Simon Phipps’ new book showcases the bold and often overlooked legacy of brutalist architecture in Wales, writes Wayne Forster


According to the Twentieth Century Society, later twentieth-century architecture in Wales, particularly for the forty-year period following the Second World War, does not attract widespread public appreciation or admiration – in fact, there is a popular notion that in terms of post-war architecture, Wales is a wilderness. But this is far from the truth, because the country has a rich heritage of modern buildings and structures designed by architects engaged in the same wider currents and discourse as the rest of Europe. This includes the movement labelled “brutalism”.

Brutalism is the term widely used to describe much of what was often the biggest and boldest in modern architecture, including some of the most forward looking buildings, constructed on a scale and with an ambition unlikely to be repeated. As Elaine Harwood noted “perhaps no other architecture is so distinctive and defines so short a period”. Simon Phipps’ Brutal Wales reveals that Wales is surprisingly well represented when it comes to brutalism.

Reyner Banham felt the phrase “the new brutalism” existed as both an attitude toward design, as well as a descriptive label for the architecture itself, and that it “eludes precise description, while remaining a living force”. He attempted to codify the movement in systematic language, insisting that a brutalist structure must satisfy the following terms: “1, Formal legibility of plan; 2, clear exhibition of structure, and 3, valuation of materials for their inherent qualities ‘as found’.” Also crucial was the aesthetic “image”, or “coherence of the building as a visual entity”.

64 buildings or structures are chosen to represent the genre in this book, although Phipps does not bind himself to the narrower definition of a brutalist aesthetic and selects from a broader repertoire of post war architecture in Wales. These include buildings by architects such as Basil Spence, known for their enthusiasm for brutalism.


Source: Simon Phipps

Bell Tower (La Campanile), Aberystwyth University, by Percy Thomas Partnership

Phipps’ photographic technique (perhaps informed by his background in sculpture) is well suited to its subject. The black and white digital photographs focus on imageability, structural tectonics, materiality and surface texture, and underline the defiant boldness of the genre. The medium and technique favours and promotes an abstracted vision befitting brutalism. But, as each building is celebrated generally with one image, only some of the qualities of the architecture can be communicated in the photograph. It is a form of representation where built reality, spatial qualities, place and inhabitation are necessarily sacrificed.


Source: Simon Phipps

Brambell Building, Bangor University, by Sir Percy Thomas & Partners

However, introductory and concluding essays help put the whole in context, and altogether, this volume is a valuable record of the rich legacy of buildings and structures from this period in Wales. The book not only includes buildings by well known exponents of brutalist architecture, such as Gollins Melvin Ward and Seymour Harris, but also introduces lesser known gems such as the theatre at Harlech by Colwyn Foulkes, perhaps the apogee of brutalism in Wales, as well as the Blackwood branch library and Fairwater district shopping precinct in Cwmbran.

Following decades of demonisation and antagonism, a recent proliferation of books such as those by Barnabas Calder, Elain Harwood, John Grindrod and Phipps himself, plus the evangelical work of Jonathan Meades, have pointed toward a growing interest in and admiration for brutalist architecture. But, with one or two exceptions, brutalist architecture in Wales remained invisible. Similarly the number of buildings and structures that are listed can be counted on the fingers of one hand.


Source: Simon Phipps

County Hall, Mold, by Robert Harvey

It is likely that this book will open eyes and minds to a rich and distinctive period of architecture in Wales, during which a raft of buildings and structures were made that often celebrated a confident, optimistic and creative continuum of a shared social democracy. It is a phenomenon to be embraced and celebrated, not rejected.

As Simon Henley has noted, brutalism is not a style. It is a sensibility. The celebration of this architectural legacy in Wales is well deserved, if somewhat overdue.

>> Also read: Brutalist Britain by Elain Harwood