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Architecture review: Hoxton Press towers make us reassess the political legacy of Brutalism

PUBLISHED: 07:00 25 October 2020 | UPDATED: 11:54 26 October 2020

The Hoxton Press towers at the Colville Estate. Picture: David Chipperfield and Karakusevic Carson architects; photographer Simon Menges

The Hoxton Press towers at the Colville Estate. Picture: David Chipperfield and Karakusevic Carson architects; photographer Simon Menges

David Chipperfield and Karakusevic Carson architects; photographer Simon Menges

Gordon Shrigley looks at the “confidently no-nonsense Brutalist” Hoxton Press towers.

The Hoxton Press towers at the Colville Estate. Picture: David Chipperfield and Karakusevic Carson architects; photographer Simon MengesThe Hoxton Press towers at the Colville Estate. Picture: David Chipperfield and Karakusevic Carson architects; photographer Simon Menges

During the 1980s the tower block was rebranded from saviour of the post-war housing shortage to bogeyman, as the political masters of the day sought to associate affordable council housing with all that was bad: unemployment, poverty, teenage pregnancies, drug use and local democracy.

It was certainly true however that throughout the 1970s, cash-strapped councils, due to the long recession of the period, gradually cut back on building repairs, resulting in poorly maintained and sometimes dangerous places.

I still remember clearly the fear of riding in an unlit lift and walking tentatively along pitch-black internal corridors to get to my flat in the Mursell Estate, Stockwell, in the mid 1980s and how this left the clear impression that council housing was being slowly left to rot and that the people who lived there were somehow surplus to the Thatcher revolution.

Nevertheless, buildings on their own do not create social problems and anyone who claims they do, is looking for an easy scapegoat for complex social issues. The Mursell estate, designed by the LLC architect’s department in 1963, is a well-designed and spatially innovative building and the fact that the Mursell Estate, like many others in the 1980’s, had fallen into disrepair was not the fault of the residents or of the local authorities, but to an ideology that sought to denigrate and underfund the achievements of the Welfare State in order to present home ownership, high levels of personal debt and the “free” market as the only way forward, and as a result such buildings were easy prey.

The Hoxton Press towers at the Colville Estate. Picture: David Chipperfield and Karakusevic Carson architects; photographer Simon MengesThe Hoxton Press towers at the Colville Estate. Picture: David Chipperfield and Karakusevic Carson architects; photographer Simon Menges

During this time too exposed concrete Brutalist buildings came to typify above all others, especially for the devotees of the free market, what was wrong with British architecture as it was believed that such concrete monoliths, with their simple and rugged geometric forms, were not just plain ugly, but also somehow distinctly un-British.

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It is intriguing then that in light of this recent social history that Hoxton Press, the two new private residential towers which form part of the regeneration of the Colville Estate, have been expertly designed by the internationally renowned David Chipperfield and Karakusevic Carson architects in a confidently no-nonsense Brutalist manner.

Brutalism has now become fashionable it seems and is considered by some, a highly desirable style.

However, one of the original ideas of Brutalism as claimed famously by architects Alison and Peter Smithson in the late 1950s, was that Brutalism was more an attitude than a style, that seeks to foreground the texture and simplicity of unadorned materials, such as brick, concrete and steel, to create a tough contemporary “poetry”.

This attitude to building materials can be clearly seen within the two Hoxton Press towers, which are both clad in two colours of brick that are attached to the concrete structure. The bricks are manufactured by heating the clay bricks once to create the red colour and then twice to achieve the dark grey tone. This manner of creating colour is distinctly Brutalist in attitude, as the colours simply derive from how clay reacts to heat and not by an attempt to prettify the building by adding colour in a “dishonest” stylistic way.

Hoxton Press towers are modest rough diamonds. Elegant urban monoliths providing high-quality modern apartments, that invite us to re-assess the politically fraught legacy of the tower block and Brutalism in a positive way.


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