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Essays Scots English Architectural History

Britons have been on the move for centuries. In the 17th century, they began to cross the seas and people other continents, seeking both economic opportunities and religious independence. Nonconformist Protestants from East Anglia and the younger sons of the West Country departed to establish colonies in New England and Virginia. Later, following England’s union with Scotland in 1707, southern absentee landowners took control of land along the Anglo-Scottish border. Emigrants driven from the borderlands pushed deeper into the North American continent, including the Appalachian mountains, the American ‘back country’. En route, they often passed first through northern Irish cities.

Meanwhile, new peoples were coming from Europe to Britain. London, a polyglot city, was already home to traders and merchant bankers from across the continent. French Protestants, called Huguenots, fled religious persecution in their home country to settle in London as ‘Strangers’. Practising their trades, they disrupted the economic livelihoods of native, English-born artisans. In short, it was a time of movement of peoples, currents of them, coming and going from near and far.

Rising and contested English political power brought more tumult. The English government’s colonial occupation of Roman Catholic Ireland also continued apace. Through the 16th and 17th centuries, though royal and Parliamentary administrations might have opposed one another, they agreed on the imperative of Irish occupation. In the early 16th century, Henry VIII extended the English legal administration into Wales. There, an Anglicising Welsh gentry taught its children to speak and read English while also intermarrying with the English. Welsh survived, for the time being, in the churches and as spoken among the ‘vulgar’.

During the 1640s and 1650s, Parliamentary and Royalist forces marched up and down Britain and Ireland. Many of these soldiers had never travelled farther from home than their local market towns. When the parliamentary leader Oliver Cromwell triumphed, executed the King, and ensconced himself in London as Lord Protector, many Royalists fled (temporarily) to the continent.

The combination of movement, migration, warfare and flexing English power brought on an identity crisis. Who were the peoples on this great island and who were they becoming? In the modern sense of the term, they were not ‘Britons’. ‘Britons’ referred to the pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain and their latter-day descendants, the Welsh. This group might be expanded to include the Scottish and the Irish. The English counted the Britons among their ancestors, but did not themselves identify as British. Everyone – the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish – saw their homeland as an independent kingdom. Beginning in 1603, James I and his son Charles I attempted to rule over England, Scotland and Ireland as one head over three bodies, only to see their union break down into civil war and rebellion.

An emerging empire offered the beginnings of a possible shared identity. When were the English, Scots, Welsh, Cornish and even some of the Irish most likely to recognise one another as fellow Britons? Never so much as when they together colonised other lands and peoples. Some Britons sought a deeper ‘Britishness’, something from within to transcend local and ethnic divisions and bind them, make them a people.

A loose cadre of gentlemen antiquaries and naturalists took the initiative. Seeking to re-ground Britain, and British identity, in a shared human and natural history, they fanned out across the land. By excavating, surveying and drawing relics, ruins and monasteries, these antiquaries helped to create a history of Britain. They recovered smaller artefacts, too. The coins, weapons, jewellery and household objects collected by the gentlemen antiquaries contributed to Britain’s growing material history.

These antiquaries paid special attention to the United Kingdom’s languages, which philologists organised geographically. With the goal of understanding the history of human settlement in the British Isles and Ireland, they mapped the distributions of placenames, regional vocabularies and pronunciations. Extending their researches into the natural world and deep history, naturalists collected and categorised plants, animals and fossils. They searched for a distinctively British natural landscape. Their pioneering systematic and comparative approach helped to build the foundation for modern archaeology and natural history. From architecture to sculpture, from language to plant and animal species, there was little that escaped their efforts to collect and classify a deep, shared history of Britain.

They explicitly understood their efforts as key to building a British political identity. When in 1660, Charles II was restored to the British throne, the virtuoso naturalist Joshua Childrey took the occasion to clarify the link between geography and people. In his Britannia Baconica, a natural history of England, Scotland and Wales, Childrey declared that the book was not a ‘Telescope, but a Mirror’. He was in other words not finding things, he was showing the people themselves. Or, in his exact words,Britannia Baconica was ‘not about to put a delightful cheat upon you with objects at a great distance’ but was simply a book that ‘shews you your selves’. Britons were the land; the land was Britons. Regional, ethnic, and religious differences faded in light of this underlying truth, or were meant to. The Restoration of Charles II, Childrey assured readers, promised that their deep shared history would triumph over their differences.

