Brutalism at UEA

It might not be everyone’s cup of architectural tea, but when Denys Lasdun designed the University of East Anglia’s campus in the 1960s, he certainly had a vision. UEA, much like the National Theatre (also Lasdun’s work) is a work of brutalism, an iconic concrete landscape that contrasts brilliantly with the peaceful greenery of the surrounding area.

Brutalism was popular from the 1950s-70s, characterised by its use of large blocks of practical materials, such as (of course) UEA’s beloved concrete, as well as steels and other metals. Brutalist buildings also scrape the sky with straight, defined lines and a monochromatic use of colour. One of the first Brutalists, Enro Goldfinger, designed a 31-story block of flats in the 1970s, in keeping with Brutalist appearances. But of course, it is not to everyone’s taste: Ian Flemming, the author behind James Bond, disliked it so much that he took Goldfinger’s name and made a Bond Villain out of it.

Yet Brutalism has many strengths. It is unapologetic, and stark, and, at UEA, works smoothly to fit into the green field by the broad and create a feeling of modernity, and of humans living beside the natural world without changing it, rather complimenting it.

Despite being everywhere in our society, architecture is a hidden art form. Buildings and shelters are so necessary that they blend into whatever landscape they are a part of, but brutalism is self-reflexive: it draws attention to its own processes, to the necessity of architecture as not only a practicality but also as an art form in and of its own right. Much like our clothes and our food — which are necessities but made exciting and tactile through fashion blogs and personalising, and through recipes and cooking shows — brutalist shows that our buildings can become a statement, and can have personality too.

As such, it can make us think about the feelings that good architecture can inspire. Research has shown that living in the city can leave you more at risk of conditions like schizophrenia, due to levels of stress. So, designers can consider this when working, perhaps creating a more mindful landscape, perhaps owning up to the necessity of metropolis life, even in the quietest of areas, in the way that Brutalism can do when it is engaged with as masterfully as Lasdun’s.

Ultimately, UEA’s well-designed unattractiveness sits quietly alongside the trees and the lake, and begs the question: what if our place of work was a work of art?

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Molly Phillips

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August 2022
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