Nasty, Brutish & Tall: The Utilisation & Representation of Brutalist Architecture in British Cinema Post 1970

  • Jonathan Smith

Student thesis: Phd


Brutalism, the post-war Modernist architectural trend centred on rough-hewn, monumental concrete structures and often seen as the architecture of the Welfare State, is one of the most significant architectural movements in twentieth-century Britain. Despite suffering from a pervasive narrative of failure and widespread derision since the style fell out of fashion during the late 1970s and 1980s, Brutalism has again become a source of cultural fascination over the past fifteen years. This revival has been multifaceted in its scope, yet there has been no concerted effort to seriously assess Brutalism's utilisation and representations within British cinema. Taking cultural and architecture writer Owen Hatherley's argument that the 'camera has always loved to hate Brutalism' (2018) as a starting point, this thesis uses textual analysis to explore how Brutalism has been represented and utilised in British cinema. This thesis is the first analysis to explicitly address Brutalism in British cinema over a longitudinal period, from the 1970s up to the present day, drawing on its visual, socio-political, and ethical dimensions. By focusing on representations since 1970, this thesis explores the interplay between Brutalism, the establishment of neoliberalism and historical narratives around the failure of post-war Keynesian politics. This ties into the fact that discussions of Brutalism in British Cinema are dominated by A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Get Carter (1971). These two films have been uncritically accepted as authentic historical depictions of Brutalism, reducing the architectural style to dystopian, violent and malevolent associations. There is then a tendency in British film scholarship to either replicate long-standing right-wing and neoliberal narratives that have discredited Brutalism's post-war vison of social housing, or only discuss Brutalism in terms of its ability to reflect notions of authenticity in social realism. This thesis then aims to explore the resonance of cinematic Brutalism in relation to an emergent neoliberal hegemony in Britain. This thesis finds that Brutalism in British cinema is consistently situated as a uniquely outsider space, a distinctive, extra-ordinary architectural tool for critiquing the 'present' through its anomalous presence. While this can expose the limitations and failings of British society, such as hidden poverty or territorial stigmatisation, the overwhelming trend is that cinematic conceptions of Brutalism function as a key cultural touchstone to justify neoliberalism. In obscuring and diminishing the viability of post-war social housing through Brutalism, alternatives to neoliberalism are discredited. Brutalism in British cinema does not just reflect the much wider political establishment of neoliberalism, but should also be seen as an active agent in its shaping discourses around its continued viability. This thesis is a significant contribution to understanding Brutalism as a cultural construct, but more specifically how British cinema has processed, endorsed and resisted the advent of neoliberalism.
Date of Award1 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorCharlotte Wildman (Supervisor) & Victoria Lowe (Supervisor)


  • Brutalsit Architecture
  • Post-war British History
  • Film Studies
  • British Cinema
  • Brutalism
  • Modernist Architecrture

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