How was the gentlemen naturalists’ vision formed? Would it hold together?

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In the summer of 1699, Edward Lhuyd stooped down low and crept into a barrow (an ancient burial site). An antiquary and natural historian, Lhuyd was just outside the Irish town of Drogheda, along the River Boyne, when he stopped to explore the barrow. He crawled across the carved stone lintel and entered a long, narrow passageway. He stood as the ceiling rose above him. His candle guttered, sending flickers of light into the shadow. The rude, uncarved stones that held up the cave were rougher, he thought, than those at Stonehenge. They called to mind the ancient standing stones at Avebury in England. Chambers branched out to his left and right. Peering into them, he saw broad, shallow stone basins, ready to catch holy water, or perhaps blood from a sacrifice. The flagstone across the entry to the cave, as well as the pillars around the basins, were carved with spiral figures, like snakes ‘without distinction of Head and Tail’. Loose stones and elk bones littered the earthen floor.

Lhuyd guessed at the barrow’s age. A gold coin bearing the head of the fourth-century Roman Emperor Valentinian had been found in the turf above. The coin suggested the barrow was ‘ancienter than any invasion of the Ostmans’ (Vikings) who occupied early medieval eastern Ireland. The resemblances between the stone carvings and monuments in England pushed the barrow’s origins into the pre-Roman era. ‘It was,’ Lhuyd wrote, ‘some Place of Sacrifice or Burial of the Ancient Irish.

Lhuyd linked the barrow at Drogheda to stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury. All three, he suggested, were products of an ancient common culture, one that preceded the Vikings and the Romans, and of course the Anglo-Saxons. Lhuyd’s judgment challenged his contemporaries, some of whom still called Stonehenge ‘the Giants’ Dance’. According to a popular myth, Irish giants and British wizards had whizzed the stones that made up Stonehenge from Africa to Ireland and then to Wiltshire. Modern observers – the architect Inigo Jones, for example – credited the monument to the Romans. Jones and most others believed that Ancient Britons were too primitive a people to have accomplished it. The physician Walter Charleton argued it was Viking-built.

each antiquary’s national allegiances shaped his version of Britain

In order to claim Stonehenge for the Britons, Lhuyd and his fellow antiquary John Aubrey surveyed and compared monuments across the British Isles. Aubrey made ‘the Stones give Evidence for themselves’. He taught himself the use of surveying instruments and showed that Jones, using shoddy measurements, had shoehorned Stonehenge into his concept of an ideal Roman temple. By drawing comparisons to Avebury, a stone circle so vast that it encompassed a village, Aubrey discovered a set of regularly spaced holes, now named ‘Aubrey holes’, in a circular perimeter around the monument. Aubrey established that these holes once held additional standing stones. Lhuyd and Aubrey disproved Charleton’s Viking theory, too. Stone circles existed in parts of Britain where the Vikings had never settled. Besides, wrote Aubrey and Lhuyd, pushing down the Vikings to help raise the Britons, the Danes were a band of ‘roving pirates’. They were not capable of any sophisticated architectural effort.

According to the antiquaries’ history of Britain, the national story was one of national union, conquest, colonisation and trade. Ironically, each antiquary’s national allegiances shaped his version of Britain. The publication in 1587 of William Camden’s Britannia, written in Latin, inaugurated efforts to unify England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland through geographical study. Camden was an Englishman. In the 1610 English translation of Britannia, dedicated to James I, the first British monarch to rule over Scotland and England together, he praised the Scots, respectfully apologising that his coverage of Scotland was not as thorough as his coverage of England. Camden was sanguine about Scotland, but he denigrated as barbaric the ‘wild Irish’. According to Camden, the Irish had never known Roman civilisation, and thus were fit only to be conquered by the English. (Never mind that the Romans stopped short of entering Scotland, too.)

