In any epoch most of what is built is mediocre, though we may not realise it at the time because our neophilia persuades us of merit where there is none. Equally, we may fail to distinguish the few exceptions — those instances where architects and builders have ascended to a higher standard of mediocrity or have even escaped its dulling clasp. It takes time for public taste to catch up with architects’ taste. Today, 40 years after brutalism dissipated in an assault of bien-pensant hostility and oil crises, few weeks pass without a new book or blog hymning its sublimity, energy and gravity. It is, of course, all a bit late. Much of the finest work has already been destroyed.
It will, no doubt, soon be the turn of postmodern buildings to feel the rough buss of the wrecker’s ball. Many are, after all, more than 30 years old — that is to say that by current standards they are in their dotage. The Twentieth Century Society has worked tirelessly to protect unsung concrete tours de force. It is now attempting to get its retaliation in first by holding a conference that will draw attention to the best of postmodernism and to the threat it faces from philistine local councillors, vandal developers, their chums in the demolition community and, of course, architects — for whom a pile of not very old rubble is a site to build on. Best of postmodernism: is that an oxymoron? I think not. Few ages produce nothing of note and the two decades between the resignation of Harold Wilson and the advent of New Labour are no exception.
Late modernism, of which brutalism was merely the most extreme strain, was far from homogeneous but it was, in all its versions, infected with high seriousness, even earnestness, and it had become the architecture of the establishment: hospitals, the new universities, Vatican II churches.