Report on a one-day conference organised by the University of Liverpool with the Twentieth Century Society


Held at the University of Liverpool In London’s premises at 33 Finsbury Square on 11 October 2019, ‘Brutalism Now’ brought together academics, architects, archaeologists and engineers, as well as conservation officers and representatives from Historic England, C20, ICOMOS, the Getty Conservation Institute, IHBC and World Monuments Fund Britain, to discuss the importance of collaboration both in establishing a case for listing and creating sympathetic, adaptive reuse.


Chapel of the Holy Cross, Turku, Finland (ph: Mikkoau)

In the keynote address Adrian Forty considered ‘Brutalism – a reverence for materials?’, arguing that during the revival of interest in Brutalist architecture in the 1990s the choice of concrete was sometimes misconstrued as making a material statement, when its attraction frequently lay in its lack of presence, as at the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Turku, Finland, designed by Pekka Pitkänen in 1963. For Warren Chalk, the massed forms and walkways of the Southbank Centre, a “symphony in concrete”, had embodied the idea of the city of a single building.


Queen Elizabeth Hall lit and embellished in summer 2014 (ph: Matthias Suessen)

Furthermore, the concrete forms of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery were intended to form, as Peter Clegg demonstrated with a 1972 Archigram collage by Ron Herron, a backdrop for the dynamic creation and display of art. Clegg also made the case for the retention of Brutalist buildings because of their huge amounts of embodied energy.


Construction image of Preston Bus Station, depicting the cast concrete edges to the car park floors, both installed and awaiting installation

The conference was convened by Christina Malathouni, whose research was vital to the eventual listing of Preston Bus Station, on the third application, in 2013. The building’s fiftieth anniversary was celebrated throughout the day, particularly in a dedicated session that included Charles Wilson’s recollections of working under Keith Ingham at BDP on the original design. Wilson revealed that the decision to use concrete resulted from the fire officer’s stated preference for the material. And the cantilevered curves of the car park slabs were suggested by the team from Ove Arup, in order to create a less weighty edge to those floors after the use of railings was rejected by the project team.


Rowan Moore, who named the bus station in his top five buildings for 2018, praised the way that the regular order of the building encounters something different, such as one of the two car ramps that rise from road level to the elevated first floor, while Charles Quick and James Arnold spoke of the public’s involvement in the campaign to the save the bus station, since refurbished by John Puttick Associates.


The remains of a hotel in Amadiya, Iraqi Kurdistan (ph: John Darlington)

Other sessions covered heritage protection and design, including Adrian Green on Co-Working Partnership’s Dunelm House at Durham University; dealing with existing post-war buildings of special interest, from the architects’ perspective; and post-war conversation management from the point of view of heritage professionals. The day concluded with favourite, less familiar Brutalist examples from panel members, such as a pilgrimage church in Wupperthal by Gottfried Böhm, a Buddhist library in Rangoon, and a hotel in Kurdistan.