Classical heritage – Britain’s Roman history – mattered because it conferred status and authority. Into the 16th century, national lore identified the Britons as descendants of Brutus, a hero of the Trojan War. Medieval historians, inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid, invented Trojan origins for many European countries. Britain got Brutus, Aeneas’s great-grandson. But in the 17th century, the sway of Brutus and Britons’ supposedly Trojan origins was on the decline, victim to early modern antiquaries’ preference for well-attested ancient history over medieval invention.

Leaving Brutus behind, antiquaries sought scientific evidence linking modern Britain to classical civilisation. The English, in establishing what they felt to be their rightful dominance over Britain, placed themselves in a lineage with the Romans, whose territory had been roughly co‑extensive with modern England. Hence Jones’s identification of Stonehenge as a Roman temple, and Camden’s easy denigration of the Irish on the grounds that they had no connection with the Romans.

Other antiquaries sought out comparable classical lineages for the ancient British – and, by extension, their latter-day descendants. Aylett Sammes suggested that the Phoenicians, a sea-going Syrian people, colonised Britain. Sammes believed that a Phoenician colonisation would explain perceived similarities between Welsh, Hebrew and Greek. In this scenario, Phoenician and Hebrew were sisters, while Greek and Welsh were descendants of Phoenician. Lhuyd focused on what he saw as the great and suggestive relationship between Welsh and ancient Greek. He cast the ancient Greeks as the original ‘planters’, or colonisers of the British Isles.

Lhuyd’s vision emphasised solidarity between the peoples that the English marginalised

From 1697 to 1701, Lhuyd, with the company of two to three assistants, walked across Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany. As he travelled, he collected and copied medieval manuscripts, sketched ruins, plants, inscriptions, geological formations and fossils. He dove into coal mines and barrows. He planned a series of volumes outlining comparative Celtic natural history, antiquities and languages. His expeditions into the high and remote places of Britain took him out of touch with colleagues for months at a time. In Wales and Cornwall, people suspected he was a spy or tax collector. In Brittany, officials imprisoned and then expelled him. They imagined that his notebooks contained coded intelligence rather than lists of words in Welsh, Scots and Irish Gaelic, Cornish and Breton. In Scotland, he copied a set of useful Gaelic phrases into his notebook: ‘Did you see Parry today?’ His teenage assistant, David Parry, had a habit of wandering off.

Lhuyd, a Welshman, focused his research on relationships between the Celtic languages. He wanted to establish a linguistic foundation for a common history of the Celtic peoples. Though he wasn’t hostile to the English, he sought to raise the status of the British. Lhuyd’s vision subsumed England into the common Britain and emphasised solidarity between the peoples that the English marginalised. He culled language from living speech, as well as centuries-old manuscripts. Using a student dictionary compiled by his mentor, the botanist John Ray, he prepared a ‘core’ vocabulary list. ‘Core’ word lists are still an important tool in modern historical linguistics. They are words that, due to near-constant use by speakers, change more slowly than specialised vocabulary. Lhuyd transcribed these core words as they were spoken across the Celtic countries. Again, the point was to foreground the affinity of Britons.

Lhuyd moulded the Welsh spelling system into a standardised Celtic phonetic alphabet. His was one of several precursors to the standard International Phonetic Alphabet that linguists use today. He used this system to capture the sounds of native speakers of Welsh, Scots and Irish Gaelic, Cornish and Breton as they spoke the ‘core’ words. It was a way, before audio recording technologies, of studying how spoken language across a wide geographical area actually sounds. Given variations between the languages’ traditional spelling systems, Lhuyd’s standardised spelling made visible linguistic similarities and differences that previously had only been audible. Using his standardised phonetic alphabet, Lhuyd discovered systematic differences between the members of the Celtic language family and separated them into subgroups that are still recognised today. Historical linguists use such regular correspondences to establish the directionality of language change and historical relationships between languages and the people who spoke them. Lhuyd was one of the first to discover such relationships.

