Brutalism is such a loaded word. Though it derives from the French term for “raw concrete”, it has come to be a byword for the kind of post-war architecture that many perceive as hostile: buildings that bullishly disregard their surroundings, great grey blocky beasts that sully the skyline and trample people beneath their giant feet.
Let Slip’s playful, sidelong, slightly cartoonish show is as much about the erosion of an ideal as anything else. The title is drawn for Le Corbusier’s Towards an Architecture in which he describes his vision of a beautifully ordered world. To him, the ‘house-machine’, the mass-production house, was “healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful.” At the Barbican’s 2009 Le Corbusier exhibition, a diagram showed his vision of the ideal urban layout as a series of interconnected hubs each radiating towards the other, rather than a clotted central knot – and it was beautiful.
The Lecoq-trained company are interested in how the precision of his vision for ‘healthy’ houses and his passion for primary forms – the cube, the cylinder, the cone – glinting smoothly in the sun, came to be diluted over time. Roger and Wendy, a pair of young, newly married architects begin with a dream, to create ‘homes fit for heroes’, towers of gleaming concrete inside which every living space is uniform and blissfully efficient. But gradually this dream is chipped away. Cheaper materials are used; window size is reduced, again for reasons of cost; despite Wendy’s reservations, Roger strives to create buildings that are taller and denser for reasons of drama rather than social need.
Once the buildings are completed it soon becomes clear that there are problems with maintenance, damp seeps in and the sheen wears off. The inhabitants also have a habit of being wilful and all too human, of failing to lead efficient, tidy lives within their efficient, tidy apartments; Roger’s ‘friendly’ sky-walks become forbidding places. In the heightened language of the production, the idea of ‘community’ is personified as a beaming, puppyish creature who reflects her surroundings, becoming more feral and aggressive as the tower blocks rise around her. It’s a knowing device, but it syncs with the company’s chosen heightened style. The spirit of Le Corbusier is played as a lip-licking Bond villain while the failure of the brutalist project is starkly illustrated by the body of a woman being dragged across the stage, a trussed tiny figure who, we are told, died alone and unnoticed in her shiny futurist flat.
Christina Hardinge’s simple but striking black-and-white design adds to the production’s Fritz Lang meets Austin Powers aesthetic (there’s a fair bit of ‘groovy’ dancing) and while the company eventually end up oversimplifying the argument about these vertical cities and their failings, the force with which they hurl themselves at their complex subject matter and the idiosyncratic but cohesive world they create is undeniably impressive.