Brutalist Architecture - maligned and misunderstood

Blog — 21 May 2024

Whilst people are increasingly beginning to appreciate 1970’s and Brutalist architecture, it is still largely misunderstood by many. As with any art movement there are good, mediocre and bad examples and a few that are exemplary. Chamberlain Powell and Bonn’s Barbican has been maligned for many years, its podium circulation is fine once you are in there, but finding your way in is a challenge. The problem has been exacerbated by the removal of the high-level walkways and is not helped by the deliberately obscure pedestrian entrances that were designed to discourage non residents from wandering into the residential podiums. Today it is much loved, the textured concrete and sculptural towers have matured, and the extensive landscaping is well established, it is a wildlife haven in the heart of the city. In recognition of its quality, it is now Grade II listed.


There is another significant group of buildings that worryingly is not listed. Hyde Park Barracks was completed in 1970, and it is arguably Basil Spences last great work. There has been a Cavalry barracks on the South side of Hyde Park since 1795, Spence’s design replaced the 19th century Victorian buildings, remnants of which are incorporated in his design, a sequence of lower buildings for horses and officers and a tower for the other ranks. The building is understandably defensive, with brick perimeter walls, but these are enlivened and opened up where feasible with pavilion structures that allow the passer buy to see into spaces such as the officers mess. It sits quite comfortably as a low-rise edge to the park, with a 33-storey tower to the west topped by a sculptural form that is not displeasing.

Hyde Park Barracks
Hyde Park Barracks

Land that overlooks the park clearly has enormous value for super prime residential as the Candy brothers demonstrated with 1 Hyde Park. The form of Spence’s buildings is also attractive, with a tower that would never be consented today. The government has mooted the idea of selling the site to the highest bidder for demolition and redevelopment, and schemes have been proposed by among others Quinlan Terry

Quinlan Terry proposed scheme 2015

The anti-modernist lobby would happily see the demolition and replacement of these buildings, in 2012 Lord St John of Fawsley remarked that "Basil Spence's barracks in Hyde Park ruined that park; in fact, he has the distinction of having ruined two parks, because of his Home Office building, which towers above St. James's Park".

However, things have moved on since 2012, and the idea of demolishing structures of this scale and quality would now find little traction in the offices of the Westminster Planning Department. Furthermore, the Conservatives decision to end non-dom status has had the effect of driving overseas wealth and investment out of the UK which will surely make a large-scale high end residential schemes difficult. Hopefully the buildings architectural value will be recognised, and they will be listed, as they surely should be. But just as importantly London needs useful buildings like these much more than the empty residential blocks that seem increasingly to be occupying the prime sites in its centre.

In April 2024, some of the Hyde Park Barrack's cavalry horses were spooked while exercising in central London and rampaged through the streets ending up in Limehouse, many of them badly injured. Charles Moore wasted no time in using this as an excuse to condemn Spence’s architecture, “Was this a silent equine protest against their home, the atrocious Knightsbridge Barracks, built in the 1960s by Sir Basil Spence? “

Injured horses at full gallop in Central London, April 2024

However, seeing cavalry horses exercising in the park or parading towards their ceremonial duties in the Mall or Whitehall is always an unexpected pleasure when walking or cycling through Hyde Park, a city needs this type of public theatre, and there is not much of it left.