Brutalism in popular culture.
Written by Craig Berry
Designer & Writer
In the context of popular culture, film and television, brutalist architecture* is often associated with and/or set in a dystopian or utopian future, no matter what year the film was made, from A Clockwork Orange in 1971 to Blade Runner 2049 in 2017, the visual image and aesthetic has remained almost the same.
*Brutalist architecture and the movement of Brutalism is an architectural style which flourished from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. The word is derived from the French word ‘Béton brut’ which translates to ‘raw concrete’ and references the exposed concrete construction as the main component to Brutalist architecture.
“In order to be brutalist, a building has to meet three criteria, namely the clear exhibition of structure, the valuation of materials ‘as found’ and memorability as image.”
Architectural critic Reyner Banham on brutalist architecture.
The inception of brutalism by its forefathers was architecture as a social tool, creating affordable homes for the many; seen as a positive option for forward-thinking, modern urban housing. However, brutalist architecture in film has shaken this image off and has relinquished its role as “the guardian of social balance”; with brutalist architecture is often a big role as headquarters for oppressive regimes and as cold and sterile environments in areas of decay or trouble; an association with poorly maintained brutalist buildings.
Brutalist buildings, particularly in London but not exclusively, are often employed for film and TV locations, music videos and fashion shoots, each time the context and reasoning behind using these kinds of buildings as a backdrop changes. Through a number of examples below, the impact and influence of brutalist architecture can be seen and explored. Why a film or show chose to use this location, what it added to the storyline and if a certain genre of music lends itself to this style of architecture
Stanley Kubrick – A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian crime film adapted, produced, and directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel of the same name. It employs disturbing, violent images to comment on psychiatry, juvenile delinquency, youth gangs, and other social, political, and economic subjects in a dystopian near-future Britain. The Thamesmead Estate is used as a backdrop several times as a way to set the scene of numerous crimes.
Ben Wheatley – High Rise (2015)
High Rise is a dystopian horror film directed by Ben Wheatley and based on the 1975 novel by J.G. Ballard of the same name and set in a luxury tower block during the 1970s. Featuring a wealth of modern conveniences, the building allows its residents to become gradually uninterested in the outside world. The infrastructure begins to fail and tensions between residents become apparent, and the building soon descends into chaos.
E4/Mollie Sean Smith – Misfits (2009–2013)
Misfits is a British science fiction, comedy-drama television show—produced by Channel 4’s E4—about a group of young offenders sentenced to work in a community service programme, where they obtain supernatural powers after a strange electrical storm. The show is filmed in and around the Thamesmead Estate in London, used as a backdrop to show inner-city anti-social behaviour and crime; in a humorous way.
Michael Radford – Nineteen Eighty-Four/1984 (1984)
An adaptation of George Orwell’s novel of the same name, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian science fiction film which follows the life of the main character: a low-ranking civil servant in a war-torn London (ruled by Oceania, a totalitarian superstate) who struggles to maintain his sanity and his grip on reality through the regime’s overwhelming power. Parts of the film are set in a dark and cold, raw concrete environment; encouraging the idea of a dystopian environment.
Mike Hodges – Get Carter (1971)
Get Carter—directed by Mike Hodges—is a film based on Ted Lewis’ 1970 novel Jack’s Return Home. The film’s storyline follows a London gangster who travels back to his home town to discover more about his brother’s supposedly accidental death. Suspecting foul play, he investigates and interrogates, regaining a feel for the city and its hardened-criminal element. Scenes of the film are set in Trinity car park in Gateshead which has since been demolished.
Tom Harper & Shane Meadows – This is England 86 (2010)
A spin-off series from the 2006 This is England film, This is England ’86 focuses on a group of teenagers; specifically interested in the mod revival scene rather than the skinhead subculture as seen in the original film. Parts of the series are set in the Park Hill estate in Sheffield where many gang scenes take place; depicting the estate as a hub of gang violence.
Denis Villenevue – Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Blade Runner 2049 is a American neo-noir science fiction film which is a sequel to the 1982 film Blade Runner. Set thirty years after the first film, Ryan Gosling plays K, a Nexus-9 replicate “blade runner” who uncovers a secret that threatens to destabilize society and the course of civilization. A lot of the film’s architecture and set is based on the brutalist architecture of London but in a futuristic and eery setting.
