Barnabas Calder on the beauty of Brutalist architecture

The University of Strathclydes former architecture building was completed in 1967. Calder says the department  had to move to an inferior space

The University of Strathclydes former architecture building was completed in 1967. Calder says the department had to move to an inferior space

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In this extract from his book, Barnabas Calder argues the real brutalism is the response of the authorities to beautiful concrete Brutalist buldings

It came as a real surprise to me to learn that, following its Grade B listing by Historic Scotland, plans remained in place for us to move out of the University of Strathclyde Architecture Building. The mystery deepened when the proposed replacement architecture department was revealed. Its main window would give only on to a steeply rising metal roof, in striking contrast to the fine views from the purpose-built building, and it would presumably depend on extensive artificial light and ventilation, unlike the well-lit, airy studios of its predecessor.

Student representatives made a wonderfully cogent case against the move at meetings with management. The students secured national publicity in the architectural press, held special events to celebrate the building’s architecture, and have now founded a preservation society to ensure that the quality of the building is upheld in practice, rather than being chipped away at by little changes despite the listing.

The camaraderie produced by this battle was magnificent, and the student campaign was conducted not only with integrity, energy and commitment, but also with charming sharp humour. But though La Fontaine’s lamb can out-argue the wolf, he still gets eaten. The department moved. One of the key reasons I left Strathclyde, where I had so loved teaching, was that I could not bear to be displaced from the lovely, bright, open, well-designed building we had had into the call-centre atmosphere of the new rooms, squashed into a building exceptionally lacking in architectural distinction.

As I see it, the material result of all this unpleasantness is that the architecture department is stuck in an ugly and disagreeable new setting, whilst its own fine building provides, as far as I can gather, a sort of ill-fitting transit camp for other departments being shuffled around like chess pawns in the prolonged reorganisation of the university. On my last visit it seemed half-empty and drained of human activity. Yet the story of the Newbery Tower at the Glasgow School of Art ends even more bleakly.

Once listing was refused it was doomed, but between the certainty of its destruction and the closing-off of the site for demolition preparations there was a period of months in which the building was used exactly as usual, and looked its normal self, yet was condemned. It felt slightly unreal that such a manifestly resilient building should be on the point of disappearing for ever, and I am not sure I really believed it until the demolition work began.

Glasgow School of Art alumni arranged a goodbye party for the Newbery Tower, at which hundreds of past and present students came for one last visit, graffiti-ing the doomed walls with pens provided by the organisers for that purpose, and breaking out of a fire escape to flock on to the roof of the next-door building, with an excellent view of the Newbery Tower, until a harassed janitor herded us all back down.

Picking up on the controversies, students from both of Glasgow’s architecture schools co-organised a debate on whether the GSA should have kept the Newbery Tower or gone ahead with Steven Holl’s new building. One of the architects for the replacement building spoke for it, and I spoke for the Newbery. The contentious atmosphere was heightened by the floodlit demolition of the building proceeding just outside, so the audience had all just seen it at its most dramatic and with its pathos considerably heightened. My memory insists, though I cannot be sure, that we could hear the drills smashing through the concrete as we spoke.

After the debate was over, I climbed round the security fence surrounding the now-deserted demolition site, and used my bicycle light to pick my way through the rubble, the rough concrete chunks pushing up uncomfortably through the soles of my shoes, to the northern stair tower, still largely intact at the time despite the demolition of the decks. My main goal, apart from one last visit to the building, was to retrieve a piece of concrete which bore the distinctive and carefully crafted in situ texture on it. I searched and searched through the rubble, finding no fragment that would do.

• Barnabas Calder is a historian of architecture specialising in British architecture since 1945. His new book Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism has just been published by William Heinemann, price £25

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