Travel, and the postal system, made possible the gentlemen antiquaries’ nation-building research projects. Natural historical and antiquarian research required an ‘active and large correspondence’ that spread across Britain. Through their correspondence, scholars compiled information and compared findings. The process of correspondence also strengthened the ties binding naturalists. Their own books offered their community as a model to the nation: making visible through citation their fraternal enterprise. They were slowly building a case for a broader, common British culture, rooted in history and the land.

In some cases, naturalists and antiquaries funded their work through their correspondents. Their highly illustrated books were expensive to produce. Booksellers, concerned with making a living, were reluctant to take such work on spec.

Lhuyd went one step further, funding his research – his five-year Celtic walking tour – via his correspondents. It was the 17th-century version of crowdfunding. He asked friends, friends of friends and relatives-of-friends to support his project by pledging annual amounts over five years. He shuttled stacks of printed proposals to his contacts, who distributed them further among their acquaintance. His correspondents assisted him in sealing the deal with written commitments, collecting signatures confirming donors’ annual pledge amounts. He applied social pressure, informing potential contributors how their most generous neighbours had pledged. Thus the funded research trip was born, in service of British nation-building.

Again working through his correspondents, Lhuyd distributed some 4,000 copies of a standardised natural historical and antiquarian questionnaire. It asked subscribers to help him to identify significant archaeological remains, manuscripts, fossils, coins, and plants and animals across Britain. Around 150 replies survive. One Pembrokeshire respondent noted that there had once been ‘a large British Manuscript History’ in the neighbourhood. Some 50 years earlier, however, Cromwellian ‘Round-Heads’ – religious independents – had destroyed it. Convinced that any piece of writing they did not understand must be ‘Popery’, these Protestants ‘adjudged all to the fire’. To Lhuyd, it was such ‘mistaken zeal’ that, mid-century, drove Britons to war with each other.

the antiquaries and naturalists also elevated folk culture, and folk knowledge

Naturalists and antiquaries also grounded Britain, and Britishness, in economic union. Though he didn’t necessarily agree with Sammes that the Phoenicians colonised Britain, Robert Sibbald, a Scottish antiquary, suggested that Britain’s very name came from the Phoenician word for ‘tin’, a commodity for which Britain was known since pre-Christian days. As he travelled the Celtic countries, Lhuyd alerted his correspondents to products and technologies that might find buyers or investors in England. He promoted, for example, a new machine for rolling sheet iron. It produced thin, strong sheets suitable for ‘Furnaces, Pots, Kettles, Sauce-Pans’, and other iron goods, and at a saving.

In Britannia Baconica, Childrey added another layer to the argument that a shared consumer economy wove together Britons’ lives. Gloucestershire was a centre for the manufacture of scarlet cloth, for example, because Gloucestershire’s water was particularly suited to the chemistry of dying. Leicestershire produced the highest-quality limestone. Suffolk produced butter and cheese in great quantities, but Cheshire produced the best cheese.

Importantly, the antiquaries and naturalists also elevated folk culture, and folk knowledge. Some scholars might have despised them as superstition, but others gave the ways of the people standing within their visions of Britain. The one book Aubrey published, for example, was a collection of British folk beliefs. Lhuyd asked his correspondents to read his research questionnaire out loud to illiterate Welsh-speakers, especially miners and shepherds. He trusted that their knowledge of the landscape, of the mountains and the mines, was superior to that of most gentlemen.

Many nation-building antiquaries and naturalists looked to nature, economics and archaeology in order to lead Britons away from political and religious conflict. Of course, none of them was impartial. Lhuyd, the son of a Welsh gentleman, campaigned fiercely for a Britishness that honoured the Celtic, and especially the Welsh, element. The English Camden praised the Scots while despising the Irish. Childrey skimped on coverage of the former while ignoring the latter.