Joe Cornish – Attack the Block (2011)
Attack the Block is a British science fiction comedy horror film written which centres on a teenage street gang who have to defend themselves from predatory alien invaders on a council estate in South London. This is an example, of many, where a concrete, brutalist estate is used as a backdrop for gang related films; the film poster itself features a huge, dark, monolithic tower-block behind the main characters.
Yann Demange & Jonathan van Tulleken – Top Boy (2011–2013, 2019)
Top Boy is a British television crime drama series set on the fictional Summerhouse housing estate in Hackney, East London, the series follows the lives of a group of people involved in drug dealing and street gangs. Featuring grime artists Kano and Ashley Walters (So Solid Crew), the concrete housing estate is like a character as it is such an imposing part of the series. Top Boy is cited as an accurate representation of estate, gang violence in many UK cities. A new series in 2019 was recently revealed largely thanks to interest from Canadian rapper, Drake.
Matthew Vaughn – Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
Kingsman: The Secret Service is an action spy comedy film based on Dave Gibbons’s and Mark Millar’s comic book series The Secret Service. The film follows the recruitment and training of the main character, into a secret spy organisation. Early in the film, the main character is seen as a stereotypical chav living in the urban environment of London; one scene shows him being chased and doing parkour through the Alexandra Road Estate.
Mathieu Kassovitz – La Haine
La Haine is a 1995 French black-and-white drama film written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz. The film is about three young friends and their struggle to live in the banlieues (French for suburbs) of Paris. Although not strictly a brutalist environment; the banlieues of Paris are filled with high-rise tower blocks and are seen as areas of danger, crime and gang violence.
Stanley Kubrick – Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a 1964 political satire black comedy film which satirises the Cold War fears of a nuclear conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States loosely based on Peter George’s thriller novel Red Alert. Of the main sets, one, the Pentagon War Room, has a brutalist feeling; a concrete-lined brutalist bunker as metaphor for a gigantic bombshell. It has been said that set-designer, Sir Ken Adam, set the tone for today’s negotiation rooms with this, and other, apocalyptic set designs.
Kurt Wimmer – Equilibrium (2002)
Equilibrium is a 2002 American dystopian science-fiction action film written and directed by Kurt Wimmer; it is another example of how Brutalist architecture is often used as a setting for dystopian science-fiction films. The film follows an enforcement officer in a future in which feelings and artistic expression are outlawed and citizens take daily injections of drugs to suppress their emotions. The film is set in grey, concrete, futuristic style city and doesn’t feel too different from Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Gary Ross – The Hunger Games (2012)
The Hunger Games is a 2012 American dystopian science fiction-adventure film based on Suzanne Collins’ 2008 novel of the same name. The story takes place in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future in the nation of Panem, where a boy and a girl from each of the nation’s 12 districts are chosen annually as ‘tributes’ and forced to compete in The Hunger Games, an elaborate televised fight to the death. The capital city of Panem was designed to be set in the future but have its own past and so the designers took inspiration from Brutalism and how power is expressed through this style and its open spaces.
It’s interesting to see that despite its apparent hatred, Brutalist architecture is still being celebrated on screen. Although it’s visible from the above examples that it has been typecast as a setting for either A. crime/gang/city violence films, B. futuristic & dystopian films or C. both. Regardless, the breadth of these films is diverse and far spread enough that each iteration feels like a new angle.
To end on a cynical note, I read an interesting article about “Ultraviolence in Representation” which explores the idea that Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange has damaged the image of the Thamesmead estate “and potentially British modernist housing in general”. It’s interesting to see how its (and possibly more examples shown here) violent depiction on screen has been exploited ever since by people who have no interest in keeping it as social housing for the many. Firstly using it as an excuse to justify an attack against post-war social housing in general and to also to use it’s “edgy history” as a way to sell it off as expensive, private housing for the few.
It’s nothing new and obvious that people who live in these places do not enjoy seeing their homes as a negative crime-ridden cesspit; as such in 2012 residents of London estates have campaigned against producers and film-studios from using their homes as sets. with council’s now enforcing strict guidelines for anyone wanting to film there.
“I don’t want to see any filming on the Aylesbury that portrays violence and all the things that are not right for the estate…We all did welcome them at first because there was funding coming from the film companies…I think that over time time it was the same subjects being used…. violence, drugs and run-down areas, which then portrayed the estate as a hell-hole… film-makers will not be welcome unless somebody comes along with a decent story that doesn’t portray us as ‘hell’s waiting room’ with a negative image.”
Jean Bartlett, London estate resident.