The Brutalist Truth On War Cultural Studies Essay

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The outbreak of the war in September 1939 led to shortage of both building materials and manpower. The construction of houses came to a virtual stop. By the end of the war, reconstruction of a large number of large numbers of houses for the for all those whose homes had been destroyed by enemy bombing and also for the workers who were essential in helping the country recover, became the need of the hour.

Another major concern was to have a social democracy realized. This led to the creation of the social-welfare state, where the main aim was to provide everyone with access to basic needs of housing and education. To what extent would the urgency in housing or sensitivity for providing housing to the homeless or even working in the stringent welfare state network play a role in the designs? This article would deal with how architect Fernand Pouillon from France and architects Alison and Peter Smithson from the United Kingdom approached the housing scenario during this period with specificity to context. It would also dwell into the ideologies of these architects and the success and failure of these projects.


Social housing is available to a large chunk of the population. Based on their income, about sixty percent of the population has access to this social housing.

By the end of the world war, there was an astounding increase in the urban population with a large number of immigrants from rural areas after the war had damaged most of their homes. Housing was also to be provided to the workers who arrived in industrial cities to work for the reconstruction and industrialization of France. [1] 

The government made a rule in 1939 to keep a check on the increasing rental prices. It introduced the HLM (habitation à loyer modéré) [2] , which was huge consturction plan to redesign the suberbs. Montrouge is a commune in one of the southern Parisian suburbs, located close to the centre of Paris. Fernand Pouillon's "residence Buffalo" is one among the numerous housing projects constructed in this suburb, as a part of the HLM.

United Kingdom

With the borough councils regulating social housing, the public housing here is also called as "council housing" or "council estates" depending on the scale. [3] 

The rapid pace of industrialisation and urbanisation led to huge population increases in industrial cities. This resulted in the formation of slums, housing with little or no sanitation. By the end of the Second World War attempts were made to bring all housing up to acceptable standards.

The council houses where built to provide houses at reasonable rates to the working class. As in France, the housing was concentrated in building estates in the suberbs. The Robin Hood Gardens by the Smithsons is an example of a council housing estate built in tower block style in (then) suberb of London.

2.1. Pouillon and the Buffalo ensemble

Fernand Pouillon studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. In his formative years, he worked with August Perret for a period of almost 9 years. Later he was appointed as the chief architect of the city if Algiers and there he built a number of large scale housing estates. In the late 1950's he went on to build similar scale housing projects in the suberbs of Paris, of which Residence Buffalo is one of them. He established the Comptoir National du Logement (National Housing Corporation), an architectural and engineering office to build efficient low-cost housing. [4] 

Residence Buffalo was one of the first operations instigated by the Comptoir National Housing Corporation (NLC) in the social housing campaign. The residence was named after the Buffalo Stadium, which was famous and popular before the Second World War. With 466 rooms distributed around five different building typologies, the monumental residence Buffalo reflects and projects the classical and memorable qualities of the Montrouge district.

The residence covers 38,000 square meters of land. This housing project is one of the most complex designs [5] by Fernand Pouillon, both architecturally and from the point of view of available space of land. Pouillon varies the height of the buildings to meet the dense housing requirements. The separation of the blocks reduces the visual perception of the actual density, thus making it a much more pleasant place. The design of the facade creates an illusion of the actual building height. For the first four stories the pilasters, alternately separated by vertical windows and panels, are covered with plates of red marble. This `register' is exceeded by the tower and the extra three floors in the tall buildings are treated differently (pic.1). In this top part, the design of the facade is made of narrow bays defined by mullions designed in precast reinforced concrete. Three types of buildings make up the Residence Buffalo. First is a group of two tall buildings that are seven stories high (four 'normal' stories surmounted by another three stories). These buildings are parallel to two perpendicular streets and their intersection creates an empty square inside which is adjacent to the whole complex. Second, there are the low-rise buildings which are either two or three floors in height and have specific architectural features. Third, there is a little tower of seven stories, which has a square plan and is located in the centre of the site. In the context of two very long rectangles, this self-contained building on stilts stands out. The tower becomes a reference point, a unifying element - isolated from the other blocks.

2.2. Smithsons' and the Robin Hood Gardens

Robin Hood Gardens is a social housing estate built for the greater London council. This estate in Poplar, East London was designed in the late 1960's and completed in 1972 by members of the Team 10 - Alison and Peter Smithson. With the formation of the welfare state in England and the state's need for cultural reassurance in the society, the Robin Hood Gardens was sought to be the perfect answer with its innovative "streets in the sky" concept built in brutalist materiality. [6] 

Characterised by broad ariel walkways along two long concrete blocks, the estate contains 213 houses (flats) around a huge landscaped park. A wall and rows of trees help create a noise barrier for the building that faces the busy highway. The houses are associated in groups of 3 floors, trice in one block and twice in the other. A sense of privacy is created by shifting the apartment entrances to the sides of the pedestrian deck. [7] 

3. Context

Pouillon's initial projects themselves showed a taste for proportions and volumes, balance and attention to detail. All this used in forms and decoration that where sustainable and trusted with materials like stone and iron. His architectural vocabulary emerges as a modernity that was direct and continuous with the history of architecture and engineering. He updated the ancestral methods of construction and commissioned the value of each material by the right combination, creating the fair match. [8] 

