Buildings of Brutalism are beautiful + Medieval graffiti designs expose the past

The concrete buildings of Brutalism are beautiful

EXCERPT: Everybody recognises Brutalist architecture – the massive concrete buildings that thumped their grey bulk into the heart of almost every city on Earth during the course of the 1960s and ’70s. Now they often look unloved: streaked with rain and dirt, remorselessly grey, and lacking any of the pretty, humanising touches of older architecture. Brutalist concrete frequently fulfils the most unglamorous functions: road infrastructure, outdated shopping malls with the worst shops or, at best, the shabbily quotidian teaching buildings of most universities and many schools.

Hardly surprising that many hate the style. The Prince of Wales’s celebrated attacks of the 1980s still resonate with some (he declared that Britain’s National Theatre ‘seems like a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting’), and concrete is seen as cheap, craftless and dreary.

I could not disagree more. I love Brutalism, and am increasingly clear that it is not merely the equal of any other period’s architecture, it is better. There has never been a more remarkable period of architectural achievement.

The exceptional brilliance of 1960s architecture comes partly from technical improvements. In its versatility and strength, reinforced concrete was vastly superior to any earlier building technology, freeing architects to make the shapes they judged most useful and beautiful. It killed off the millennia-long design tyranny of the loadbearing facade – a structurally necessary vertical plane that left architects little more to decide on than where to put the windows and how to decorate them....

Medieval graffiti brings a new understanding of the past

EXCERPT: [...] The problem with our view of the Middle Ages is that it excludes the vast majority of people who lived in it, so it’s a highly partial and misleading picture of that world. Just like today, most medieval people did not belong to top 5 per cent of society, they weren’t kings, princes, knights, or damsels. Most men, women and children were commoners. It is no coincidence that this other, everyday, 95 per cent of the population was the one who did most of the work. [...] These are the people who built the Middle Ages. Yet we really know very little about them.

The voices of medieval commoners are largely silent. The science of archaeology tells us something about their general health, about what they wore, where they lived, and what they ate. [...] Archaeology and isotope analysis cannot tell us what these people felt and thought, what they dreamed of and feared, what they thought was funny or what they held dear.

Most medieval documents come with the same limitations. Occasionally, the lower classes turn up in the odd surviving document, account book or legal proceedings but, with low levels of literacy throughout much of the Middle Ages, these documents are usually the work of third parties. They were written and compiled by the priests, scribes and lawyers of the elite. They refer to the lower orders, but are most certainly not in their own words.

[...] The past five or six years have seen a massive rise in one particular area of medieval studies – an area that has the potential to give back a voice to the silent majority of the medieval population. Specialists have been studying medieval church graffiti for many decades. But new digital imaging technologies, and the recent establishment of numerous volunteer recording programmes, have transformed its scope and implications. [...] The results of that survey have been astonishing. [...] Some of them dated as far back as the 12th century. [...] They are informal. Many of the inscriptions are images rather than text. [...] These newly discovered inscriptions are giving back individual voices to generations of long-dead medieval churchgoers. The inscriptions number in the hundreds of thousands, and they are opening an entire new world of research.

Today, graffiti is seen as both destructive and anti-social. It is widely regarded as vandalism, not as something to be encouraged on ancient monuments and historic sites. That attitude is largely a modern one. Until recent centuries, people of just about every level of society carved graffiti into ancient buildings. It simply wasn’t seen as something to be condemned.

[...] Many of the other images on the walls were born of an agricultural society. We see windmills, horses and geese – fixtures of peasant life. [...] Beasts and dragons are also included in the graffiti. [...] There are images of knights on horseback, heraldry and coats of arms, suggesting that the graffiti was either created by those from the knightly classes, or perhaps those who aspired to be. The walls are full of the peoples’ hopes. They also contain their darkest fears.

Take, for example, angels and demons: the medieval church was awash with images of them. [...] But while the medieval church was formally adorned with angels and demons, when it comes to the graffiti on the walls, there are only demons [...] Why are there no angels? The reason is quite simple. The graffiti on the walls shows only what those who made it thought was real and immediate. Angels were heavenly beings. They littered the pages of the Bible, but could not be expected to play a part in the lives of the people in the world. Demons, on the other hand, were very real indeed. It was demons who were responsible for any sudden illness or unexplained death. Demons brought down a blight upon the harvest crops. Demons unbalanced the mind of the simpleton, and brought on the terrifying storms that could lay waste a whole year’s crop in a single afternoon. Demons were real and to be feared.

[...] One of the most striking types of medieval graffiti is that of medieval ships. These small images are among the best-studied of all the graffiti, and are beginning to shed light on the mystery of exactly why they were made. When the modern surveys began, it was widely presumed that ship graffiti was confined to coastal churches: simple images created by local people of the ships they saw every day. However, research has shown that ship graffiti is found just about anywhere in the country...

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