Crimes Against Beauty: Brutalism in Derby

What is the city? Is it little more than a concrete jungle of bricks and mortar? An architectural ode to days gone by? The feelings of hands that bore it, writ large? How important is the built-up environment that surrounds us? To some, it may seem like background noise to their busy lives. If buildings could speak, what would they say?  

Would the Grade I listed Cathedral of all Saints speak of grandiose gestures, or prayers written in gold and hung upon the walls like a great bastion of those who came before?  

Would the Quad tell tales of the arts? Would it give lectures on the paranormal? Perhaps it wouldn’t say anything at all. Maybe it prefers the silence of the cinema, chewing popcorn and sipping soda in quiet reverence. 

I wonder then, what would a building made in the brutalist design say? Would it recite sonnets of beauty and grace? Certainly not. Would it regale us with tales of an opulent past? Not likely.  

It has been said many times, in many ways, that artists, be they painters, musicians or yes, architects, design with the aim of conjuring up feelings in the eye of the beholder. With this in mind, if Corbusier had intended to stir feelings of nausea and a deep-seated sense of sadness, then I’d say he did an exemplary job. 

Swiss-French architect and facilitator of dubious-to-say-the-least ideas, Le Corbusier, equally loved and despised for his “contributions”, has often been described as the father of modern architecture. His designs can be seen around the world, from Europe to South America, to even Japan. As of 2016, no less than 17 of his buildings were unironically named UNESCO world heritage sites.  

One such structure, the Legislative Assembly in India resembles something only half-finished and then left to rot. It really is a peculiar and sad state of affairs that the exquisite beauty of the Taj Mahal should have to be compared with what appears to be little more than a sad grey block with a bowl of no doubt festering water and mould attached to it.  

Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art offers its viewers little more than the same form of a sad, grey box, only this time, it’s on stilts. If I were a resident of Tokyo, looking to admire some Western, or art from anywhere ese in the world, I’d certainly be giving this museum of malcontent a wide berth. 

Fortunately for you, dear reader, you don’t have to travel to South America or Japan to sample one of these monuments to misery. No, as luck would have it, there are plenty of Corbusier copycats located right here in our wonderful city of Derby! 

Exhibit A: in the centre ground sits a quaint, mock Tudor house, complete with sash windows and what I think is an attempt at a thatched finish to the roof. Overall, it’s pleasant to look at. Unimposing, you could almost imagine billows of smoke rising from the chimney on a winter’s day. Positioned directly behind it, however, almost stealing the view entirely is a monolith of bricks and mortar, imposing itself unwelcomingly into the frame. Like David and Goliath, the two, juxtaposed, vie for attention. 

Exhibit B: Yet another block on stilts. Officially closed since 2015, St Peters Quarter Hotel stands on its three legs, dark and brooding. It’s easy to imagine how, even when no longer in use, abandoned buildings could once have been beautiful. Sadly, the claustrophobic view of the little windows, packed tightly together and the strange choice of tiling on the bottom right corner make imagining this rather difficult. 

Exhibit C: Lodged snuggly like a thorn between two roses sits another block, but brown in hue, this time. The view of the central library would have made for more preferable viewing, which, ironically, is what would be seen from this angle, were not this curious cube in the way. Still, at the present time of writing, at least there isn’t any mould on it.  

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