A Meanjin moment

I’m itching to write about my recent visit to Le Corbusier’s Couvent de la Tourette but in the meantime, click on the link below to read my recent essay on concrete, Brutalism, and the importance of preserving good architecture of all types:

A sunbeam in the concrete jungle.

While you’re there, check out the other content. Meanjin is one of Australia’s best literary magazines, edited by Jonathan Green and published by Melbourne University Publishing. It’s the printed equivalent of visiting a really good bookshop – something for everyone – and I was very grateful to be included in its Winter 2018 edition.

But for those hanging out for La Tourette, here’s a teaser…

Categories: Architecture, Design, Other, WritingTags: , , , , , , ,


  1. I’m partial to a nice bit of concrete but sometimes the brutalist parts of Canberra feel a bit too Soviet, and even more so when you think of all the government workers inside. What an amazing university you went to! I do so agree about the cosines of concrete. While not brutalist, the apartments in the Nishi building here are lovely concrete cocoons. And Hallgrimskirkja (spelling?!) in Reykjavik is a very soothing concrete-y space. Thanks for an inspiring read.

    • Thank you, glad you enjoyed it. Yes, UEA was a very inspiring place to be based for three years, although oddly enough we never actually studied it during our architecture courses (too soon, I suspect). I’m totally with you on the Iceland church. And even with Nishi, it’s a matter of sculptural qualities being present – which Brutalism did so well, too, of course, forcing an emotional responses (even negative ones). I was lucky enough to interview John Andrews for the State Archive and hear his thoughts on the offices he designed at Belconnen, now sadly depleted, and it was very inspiring – the deep thought going into creating space, light, individuality… But still switch off when they just see concrete. that will change, I’m certain of it.

  2. Gosh, what a fabulous essay … and how wonderful for you to be invited to expound on, dare I say, your 2nd favourite topic (Corb being your 1st).
    I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot. There were also a lot of memories jogged for me – UEA, Firenze. Certainly at UEA the students considered to have lucked out were the ones like you in the Ziggerats. And I had never thought of the architectural clash of going from Lasdun to Foster, but now you mention it, it was a terrific contrast.
    Now to Brutalism. You, of course, have educated me in its beauty. When I used to teach about British architecture, I tried and tried to convert people to Brutalism. I used to explain how versatile it was because it could be moulded into any shape, that it had been going before the Romans, that the Romans used to build 5 storey apartment buildings with it. I of course showed photos of UEA, but also of my father’s Crucible theatre in Sheffield, which was so revolutionary at the time with its thrust stage. But all to no avail.
    So carry on the good work. I’m sure this wonderful essay will convert a few!

    • I suspect Brutalism is a little like meat-eaters who don’t approve of vegetarianism and are then surprised when they’re told they’ve just eaten and enjoyed a meat-free meal. Or something. It’s certainly a process. I was fearful that I wouldn’t like La Tourette because it’s so rough and basic and yet… well, more on that later. Thanks for your lovely enthusiasm. I certainly enjoyed reflecting on what had brought me to this point, and the memory of being drawn first to UEA’s ziggurats and then being told at the interview to take a peek at the new building at the end where the faculty was about to move will never leave me. Just like the friendship I found there, of course.

  3. Never thought about it before but there certainly are some “interesting” designs when it comes to the red brick universities in the UK, speaking as one who enjoyed the Scottish Gothic style of architecture at St. Andrews. Whether it was more or less conducive to learning is certainly open to debate.
    2 questions, unrelated
    What do you think of the Heidi Weber controversy in Zurich?
    What do you think of Safdie’s Habitat 67?

    • Interesting to ponder, isn’t it. I think the grand reading rooms of various libraries do have an effect, too, if only to cow one into thinking learning is a Very Big Deal (or is that just me?). Interesting questions – the Heidi Weber thing seems incomprehensible to me, totally unethical, and if it is payback for being outspoken then surely she will have enough supporters to at least force Zurich to reconsider its actions. And of course I like Habitat 67, although I’ve never been. Looks to be successful still. Safdie’s architecture continues to astound, too, with his love for shapes and connections. What are your thoughts?

      • Well, the gnomes of Zurich have spoken. If it is in fact their mean-spirited revenge on a 91 year-old feminist one can hardly imagine it be sweet, though public outrage seems strangely muted; perhaps unsurprising in a country that only grudgingly gave women the right to vote in 1971. Wonder what Corb would have to say about it all.
        My feelings about Habitat 67 are, I realize, partly emotional – rosy memories of the halcyon 60’s,seen in the rearview mirror. A time of great optimism where anything was possible and our reimagined city living spaces would reflect that. We were going to remake the world. Every time I see it referred to as a failed dream I cringe – and maintain that is not the reality. I have visited frequently and would still kill to live there half a century later (yikes!), notwithstanding past moisture and mold problems. After all, where else can you live next door to Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome, fittingly repurposed. No clue then about Metabolism, Corbusier’s influence, kibbutzism etc., just knew that in fleeing the stark post-war architecture of the UK with its fortress-like multistorey housing, it really did seem that we had come to a “Brave New World” and Habitat 67 looked like Nirvana to our young selves. C’est ca.

      • Beautifully put. I have a similar reaction to Corb’s various unite d’habitations, when people say they’re inhuman in scale, ugly, etc and I only ever see their success. Frankly, given the money, I’d buy an apartment in the Marseille building at the drop of a hat. The big question is which type and on what floor… But I’ll happily do a swap with yours in Habitat 67 for holidays.

  4. It’s a deal! I buy the Montreal one with the timber staircase and views of the St. Lawrence and you buy the Cite Radieuse one with the (sigh) double height living room and views over Marseilles to the sea. Mine costs a very reasonable $710,000Can and your bill is 598,000Euro but who’s counting? I have a ticket to the Billion $ US lottery. If I win……….

  5. Love the analogy of the meat eater having veggie food (it’s perfect), and I do think that brutalist buildings are often unappreciated solely because of their timing. Your article is fab, and you’ve used great examples to make your point. Thanks for sharing this

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