its 40 years of life, has been almost universally despised by the residents of the city in which it stands. The St. James Centre in Edinburgh is scheduled for imminent demolition, to the apparent delight of the good Burghers themselves. In the face of such universal scorn it’s difficult not to feel a degree of sympathy for the ill-fated underdog, and last week I determined to have a look around it before it vanished for good.

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The St. James Centre was designed in 1964 by Ian Burke & Martin, and completed to a slightly altered plan by Hugh Martin & Partners in 1970. It was built on the site of St. James’s Square, a collection of late-eighteenth-century terraces which over time became first a neglected slum and later a centre for the printing industry. The old square is described in the Edinburgh edition of The Buildings of Scotland as having possessed “a bleak nobility”. Demolished in 1965, in its place was built the current structure.

The authors of Edinburgh’s edition of The Buildings of Scotland – John Gifford, Colin McWilliam and David Walker – write of the new St James Centre in a tone which, while not entirely condemnatory, is by no means sympathetic. They ascribe its existence to “Mammon, devoutly wooed by a Town Council naturally eager for modern development”. They speak of its “huge intrusive bulk” and its “callously blank backside.” It is not entirely difficult to see what they mean – from Calton Hill, a prominent Edinburgh vantage point, much of Edinburgh’s New Town is rendered entirely invisible by this vast and hulking mass of concrete. At street level, the Centre is unsympathetic to the structures surrounding it, dwarfing the neat Palladianisms of the Register House and the Dundas mansion, looming over them like a golem. It is not a pretty building.

But then, who cares? ‘Prettiness’ is not a precondition for good architecture. Buildings that coddle and sooth are rarely memorable, and frequently insipid. The whole appeal of Brutalism is in its willingness to embrace the uncertain and the strange, the disconcerting and the unnerving – in its willingness to leap optimistically into the possibilities of the future, even if they appear at first to be hostile (perhaps because they appear at first to be hostile). Architectural critic Reyner Banham described Brutalism as “a brickbat flung in the public face.” The St. James Centre is not entirely lacking in such a quality – climbing a concrete staircase which projected out over the road, I felt a little of that slightly terrifying vertiginous thrill which Brutalism is so fantastically capable of producing. Looking out from the top of Arthur’s Seat I felt my eye drawn to the Centre’s gleefully obtrusive mass, rising out of the ground like the great plug of basalt from which I was viewing it. When I got up close to the rough but uniformly fluted concrete which much of the building is clad in, I felt at once a sense of vast, deep geological time – the long timescales of rock and stone – and a sense of explicit modernity, with its attendant process of uniform industrial manufacture. This was a profound and electrifying disjunction, and a reminder that Brutalism is as concerned with texture as it is with form.

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Ultimately, however, the building is a failure. Its failure lies, surprisingly, in its timidity. Its designers were afraid to engage with the possibilities of a Brutalist aesthetic which has at its heart confrontation, experiment, expression and strangeness. It is too uniform, too half-heartedly rectilinear to evoke that sense of fracture and dislocation which Brutalism is so capable of. At the same time, however, it is just irregular enough in its massing that it fails to become, as Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation is, exhilarating in its uniformityIt tries to speak in the language of Brutalism, and occasionally manages a sentence or two, but as a whole it fails to grasp the intricacies, afraid to speak too confidently for fear of being misunderstood. A tower here, a disjointed block there, but the whole adds up to little.

Inside, the imaginative capacity of the architect all but disappears – whether as a result of a later renovation or simple architectural laziness is not clear. The appeal of Brutalism is as much in heavy, sparse interiors as it is in confident, brash facades, but all that is to be found inside the St. James Centre is a series of bland shopping centre-isms, lit by a timid pitched ceiling of opaque glass. There are no experiments, no capacious echo chambers or weighty low ceilings, no sweeping curvilinear pillars or exposed stairways. Crucially, there is no bare concrete. Likewise, the King James Hotel is standard hostelry fare (the notable exception to which is the bizarre but delightfully perverse wedge-shaped hotel bar, complete with a deliberately misaligned grid of a ceiling and long, low windows). I cannot speak to the merits of the offices contained in the higher levels, having not been able to enter them. Thankfully, Gifford, McWilliam and Walker of The Buildings of Scotland can: they are “the image of system-built bureaucracy”.

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In this way, then, the St. James Centre is an important building, though not one worth battling to preserve. It is a lesson in nuance, in understanding the appeal of Brutalism as something beyond rough concrete, spiral car parks and monochrome photos. Architectural failures are often as informative as successes – their inadequacies and absences illustrate  by implication the merits of a style properly executed. The St. James Centre, though condemned to disappearance, is just such an illuminating failure.

About raspurr

criticism not only welcome but utterly necessary
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