BRUTALISM - AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID RUSSELL
The jazz was wonderful, the sunshine outside just fading. It was the perfect evening at the Cambridge University Centre – right next to the mill -pond and surrounded by a picture postcard green scene. Since it was constructed in the 1970s by Bill Howell who went on to become the Professor of Architecture at Cambridge University, nothing but scorn has fallen on this large concrete haven for graduates. But it is such a delight to be inside it, I wanted to know more about that architectural movement they call Brutalism.
Luckily, architect David Russell was in town. He is preparing a book for the RIBA to include work with the Big Beast of Brutalism, Denys Lasdun - in reality a charming, man with a sensitive aesthetic.
“Brutalism began in the 50s in a world shattered by war. When I went to see the Festival of Britain with my father in 1951 I was bowled over by the amazing achievements architecture had brought to Bankrupt Britain. The Skylon, the Festival Hall , the National Theatre all the art and the sculpture there all spoke of a New Society. The ideas of the Bauhaus, the new universities, the Modernism of the time were all exhilarating. They pointed to a future free of war, a future of hope
It was then and there I decided I wanted to be an Architect.
‘Brutalism was the central party of the project. It was all we had to go on for a start, there were few bricks but plentiful concrete and brilliant ideas to revive architecture for a Britain shattered by conflict. The London County Council had their own architecture department – and a special Section for Experimental Ideas. From it emerged Peter and Alison Smithson and their modernist housing projects. Schools of architecture taught art-drawing was required: colour and design, as well as technical drawing were, as decreed by the Bauhaus school of pre-war Germany, all part of the architect’s education.”
David Russell graduated in 1959. He had to do two years of National Service, and was enthusiastic for the amazing projects of restoration and renewal in recovering Britain. He soon became engaged with the work of celebrated Brutalist architect Denys Lasdun and helped build the University of East Anglia and Christ’s College new wing, amongst other projects.
In 1966 he had the scent of adventure in his restless soul and joined a bus trip to Katmandu.
‘It was a revelation to drive through Turkey Iraq Iran, Pakistan and India and see Brutalism and its influence in all these places. On the trip the driver becaem exhausted and asked if anyone on the bus was qualified to take over a heavy vehicle’. David’s time in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces came in useful. He had driven tanks so a bus was small fry. He took over the wheel and then made several trips back and forth to Britain . Finally he moved East, married a Thai architect he met there and then took up a post in Hong Kong where Chinese Fung Shui influenced his work. Today he deeply deplores the collapse of the Brutalist ethic and the dreams of the future that it stood for. Living in the East, Thailand and then Hong Kong, David Russell synthesized an approach to Brutalism to incorporate the aesthetics of the different cultures.
In Hong Kong he hosted Peter Smithson, author of the Econonist Building in St. James London as well as a famous controversial social housing estate near the Blackwall Tunnel - and later Denys Lasdun - both became intrigued by the influence of Eastern designs on Brutalism.
“I was quite fearful to mention my own interst in the fine art of Eastern Feng Shui to Denys” recalls David Russell.” We were about to collaborate on a competition to build a University in Hong Kong and one afternoon, went out to view the site togegther. When we got there, Denys settled himself on the verandah of an old pagoda and told me he was going to do some sketching - and that I was to get on and measure the boundaries . When I returned I saw he had finished a whole pile of lovely sketches and he explained to me what he saw from his look out ‘There is the foreground of the gardens in the near distance the trees , then hills coming together in the middle ground , then in the distance Kowloon and the sea with its Chinese islands. Earth Water Sky. ’ With his fine sensitive mind, he had grasped the entire scope of the elements of Feng Shui in one intuive hour of study and sketch. Denys was first and foremost an architect of the landscape and environment. We came second in the competition. but it was a great experience”
In his forthcoming book he will explore the dual complementary themes, Modernism and Architectural Education. And Brutalism, a movement of exciting possibilities and social significance David Russell fears is eclipsed in the commercial world of today.
“ In 1970, 20% of all buildings were designed by architects. Today only 10% and those rarely adventurous or socially minded. Architects are reduced to designers and stylists of the Property Developers”
‘‘Today the book I am preparing'- and my mission - is based on the education some 65 years ago in post-war Britain, that resulted in what we call 'Brutalism and how its language developed and then, in my case, how this language spread to other parts of the world and changed due to the influences of a different culture, climate, history’
Brutalism had so much to offer. It envisaged a more equal society than the one emerging today, it celebrated the freedom for all to enjoy the fruits of the very best of architecture. David Russell is a fine advocate of what still survives of its influence ( Park Hill Flats in Sheffield, the Graduate Centre Cambridge, The National Theatre London) and hopes that the education and thinking that inspired it can be properly recognized.