Brutalism at NorSC

As might be clear from the image attached to this post, as well as throughout our website, we have an interest in brutalist architecture, concrete and “ugly” buildings. This post will explain why, a social computing and human-computer interaction group, has pictures of concrete everywhere.

Our fascination with brutalism is actually grounded in the works of J.G. Ballard, who authored many captivating and fascinating books through the 1960s and 70s. However it is his “urban disaster” trilogy of books, Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise, that piqued our interest in the intersection of architecture and human interaction.

Without spoiling the books, we have been most inspired by Concrete Island and High Rise (recently adapted into a film) as they explore the new possibilities for human behaviour, and deviance, enabled by the new technologies of the 1960s. In Concrete Island, Ballard was talking about new technologies such as motorways and elevated overpasses which enabled commuters to speed quickly from the suburbs into city and town centers, without having to drive through the neighbourhoods in between, and how this changed the landscape, as well as commuters’ relationships with those spaces, and those living there. In High Rise, the high rise or tower block is the subject of his exploration. Though not a 20th century idea, the high rise came to prominence following the second World War as the need and desire to rebuild cities was actualised by city councils and governments across Europe. However, as explored by Ballard in High Rise there are problems when taking a traditional neighbourhood of many streets and compressing them vertically, forcing them to rely on shared utilities and new mechanisms for blame and distrust such as the elevators, communal entrances and refuse facilities (“the people on the 14th floor are always block the refuse shoot, now it’s back up to the 17th”). If you have not read the books they come highly recommended.

A lot of the town planning and architecture that Ballard was writing about was imbued with the ideology, particularly leaning towards socialism and utopian ideals – raising the standards of living for society through radical or experimental architecture. One large part of this movement became known as brutalist architecture, rooted in architects such as Le Corbusier, who espoused using modular, raw materials, such as concrete and glass. There is much study of the brutalist architecture movement, and some who look fondly upon the buildings which were often labelled “ugly”, “brutal” and “uneasy” by many. Despite some of these architectural works not being fully realized, and subsequently demolished, they have provided valuable lessons of how utopian ideals can become dystopian realities.

Within our lab we have a strong interest in the interactions between technology and humans, the consequences of their design and use on our everyday lives. This resonates strongly with the exploration that Ballard conducted in the 1970s, and is a stance we hope to bring to social computing and human computer interaction. Previously we have explored, for example, how utopian technologies for pet owners could have potentially devastating effects to quality of life, and even quantity of life, or how social media may expose and reveal personal information in different, potentially damaging contexts. This critical angle, encouraging utopian technologies to be viewed within the messy reality of implementation and how technology may actually be used, is something we continuously push through our work.

Trinity Centre Car Park, Gateshead, July 2007. Architect: Owen Luder. Rodge500. Source: