A new book explores the story of Brutalist architecture in the North
Across Yorkshire, a bold architectural legacy can be found that continues to prompt debate about its merits and message decades since some of the most recognisable examples appeared.
These post-war modernist buildings, many of which were attached to the Brutalist style of design, are characterised by their reliance on utilitarian concrete, steel and glass – all clean lines and geometric shapes, the structures put the focus on each place’s primary function and were a world away from the ornate edifices of the Victorian era.
The Bank of England building in Leeds – a fortress-like structure on King Street that is a centrepiece of the city’s financial district – Huddersfield’s Queensgate Market with its innovative roof and striking ceramic mural, and Sheffield’s monolithic Park Hill estate are among those that are listed for their heritage value. All three, plus 42 other buildings across the region, are included in a new book of images by photographer Simon Phipps that is billed as the most extensive survey of its kind.
Brutal North is the result of years of work by Phipps, and while its scope encompasses Northern England as a whole, Yorkshire towns and cities loom large, making up more than a third of the volume’s content.
“I’m very pleased to see it in print, it was a bit of a struggle to get there this year,” says Phipps, who had to navigate the worsening pandemic
and lockdown to finish the project with his publisher.
“There was no travel, and I didn’t have all the photography completed. As things eased up I had to try and fit it in, travelling round the near-empty motorways of the North.
“It was quite odd – just the feeling of being one of the only people out there. It was quite a barren time. Normally I rely on my own patience to allow people to clear out of the scene, pretty much all of my photographs are unpopulated, they’re really about the architecture.”
Each building in Brutal North is shot in stark monochrome and comes with a detailed listing explaining its origins. The citations highlight the fact that many of these schemes were instigated by local authorities for civic purposes from the 1950s onwards – Phipps says this was a response to the ‘devastation’ wrought by Second World War bombs.
“There were obviously a lot of commissioning bodies, mostly councils, who were really grasping the nettle and taking on the need to create mass housing and civic buildings,” he says. “I think it was taken very seriously, particularly in Sheffield.
“The city architects’ department under John Lewis Womersley commissioned massive amounts of building that’s still very much in evidence today such as Park Hill and Gleadless Valley. I certainly think they’ve lasted the test of time. I’ve selected buildings that have a fairly reasonable profile but also unknown buildings, and fairly neglected ones that might be a surprise for people to discover.”
The word ‘brutalism’ comes from the French béton-brut, literally meaning ‘raw concrete’ – this…