Small is Beautiful, Big is Sublime

Jonathan Meades’ documentary on brutalism was a fascinating insight into an often ignored period of architecture that had so much utopian promise and imagery behind it. Now the same institutions that commissioned these amazing projects have become the means to their destruction, acting as, Meades declares, sanctioned vandals. These vandals are part of the cadre of small is beautiful brigades which see any buildings representing industrialism and largesse as problematic to the surrounding environment and thus have a desire to see them destroyed and replaced by some eco-nonsense that makes little sense and is usually more of a blight on the environment than brutalist architecture.

However, my own sensibilities throw me into supporting the idea of small is beautiful as an aim of decentralism. This is then contrasted with big is sublime. And certainly such a statement is true. Many of the brutalist buildings that still stand are striking and fascinating, due to their unconventional design but also to the ideologies that stood behind them. Much of it was socialist utopianism, focusing on stacked, non-hierarchical communities that fit into the idea of the state constructing a socialist reality around individuals. This is problematic to me as such dogma is anathema to my anarchist and libertarian beliefs. State constructions usually end up in failure, and unfortunately the heady dreams of the brutalists ended up on the rubbish heap of these failures. However, my respect and interest for brutalist architecture led me to wonder if you could combine the ideas of smallness and bigness without leading to either the modern ghettoisation of high rises or the dystopian imaginations of Ballard’s tales.

What such wondering led me to was the fundamental issue at the heart of these socialist utopias, that of control. When realities and communities are constructed around individuals and families, with little input from them, of course failure becomes an inevitability. Such is the way of all state projects. But what if we were to combine such ideas by giving control over to the residents and surrounding communities. Well then I believe that the ideas of developing resilient, utopian communities becomes a very real possibility. Big is sublime, but those within can construct the small is beautiful ethos that shapes truly resilient communities. These ideas exist within the canon of work by Spencer Heath and Spencer Heath MacCallum, who showed how intentional communities can be constructed in the realms of halls of residence, hotels and shopping malls. They decentralise control to individual proprietors, while still hedged within the largesse of a community. They create resilience from modern corporatism, which dictates reality as gargantuan and global, destroying both the acts and performances of community and the imaginations of brutalism in favour of fallacious global imaginary, with its politics of centralised power.

In creating small communities around brutalist buildings, it removes the conceptions of brutalism away from the vulgarity of state ideology, and allows for the construction of communities around these forms of high-industrialism. Instead of seeing industrialisation purely as a phenomena of pointless largesse and extreme authoritarianism (which is entirely legitimate), the methods of industrialism can be re-appropriated toward small communities of intentional architects, whether they be multi-family compounds or micro-villages that promote economic and political resilience. These buildings should be used for such means, rather than be destroyed by the discourses of bourgeois environmentalism and state-sanctioned vandalism which wants to continue state fetishisation and destroy unconventional beauty in favour of bland uniformity. Big is sublime, but smallness need not be its opposite.

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