Even insofar as the gentlemen antiquaries could deal impartially across England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, they could accomplish only so much. When Lhuyd crawled back out of the barrow, blinking his eyes in the drizzly Irish daylight, he walked on through a landscape scarred by battle, overlaid with movements and migrations, ancient and recent, forced and peaceable. Just 10 years earlier, the armies of the Roman Catholic King James II and the Protestant William III faced off across the Boyne River, not far from Drogheda. English elites, unwilling to risk Britain’s return to Roman Catholicism, had invited William, a Dutch military leader, into their country to help them chase out James. William won the Battle of the Boyne, but James’s heirs regularly invaded Britain via Scotland through the mid-18th century, seeking to reclaim their throne.

Forty years before James II and William III’s armies faced off along the Boyne, the Protestant revolutionary Oliver Cromwell brought his army to Ireland. They besieged the Royalist garrison at Drogheda, breaking through its six-foot-thick walls in a day. No quarter was given. Many of the dead were English soldiers, but reports circulated that Cromwell’s army indiscriminately murdered men, women and children. To this day, Drogheda is an Irish Catholic byword for English atrocities. Lhuyd walked on bloody ground. As much as he might have wished it, religious and political zeal were not things of the past.

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Elizabeth Yale

is an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa and the author of Sociable Knowledge: Natural History and the Nation in Early Modern Britain (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

MY badge arrived in the post late last year. A Christmas present from a friend. A little lozenge of metal with the one-word legend, "Brutalist." Of all the Christmas presents I received it might be my favourite.

Is it OK to say you like brutalist architecture yet? To suggest that you rather enjoy intimidating concrete, that you can see a beauty in its big and beefy bulk? To argue that the South Bank in London, or maybe even Paisley Civic Centre, is an eyeful rather than an eyesore?

Well, maybe. Next month sees the publication of architectural historian Barnabas Calder's book Raw Concrete, which outlines the author's conversion to the beauty of brutalism as well as telling the story of the rise and fall of the architectural movement. It comes hard on the heels of Christopher Beanland's similar book, Concrete Concept.

Meanwhile, in less than a fortnight, this year's Scottish Festival of Architecture will launch with the Hinterland event on the site of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia's ruined modernist Roman Catholic seminary building near Cardross designed by architects Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan, both of whom have died in recent years. There are also plans to reopen the building in 2018. Oh and you can pick up a magazine, The Modernist, that does a very nice sideline in badges.

In short, after decades in which brutalism and post-war architecture have been the subjects of aesthetic distaste and at times a vehicle for social demonisation, things may be opening up for a more nuanced debate.

Brutalism is, as the author Christopher Beanland has suggested, "architecture on heat". Or maybe we could call it modernism on drugs. Coined from the French word "brut", meaning raw, it is certainly the style that most obviously characterises post-war architecture; a style of grand, sometimes overbearing, sometimes just plain weird, structural gestures. Think of the scalloped edges of the Marina Centre in Chicago or the way the Barbican estate in London greets the eye with alternating curves and arcs and angular sharpness. It's also the architecture of public space – in the 1950s and 1960s brutalist galleries, museums, libraries, hospitals, universities and schools and of course, most notably and often notoriously high rises were built all over the country.

For some, they remain ugly and that's fine. Not everyone is going to like them. Maybe brutalist buildings will always remain a minority taste. (Though we don't seem to mind intimidating buildings when they're medieval. Think of Edinburgh Castle.)

But at a time when many of these buildings are being pulled to the ground, the current revival of interest is at least an opportunity for re-evaluation. Not just in aesthetic terms but in social-historical ones as well. Because it allows us to look back at an era in architectural history that, yes, was often hugely flawed but was also hugely ambitious. And it's a story that is also at heart political. It's a story, too, that has been told largely by detractors.

In the run-up to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, the organisers had what you might describe as a rush of blood to the head. For the opening ceremony, they said, we're going to blow up the Red Road Flats live on telly. The plan was to demolish five of the six blocks (the sixth still having occupants at the time). It would, Glasgow 2014 suggested, be an "unforgettable statement of how Glasgow is confidently embracing the future and changing for the better".

The plan, of course, lasted just over a week before, faced with huge public disapproval, the idea was dropped over "safety concerns".

