How To Eat, Sleep And Breathe Brutalism In London

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 10 months ago

Last Updated 30 August 2023

How To Eat, Sleep And Breathe Brutalism In London

Chevrons, chrome and Corpse Revivers more your speed? What you want is How To Eat, Sleep And Breathe Art Deco In London.

The sweeping brutalist curve of the Barbican estate
Brutalist London is begging to be explored. Image: Londonist

Does a slab of gunmetal concrete turn you weak at the knees? We hear you. Brutalist architecture — and plenty of its close cousins — pimple the topography of London like silvery zits. For those who'd like to enjoy the buildings on a deeper level — to eat, drink, laugh, even sleep in them — this is for you.

Get cultured in a brutalist theatre

The National Theatre with pink picnic benches outside
Concrete used with poetry and made with great feeling. Image: Londonist

From the north banks of the Thames, Denys Lasdun's National Theatre beckons across the water, its cement turrets jutting out hither and thither, urging you closer to this brutish pleasure palace. King Charles III once dismissed it as a "nuclear power station", but as Lasdun himself mused "A lot of one's reaction to concrete is prejudice... Here it is used with poetry and made with great feeling." Once you're inside, the poetry is everywhere. Arrive early to run up and down the hunky staircases, admire the concrete-waffle ceilings, and run your fingers along the rough-finish walls. The Olivier auditorium fans out beautifully — no boxes, no bad views, lashings of concrete (don't worry, the chairs are soft and aubergine coloured). Whatever show you've come to see feels like a bonus.

The rest of the Southbank Centre, of course, is one big concrete playground; from the hodgepodge of sprouting mushroom columns and jumbled geometries of the Hayward Gallery, to the graffiti-slathered ramps and columns of the undercroft skatepark, this place is brutalism 101 for any Londoner. The best thing is, you can explore from top to bottom, inside and out.

Splurge in a brutalist shopping centre

The stepped winter gardens of the Brunswick
A shopping centre that you also want to live in. Image: Londonist

Westfield can do one. The only retail outing brutalists should settle for is Bloomsbury's Brunswick Centre. With its stepped winter gardens on concrete stilts looking in on a ceiling-less atrium, you find yourself not just wanting to shop here, but move in. As it happens, the Brunswick has some decent outlets: a Tian Tian Market; a secondhand bookshop where you can inevitably go scrabbling for John Grindrod books. There's also a Curzon cinema — perfect for watching A Clockwork Orange while munching on concrete-flavoured popcorn, or whatever it is you like to do.

Worship in a brutalist church

Entrance to a modern church with the sign: This is the gate of Heaven
The interior really is new brutalist heaven. Photo © Paul Scane

Look, St Paul's in Bow is no Hallgrímskirkja. Didn't say it was. Neither is it the kind of brutalism you might be used to — there are bricks for god's sake. However, can you really resist the legend: THIS IS THE GATE OF HEAVEN stamped across the entrance? Once you step over the threshold, you're inside a new brutalist masterpiece: the altar in the centre, encased in black steel and bathed in light from the diamond-shaped glass above. An angular organ floating in mid air. The font is a nut-shaped hunk of concrete. No matter your religion, you'll fall to your knees with thankfulness.

Get lost in brutalist paradise

Plants spilling over concrete shelves in a tropical conservatory
Brings a new meaning to 'concrete jungle'. Image: Londonist

Every Londoner who's been won over by brutalism remembers their first time at the Barbican: they might've been confused, scared, lost... but eventually, of course, they were hopelessly and irrevocably in love. Like the Southbank complex, this is an assortment box of delicious brutalist morsels: do some freelancing on the concrete mezzanine, explore the world's finest brutalist conservatory (giving new meaning to the phrase 'concrete jungle'), stuff your tote bag with concrete lettering and Stefi Orazi coffee books from the shop. Embark on adventures on the pedways, or watch great orchestras bring down the house. There are also regular architectural tours.