For Pouillon, contextual architecture was about relating his design with the surroundings by means of visual sentiments, optical illusions, creation of enclaves so that the building has different relations to the inside and outside of the site. By the use of a fine sense of scale and proportions, the facade of Residence Buffalo is divided into two parts. The top three floors are detailed with strong vertical lines so that the bottom half of the facade appears to be the same height as the surroundings, thus creating an illusion to the viewer that the building is not too tall when one tries to relate with the surroundings. Apart from that, Pouillon also recesses some of the blocks into the site where they match the same height as the surrounding buildings. Again this is to achieve the proportions both in terms of plan and height.

".....I have always placed the architectural work in the service of man, mind and social economy. I always thought that respect for the price and quality of buildings could achieve two goals: first to provide access to the luxury of living with more small income, the second to ensure an excellent preservation of neighbourhoods and landscapes that prevent homelessness and the large housing that was mentioned many times in the years ...." [9] 

The most surprising thing in this building is the intimacy of the place, the sensations created by the park, its high walls, courtyards, street and square like atmospheres. These feelings do exist in most of the luxurious royal buildings in Paris, but achieving the same experience in a low cost suburban housing is incredible. One might perceive the noise of the city but what is meant mostly there is silence, the quiet interiority places. [10] It is a world in itself. This comes from what Fernand Pouillon practiced - a work of craftsmanship in the design of this residences.

While Pouillon was more of the romanticist working back on classical orders, the Smithsons' had no intention of getting back to anything close to the historical roots. They where to enterprise in their architecture a specific relation to context that was not anything to do with classism, but introduce "continuity" and "re-generation" in the buildings. [11] They worked on blending their buildings to the surroundings and at the same time coming up with a new brand of architecture. It was an uncompromising approach to develop an architecture that would exploit the low cost and pre-fabricated materials and components on buildings that were specific to their location and purpose. [12] 

These ideals where put forth at the CIAM conference in 1953, where they attacked the ideologies of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius that cities should be zoned into specific areas and that housing should be in widely spaced tall towers on large pastures of landscapes. They found this type of architecture to be lost and without a sense of place. They visualized a more social city with new concepts like "streets in the sky" that produced feelings of belonging and neighborliness.

"..... that (photograph of the Smithsons on the street) set off the idea that the invention of a new house is the invention of a new kind of street. Because the street in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century was where the children were, and where people talked and all that, despite the climate being against it. The street was the arena of life. To perceive that the invention of another sort of house was the invention of another kind of street, of another arena, or maybe not an arena, wasn't-exactly as I was saying about popular arts-a question of saying the street must be revived. It is a matter of thinking what the street did, and what the equivalent of it is if it is no longer necessary, if the street is dead. At CIAM 8 they thought community equalled piazza. Community doesn't equal piazza, and that was another kind of eclecticism." [13] 

(pic.3) [14] The Robin Hood Gardens served well to express this concept of "streets in the air". The architects vociferously argued against the philosophies of breaking down the city into zones of different activities and saw such a planning practice as anti-humanist and abstract, a mistake that created dead space and fearful environments.

".....A space is surrounded by walls, grass, trees, pavings. Everything takes on importance: materials, proportions of openings create the complement of an indispensable harmony. The architect, the urbanist, must think like a sculptor, not like a surveyor who distributes buildings alongside a street." [15] 

Pouillon designed his housing projects with direct reference to cities. He understood the city as a network of public spaces, each public space bearing a different character that could not be explained by clear-cut typologies. A crucial issue for the architect was to establish the right relationship between buildings and public spaces as one defined the other. [16] 

It is clear that both Pouillon and the Smithsons wanted to create humanistic designs. They both believed that the building needs to relate to man and his activities. Pouillon created spaces like squares and plazas that were scaled down to the project dimensions while the Smithsons proposed to bring back the street into design and make it an essential part of their architecture and people's lives.

However forty-five years now, the Robin Hood Gardens has failed. [17] The building is subject to vandalism and the project is regarded a failure in terms of not being to successfully accommodate the program. They are truly rationalist and revolutionary - built with intensions of wanting to contribute to the society by providing housing designs that suggested a way of life. [18] Â But unfortunately, it could not continue to inflict its will upon the people forever. Rousingly curious is that the architects tried to create a world that was never achieved but tried to transport the users there. On the other hand, success to Pouillon could also be attributed to his mere straight-forwardness and simple-direct solutions to design.

If context is further subdivided into the physical surroundings and framework around the site, then both the projects, Robin Hood Gardens and Residence Buffalo fit in very well. In response to the constrained, complex site on the busy highway, the Smithsons designed two long blocks which faced inwards to a central 'stress free-zone'. Pouillon played with the composition using axes of perception using volumes and voids, water features and vegetation to relate the residential complex with the surroundings.