Perhaps because they were so dumbfounded by the baw-heided crassness of the idea, few people pointed out that there had been a time when the Red Road Flats themselves had been a statement of the future for Glasgow. Designed by the architect Sam Bunton and built in the mid-1960s,he tower blocks were for a time the tallest residential structures in Europe. In the post-war years, Glasgow, more than any other city in the UK, was embracing the high rise as an opportunity to provide new and better housing for its citizens.

But those utopian ideals have long been boarded up in the mainstream narrative about post-war architecture. That narrative is still at work even now. It is still the stuff of horror films (Attack The Block and the forthcoming High-Rise) and scare speeches by the Prime Minister. (In January David Cameron railed against "brutal high-rise towers" and promised to tear them down. It emerged last week that the promised £140m fund to achieve that was no more than a loan to private developers.)

The anti-brutalist narrative is now so familiar it hardly needs restating, but it goes like this: in the 1950s and 1960s, architects took it upon themselves to build social housing and public utilities in a style that was overbearing and ugly and didn't work. High rises were damp, badly built and perfect havens for drug dealers and anti-social tenants. In short it was homes fit for zeroes.

And so it's no surprise that many of the buildings that towered over our towns and cities in the post-war years have been, or are in the process of being, demolished. The Red Road Flats were finally brought down last October, five years after the Trinity car park in Gateshead – made famous for its appearance in the Michael Caine thriller Get Carter – was flattened. (Caine has quite a brutalist cinematic CV. His 2009 thriller Harry Brown was filmed on London's notorious Heygate estate, a concrete development built in 1974 which has since been demolished. Caine was outspokenly in favour of pulling it down.)

Arguments, meanwhile, have raged for years over the future of such distinctive (beautiful/horrible; the choice is yours) structures as Preston Bus Station, with its striking curved concrete fins piled up like a stack of razor clams. Destruction is the inevitable conclusion of this particular architectural narrative.

And yet. And yet. There is a counter-narrative developing. As well as the books and exhibitions, last autumn saw the National Trust run "brutal utopias" tours in Sheffield, London and East Anglia. More cogently, developers Urban Splash have been refurbishing flats in the Park Hill estate in Sheffield, the largest listed structure in Europe, while Ernst Golfinger's Balfron Tower in London is currently being turned into luxury flats. The interest in these properties is, for want of a better word, concrete. How does that fit in with the "monstrous carbuncle" theory of brutalism?

Rather, it speaks to another story of brutalism. The one that argues that the story of public building in the wake of the war is the story of possibility. It was a time of cheap materials, cheap energy and lofty ambitions. "It's a period when things got better than they'd ever been before for creating buildings," suggests Barnabas Calder when I speak to him. "Suddenly you could do things on a scale that only the incredibly rich or the incredibly powerful could do before."

That was allied to a wholesale recognition that social housing after the war was a huge issue for Britain. War damage, housing shortages and a desire to tackle the blight of poverty meant even Conservative governments embraced the idea of slum clearance. At the same time, architects were embracing new European architectural ideas inspired by Le Corbusier and were suddenly interested in making big structural gestures. Ambition and need were fused.

"In high rise housing, Glasgow sees possibly the most extreme embracing of it anywhere in the world, certainly in the non-communist world," suggests Calder. He cites councillor David Gibson – the city's housing convenor in the 1960s – as a prime mover. "He had this really passionate conviction that the conditions of the slums in Glasgow at the time were so disgusting that no human being ought to tolerate them. He therefore spent his weekends pacing around Glasgow looking for sites and his weeks pushing through committees the funding and development of many, many high-rise blocks, most of which have now gone again through the extraordinary policy swings of the Glasgow Housing Association."

Glasgow's housing policy was an example of a high-minded socialism, almost self-consciously heroic, Calder suggests. But it's reductive to suggest brutalism was first and foremost a political statement, he adds. It was as much about novelty. We forget that things we now take for granted – central heating, lifts – were once hugely novel. You didn't have to be a card-carrying member of the Labour Party to think it was worth building homes that incorporated these "luxuries".

Furthermore, Calder argues, it's not as if there were no commercial iterations of brutalism. Richard Sieffert's design for Glasgow's Anderston Centre is the classic example, he says. "Sieffert churned out literally thousands of such projects up and down the country and indeed worldwide."

Inevitably, the results didn't always match the vaulting ambition. The Red Road Flats are an example. Alison Irvine, author of This Road Is Red, has interviewed many of the residents dating back to the 1960s and she concludes that the buildings ultimately failed on practicalities. The lifts were too small, there were problems with damp and concerns over asbestos in the walls. "They were well intentioned," Irvine suggests. "But I don't think they worked."

Utopian principles need to be matched by real-life practicalities. But to be fair that did happen in many locations. "These buildings all had very different stories," argues John Grindrod, the author of Concretopia, the pioneering 2013 study of post-war British architecture. "Some buildings were shockingly badly constructed, chucked up very quickly and there was a lot of greed and fast money being made. You also got some very experimental buildings where people overreached themselves with the technology that was available at the time.

"Basil Spence's flats in the Gorbals were a classic example of that; a fantastic, super-modern design that was really too modern. It couldn't actually be built at the time."

But there were plenty of others that were well thought out and well built and, Grindrod contends, "that stuff has tended to last".

It was the bad buildings that dominated the public view, most notoriously in 1968 when a gas explosion caused the partial collapse of Ronan Point – a 22-storey tower block in Newham, East London – killing three people (two more would die of their injuries).

Things would get worse. By the late 1970s and on to the present day, high rises began to be portrayed as sites of urban breakdown. This was a conflation of the buildings and wider social problems. Not all of that should be laid at the door of architects however. In the 1970s the economic downturn meant maintenance budgets were slashed while wider social problems such as rising unemployment and the influx of cheap heroin in the 1980s transformed council estates and high rises for the worse, a problem that critics contrived to blame on the buildings. (Cameron is still doing it.)

And yet that is not the whole story. All the while people lived lives in these new towns and high rises. They got married and raised families. It's fair to say, as Christopher Beanland points out, that Gregory's Girl is just as viable a vision of post-war architecture as High-Rise: "Cumbernauld is a very odd place but you see these very normal, sweet lives being played out. So it doesn't just have to be a dystopian reality."

If anything, the utopian narrative is the one that seems to be on the rise. Why? It's partly architectural fashion. What goes around comes around even in architecture. It just takes rather longer. But more than that it's a form of nostalgia for a time when architects and planners thought big.

"We've got a younger generation of people who are very interested in it and I think a lot of that is tied up with ideas of the welfare state and social justice and housing for all," suggests John Grindrod. "It's no wonder that young people are looking at this period in the 1950s and 1960s and are very interested in the fact that people felt like they could do enormous things and now people feel like they can't do anything. The only things that get done now are if you are a rich person.

"I think there's a massive interest in this because people are amazed to think that this ever happened. Because it's so alien to us now."

Does that mean those of us who wear our brutalist badges are yearning for a future that has already passed into history? Of course. But you can still yearn for what you haven't got.

Today we are knocking down libraries and building gated communities. We are replacing blocky and – yes sometimes overpowering – concrete with glass and steel moneyed anonymity. We are not building for working-class people any more, but we are building for the one-per-centers. Or we are reclaiming the brutalist architecture for them. Social housing tenants in Goldfringer's Balfron Tower were decanted in 2010. Last spring it was announced that there would be no social housing provision in the tower after all.

The utopian vision of brutalism and post-war architecture is just that; utopian. Like an estate agent it glosses over the cracks in the façade. And there were many. But look at where we are now, with a housing crisis, bland anonymous new architecture and the upwardly mobile moving into homes once designed for working-class people. For all its flaws, brutalism was a style meant for people. Today, iconic architecture is meant for the wealthy. (Think of the City of London; think of the Shard.)

Is it really going too far, then, to suggest we have lost something in the years between?

Christopher Beanland will be speaking at the Aye Write! Festival on Saturday, March 12 at midday. His new book Concrete Concept: Brutalist buildings around the world (Frances Lincoln, £20) is out now. Barnabas Calder's Raw Concrete will be published by William Heinemann on April 21.