Borrow books from a brutalist library

"It caused quite an impact in the street," said Bridget Cherry, former editor of the Pevsner Architectural guides, of South Norwood's brutalist library, when it opened in 1968. Residents have come to rely on Hugh Lea's Southbank-Centre-in-miniature — a pocket symphony of concrete with lofty ceilings, and floor-to-ceiling glass flooding the place with reading light. Now there are threats to sell it off, the community has clubbed together to say in no uncertain terms: "leave our brutalist library alone, you brutes!". Now, where can I find the Le Corbusier biographies, please?

Go see the animals at a brutalist zoo building

Beautiful copper and concrete angles
Forget the animals, we're on a brutalism safari. Image: Myxi via creative commons

What would you expect to see at the Elephant and Rhinoceros Pavilion? That's right, camels! Although Sir Hugh Casson's brutalist animal pen — its copper fins protruding from the roof, like Kent oast houses gone sci-fi — was originally built to house animals of the trunked variety, camels and bearded pigs now roam about the moated external paddocks of this masterpiece. Tbh, we wouldn't care if all it had to offer was domestic cats — we're here for the brutalism, thanks!

Party at a free festival on a brutalist housing estate

Brutalist high rises illuminated in shocking pink
Thamesmead's brutalist estate is thrust into the limelight every August. Image: Thamesmead Festival

London's brutalist housing estates are wonderful — if only they'd stop knocking the blasted things down. The Alexandra and Ainsworth is still going strong, and a real favourite of ours (plus FYI moments away from the unique Arches Wine Bar). And then there's Thamesmead. Though acolytes of brutalism won't regret a visit any time of the year, we'd suggest saving yourself for August; that's when Thamesmead Festival arrives, with carnival processions, art installations and — most importantly — stunning light shows flaunting the brutalist high rises. OK, the transport's terrible, but if you want to get there badly enough, you'll get there.

Eat in a brutalist restaurant

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Brutalism fans are spoiled with bars; you can sip pints of DEYA in the concrete nook of the National Theatre that is the Understudy, or descend into the grey bunker of delights that is Freud cocktail bar, admiring the splashes of modernist art over a brutally strong martini. To sate your appetite, though, it's got to be Soho eatery Paradise, where hoppers and rotis are devoured on concrete banquettes, or up at the bar — a hefty ingot of concrete we could happily lick clean, were it not for the fact they actually provide plates. The design is heavily influenced by the urban bistros of Colombo and Galle, and dammit, now we have to go there too.

Explore brutalist buildings during Open House

The Trellick Tower looming into the skies
How could you refuse a snoop? Image: Londonist

The lion's share of brutalist buildings are off-limits to the public, but one way around that is by getting backstage access during Open House Weekend (6-17 September 2023). This is your chance to have a snoop around gems like the Trellick Tower and Salters' Hall, although be warned — brutalism is hip as heck, and you will need to book fast.

Sleep in a brutalist hotel

View of the St Pancras clocktower from a rooftop with yellow furniture
Yes yes, we know St Pancras isn't brutalist. Image: The Standard

In 2020, luxury travel publication Forbes picked up on a renaissance in London's brutalist hotels — a newfound desire to pay good money to rest your head in (if not on) great slabs of concrete. At the loftier end of the scale, you could shell out to stay in Richard Seifert's Park Tower hotel (cousin of the iconic One Croydon). Or perhaps squint at the ridiculous gothic St Pancras Renaissance from the Standard — now dolled up with roof terraces, outdoor bathtubs and the like. Or crank it down a notch or two: how about a stay in the Crystal Palace Travelodge: a crude wodge of brutalism that whiffs of 1970s communism (and presumably hundreds of away fans every couple of Saturdays), but which we'd stay in nonetheless. Hit us up, Travelodge.

Buy this brutalist London map

The Brutalist London Map
Image: Blue Crow Media

Yes, there are brutalist tours of London (including the Barbican's mentioned above). But why not also buy your own brutalist London map, so you can conduct your own tours whenever the mood strikes. Which is, presumably, 24/7.