Admitting that both buildings related to the physical context very well, it is the spirit of these housing projects where the Robin Hood gardens failed and the Residence Buffalo succeeded. The spirit of making better houses to make people's lives better, which in turn would make better societies, never really worked in reality for the Robin Hood Gardens. Unfortunately communities are not formed by people living next to each other, but by social bonds built from exchange, shared experience and participation in common practices. [19] Interaction has traditionally not happened at places built for this specific purpose (street in this case), but rather in a space that endeavours to engage a group of people in the architecture not only of their building but also, necessarily, their lives - which is precisely what Pouillon created in the Residence Buffalo. In the design of this residential complex, the squares and plazas are not intentionally created, but they evolve from the composition of the building set up. This made interaction between people happen by "chance" rather that forcing on them a way of life.

But Alison Smithson sees it the other way around. She rather blames it on the nature of the socialist welfare system and not the architecture.

"In "The Violent Consumer", one of the most frank essays on the power and impotence of architects, Alison Smithson focused on the problem of vandalism and management, which in the 1970s was a genuine epidemic that seemed to plague the cities of Great Britain more than those of any other European country......... She referred to the army, the culture of working class neighbourhoods and student college life as examples of clear frameworks in which people knew their place. According to her diagnosis, the West European welfare state and its institutions such as council housing failed precisely on this important point." [20] 

She feels that equality is not necessarily the solution and that people should not be forced to live within the city and be made to struggle for daily life. They should just live outside the city and only deserving people should live in the city. [21] 

4. Conclusion

The context of post war housing might have required to only build houses fast and in large numbers. A major problem for the people, who are in need of social/ affordable housing, is that they often become the unwilling guinea pigs in the stylistic experiments of over-ambitious architects. These untested experiments become watered down by budget restrictions to produce substandard architecture in every sense. Far from being just a blot on the landscape, these buildings go on to plague vulnerable communities for generations. [22] However good the intentions of the Smithsons might have been, the Robin Hood Gardens was a failure. And it was not a failure because of structural defects or bad planning, the problem lies in the roots of the ideology.

On the other hand, Fernand Pouillon was sort an outsider in Modern architecture, absolutely excluded of history manuals. Having a first look at his realisations, there's nothing specially new in his architecture. He might belong to a traditional vision of making housing. However none of other French architects at his time answered as well as he did to the housing crisis in France and North Africa. [23] He made many more houses than others, faster, cheaper, larger, and never ignoring the place he was acting in. Projects he made are nothing more than extremely classical; his projects are an example of the very relative aspect of novelty in architecture.

Are projects like Fernand Pouillon's Residence Buffalo, which are classically wonderful and perfectly fitting in the context, but nothing more than just another housing project more important in the history of architecture or are they projects like Robin Hood Gardens that was supposed to be to the crown jewel in the East End's post-war reconstruction, and its novelty in brutalist architecture even though it had failed to satisfy its users? The debate could go on, but the truth at the moment is - the Robin Hood Gardens is now up for demolition instead of being listed under heritage.

5. Images

Pic.1 :

The building's facade located along the street, la rue Carvès, with a passage into the interior of the residence. The facade clearly depicts the 2 different styles of detailing to create the optical illusion.

Source: From the book - "Fernand Pouillon - Architect"

Pic.2 :

Ariel view of the Robin Hood Gardens depicting the two long blocks of 10 and 7 stories respectively.

Source: From the website - ""

Pic.3 :

The photograph showing Alison and Peter Smithson with Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi sitting in a street.

Source: From the book - "Friends of the Future - A conversation with Peter Smithson"

5. Conclusion


Jacques Lucan; Fernand Pouillon - Architect (Publisher - Picard) January 1st,2003

Alan Powers; Robin-Hood Gardens Re-Vision (Publisher - Paul Huberton Publishing), December 2nd, 2010

Friederike Schneider; Floor Plan Manual (Publisher - Birkhäuser Architecture),April 22nd, 2000

Dirk van den Heuvel; Volume/2009 edition/Public Space (Publisher -Archis)

Fernand Pouillon; Mémoires d'un architecte (Publisher - Seuil), 30th, June 1968

Articles/ Journals

Les Pierres Sauvages de Belcastel Association; Fernand Pouillon - Biography (for the website, September 14th,2007

Beatriz Colomina; Friends of the Future - A conversation with Peter Smithson (Published by the MIT Press), October, 2000

Fernand Pouillon, Letter to Mayor of Creteil, January 9th, 1985

Zeynep Çelik , Urban Forms and Collonial Confrontations (Publisher - University of California Press), 1997

Peter Eisenman, Robin Hood Gardens, Londen E14 (Published in Architectural Design 9), 1972

Dave, The Brutalist Truth (Published in, May 24th, 2009

Jean-François Lejeune; Modern Cities (Publisher - Princeton Architectural Press), 1996

Alison Smithson, Violent Consumer or waiting for the goodies (Published in Architectural Design 5), 1974

Rearrangements, A Smithsons Celebration, Available at:


HLM, Available at:

Council Housing, Available at:

Fernand Pouillon - Biography, Available at:

Peter and Alison Smithson - Biography, Available at:

The Brutalist Truth, Available at:

Robin Hood Gardens up for demolition at

Fernand Pouillon - Achievements in France, Available at: