Brutal Practicality    
     

 

by azrul k. abdullah
The Brutalist movement promoted functionality, strength and unmitigating dullness. AZRUL K. ABDULLAH fondly remembers KL's "ugly" buildings.

The late 60s and early 70s, it was a period that was marked by economic and social decay in many countries (brought about by the oil crisis). Many governments turned to the construction of heavy-duty buildings that would be easy to maintain, relatively inexpensive to build yet still providing a strong nationalistic metaphor.
Modernism's high came in the early 20s and 30s and was largely characterised by progressive members of the Bauhaus school. Out of that school of thought, some other modernist sought to define niches within modernism, including minimalist and later, Brutalist. To confuse things, many modern architects, even greats like Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier came up with many designs that were reflective of both these styles at time progressed.

The 'Brutalist' movement was lead largely by some prolific British architects such as the Smithsons and Goldfinger. Receiving many commissions from local councils, these architects were soon to make their mark on 'progressive' post-war housing and public buildings.The movement still placed an emphasis on functionality and form. Most of these buildings are often monolithic erections of great mass. Unlike their International style cousins, Brutalist architecture was about stretching the limits of how concrete could be shaped. This also includes the use of prefabricated building techniques. Often described as being unfriendly, cold and Teutonic; these ugly ducklings were the pets of many local urban councils and government builders.

Relatively easy to construct and easy to maintain, these new buildings lacked the 'skeletal' appearance of early International style buildings. Being forged largely out of raw concrete they were often seen as a quick and easy way to construct 'lasting' buildings in the 60s. Two early attempts to bring Brutalist utilitarianism to the forefront of public service was the construction of both University Hospital in Petaling Jaya and Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. Both a product of the period when the movement was most prolific, they took on proportions that befitted their role.

The Kuala Lumpur General Hospital is reminiscent of Le Corbusier's High Court building and the Secretariat offices in Chandigarh, India. The many buildings of this hospital are protected by a series of square concrete louvers allowing good ventilation, yet keeping the sun and rain out. Almost like a scarsophagus that consumes the building itself, the louvers succeed at bringing a greater degree of aesthetics compared to the grilled caged EPF building in PJ or Hotel Malaya in KL. Apart from the issue of aesthetics, the large concrete sunshades offer a greater level of fire safety compared to grilles.

The hospital recently underwent a major exercise to revamp its exterior. Many bare concrete sections have since been painted bright beige. The louvers were given hints of orange or lilac to provide contrast from the main superstructure. When architects Wells and Joyce conceived this building, it was a time when it would have been hard to ignore Le Corbusier's influence on public architecture.

The General Hospital in KL is probably one of the best examples of the continental European approach to the Brutalist movement. Based more closely on the concepts of International style; Le Corbusier and his other Bauhaus colleagues' still exercised restraint during the period following from the 50s.

When University Hospital in Petaling Jaya was completed, it probably represents the closest we have come to the British flavour of the Brutalist movement. A product of the mid-60s, it represents the epitome of what British architects were trying to achieve in the 60s. Pushing the limits of concrete construction; the hospital resembles the stereotypical image of what Brutalism is all about.

Looking at the main tower block that faces the main road; the reliefs on the bare concrete exterior is almost akin to the exterior of Erno Goldfinger's urban monstrosity, Trellick Tower, which is located in the now trendy Notting Hill area of London. Often thought to be one of the ugliest buildings in London, it recently received a new lease of life as a relic from the dark ages to the epitome of urban modernism. It is now a heritage listed building.

Conceived by James Cubitt and Partners, the architects succeeded in using concrete to create a lasting visual impact on any visitor. Entering the hospital from any direction, the kinked concrete roof of the main tower block is bound to catch your eye. The exterior is bold, uncomplicated yet intricate.

Another prime example of Brutalist architecture in KL is the Australian High Commission building located a stones throw away from the Petronas Twin Towers. Designed by architects, Joyce Nankivell Associates and Leong Thian dan Rakan-rakan, it is probably one of the best examples of Brutalist non-commercial office space. Despite the imposing bold concrete buttresses and columns, the building admits a fair amount of sunlight into the interior while maintaining a comfortable working environment. Completed in 1978, it's probably one of the last buildings that epitomised this style of "modern" construction.

One of these early attempts was the Tunku Abdul Rahman flats located along Jalan Pahang. Made entirely of prefabricated concrete, these flats were supposed to address the problems of public housing. The use of prefabricated tower blocks in England didn't go down well with local residents, especially after an explosion at Ronan Point raised concerns over the structural integrity of such instant erections.

The use of prefabricated construction was also largely unpopular in KL and subsequently went out of vogue especially since it provided relatively little cost savings compared to traditional construction. Later attempts as using pre-fabricated construction re-ignited in the 80s then went underground again. Originally bare concrete, a recent coat of paint has mellowed the Tunku Abdul Rahman Flats; giving them a more welcoming appearance.Since this article was written, the Tunku Abdul Rahmah Flats are due for demolition.

The visual strength that Brutalist style conveys also comes though in structural strength. The use of high grade reinforced concrete for the superstructure also means these buildings are also structurally very hardy. Other styling elements including buttresses and supporting columns, enhance their durability even further.

A visit to the now damage structure of the Dewan Tunku Chancellor at University Malaya revealed how well the building survived the fire. Apart from the roofing and damaged to fixtures and glass, the main structure is probably as strong as the day it was built. The massive concrete structure is otherwise untouched and restoration work should be speedy. In Japan, architect Tadao Ando was also pleased to see his creations survive the Kobe earthquake.A testament to their strength and durability.

The exterior reminds us of some of the work of Kahn and Ando. The unfinished concrete exterior is reminiscent of many of Kahn's projects. Despite the visual impact the original building was supposed to convey, the growing ivy on one side of the building has 'softened' the impact this rather Teutonic structure.

Brutalism brought about the best and worst in what Modernism represented. Bridging a dichotomy of simplicity and complexity to the senses, the period is probably best remembered for producing 'ugly' buildings. Later attempts to move Modernism forward brought with it a return to 'skeletal' formations of steel frames and glass. With the probable exception of Tadao Ando's brilliant creations, concrete would lose its place as a styling element as steel, glass and new synthetics took over.

Largely regarded as the last bastion of the 'nationalistic' metaphor, Brutalism is also probably the last incarnation of the post 60s period when International Style was at its apex. It was an attempt to re-define modern architecture using a look and aura that is cold and dour. It remains underrated and the most misunderstood period of Modern architecture.

This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in the Feb 2002 issue of 'Vox'.

© Azrul K. Abdullah 2001.

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