A bit of rough

<em>Architecture week</em> - William Cook explains why brutalism, that most provocative assault on s

Throughout the Thatcherite Eighties and Majorite Nineties, they were the buildings we all loved to hate. But over the past few years, something quite extraordinary has happened to the cityscape of Blairite Britain. Contrary to conservative expectations, some of our most despised structures have been restored, revamped - even given coveted listed status. The modern monoliths we once loathed have become our newest national monuments. Against all the odds, brutalism is back in vogue.

Everywhere you look, brutalist buildings are getting facelifts. The National Theatre has had a spring-clean, the South Bank Centre is embarking on a major renovation, and the Barbican has celebrated its 20th birthday with a self-confident, self-congratulatory retrospective. Most remarkable of all, high-rise blocks such as Denys Lasdun's Keeling House and Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower have been transformed into smart new homes. So how did a style that seemed to sum up everything that was awful about modern architecture suddenly become the height of fashion?

"New brutalism" was a term coined by two British architects, Alison and Peter Smithson, and a British critic, Peter Reyner Banham, to describe a particularly British response to a particularly Continental architect, Le Corbusier. British brutalists adored Le Corbusier's innovative use of rough, unfinished surfaces, and his revolutionary vision of self-contained communal living, particularly the Unite d'Habitation, his giant Fifties apartment block in Marseilles. And so as Britain reshaped its ruined streets, after the cruel slum clearance of the Blitz, a spate of strange and shocking constructions sprung up amid the conventional remnants of our shattered Victorian cities.

Brutalism was bound to offend traditional British taste. It was a deliberate assault on our suburban, semi-detatched sensibilities. Its cement battleships made a virtue of their most unfamiliar and unattractive facets. They set out to provoke, and they succeeded. Vast and uninviting, like futuristic fortresses, they had their raw concrete left exposed, to be weathered by the wind and rain, like a cliff face or a castle wall. Sheffield's Park Hill and Hyde Park estates, the Smithsons' Robin Hood Gardens in the East End, even Hugh Casson's Elephant House at London Zoo - these were the brave new landmarks of the socialist Sixties and Seventies. But by the time the Barbican opened in 1982, the political and aesthetic tide had turned.

Thatcherism politicised the arts, and no art form is more political than architecture. Brutalism had become a symbol of our high-taxing, high-spending, centralised, nationalised nanny state - grimly determined to give us what it thought was best for us, from council flats to subsidised theatre, whether we wanted it or not. At its peak, more than half of our architects were employed building public works.

Thatcherite housing was small, private and stylistically nostalgic. Thatcherism built big, too, but its biggest buildings, in London's Docklands and the Square Mile, championed big business, not big government. These capitalist cathedrals were just as overwhelming as their brutalist predecessors, but their entrepreneurial optimism was reflected in their sleek, shiny design. Smooth steel, polished stone and brittle glass, reflective rather than transparent, replaced bleak, weather-beaten concrete in monetarist temples such as Richard Rogers's triumphant Lloyds Building and Cesar Pelli's triumphalist Canary Wharf. Introverted and introspective, unloved and unlamented, brutalism was a movement whose time had passed.

But in the five years since John Major moved out of Downing Street and Tony Blair moved in, brutalism has experienced an unexpected revival. True, it is hard to imagine many new brutalist buildings taking root here in the future, but the surviving examples of the genre are now cherished as never before. Rick Mather's creative yet sensitive South Bank renovation will retain the much maligned Hayward Gallery, the Barbican's interior refit will restore many of its original features, and Goldfinger's Trellick Tower is now a Grade II-listed building - the same status as the Barbican and the National Theatre. Virginia Bottomley, the then national heritage secretary, called it "a particularly important building of more than special interest". So why the change of heart?

Well, one reason is old age. Brutalism has become a part of our past. Now that the era it represents has retreated into history, we can afford to look more kindly on these grey leviathans - historic relics of a defeated regime, rather than the shape of things to come. Another reason is that some of brutalism's harsher features have been softened to suit 21st-century tastes. The National's beton brut (raw concrete) battlements have been scrubbed clean, rather than abandoned to the elements, as nature - and brutalism - intended. At the Hayward, Rick Mather will remove most of the high-level walkways that enclose the gallery, and revive the dead space beneath them. This sympathetic modernist is applying a similar plan to Hammersmith's brutalist Lyric Theatre, dropping its elevated foyer down to ground level. "They were both conceived with everybody up in the air," says Mather. "The street was considered something to turn your back on." Past builders wanted to lift pedestrians into the sky, away from the traffic. Present rebuilders want to reclaim the street, by bringing pedestrians back down to earth. Mather's humanist solution proves brutalism can be good to live with, as well as great to look at.

Brutalism's residential renaissance has been more social than architectural. Bloomsbury's fashionable Brunswick Centre has thrived because the trendy punters who patronise its arts cinema, literary bookshop and Continental cafes tend to be comparatively prosperous. Robin Hood Gardens, in poorer Poplar, still feels dour and down at heel. However, Trellick Tower and Keeling House, both in ordinary urban neighbourhoods, have reinvented their reputations during the past decade. Once derelict, Keeling House has been bought and rebuilt by a private developer, and its flats resold on the open market. In the past 18 months, prices have leapt 20 per cent.

Trellick Tower has been turned around more gradually, through persistent lobbying by the residents and basic (if belated) common sense from the local council. Since 1986, they've only housed people here who want to live here - pretty obvious, you would have thought, but it took 14 years to think of it. One thing both blocks have in common is round-the-clock security. In spite of residential protests, the GLC had scrapped a plan to put a concierge in Trellick Tower.

"People come from Germany, France, Sweden, Holland, because it's the tallest residential building in Europe," Trellick Tower's friendly porter tells me, proudly. "There's people filming on the 18th floor." And they're only halfway up.

Another factor is generational. High-rise living was never going to suit large, housebound families, single mothers, unemployed fathers, pets or children. Today's self-employed single professionals are bound to feel less intimidated by brutalism's monolithic scale. "It used to be everybody's ideal to have a little terraced house on a street with a back garden," says Mather. "Now there's been this fantastic move towards loft apartments, apartment living, which is a real sea change." The property boom, too, has played a part. If you can't afford a whole house, you might as well live in a purpose-built flat, rather than a conversion. "People are queuing up to buy flats in the Barbican," says Mather. "They're queuing up to buy flats in Trellick Tower."

Yet the most important factor in brutalism's rehabilitation is the realisation that, as well as its stark, sculptural grandeur, its monumental proportions can contain great functional strengths. The National is an inspirational theatre, whose spacious stage, seats and foyers are infinitely more comfortable than their cramped and claustrophobic equivalents in the West End. The Hayward is an inspiring fine-art space, as well as a significant period piece. "It has great character," agrees Mather. And although it was always going to be a struggle to live somewhere built along such inhuman lines, even on the domestic front brutalism is beginning to win the PR war. "I can remember 20 years ago, when nobody wanted to live in the Barbican - but now just look at the prices," says Mather. "The Barbican is now the chic-est place to live."

Form follows content, and as the way we use brutalist buildings improves, so we're finally learning to like the way they look. The Royal Institute of British Architects is currently staging an exhibition about the ascent of concrete. "Art produces ugly things which frequently become beautiful with time," wrote Jean Cocteau in 1960, the year Lasdun built Keeling House. As architecture, it had huge faults, but as an art form, brutalism has become beautiful, at last.