Jonathan Meades: Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness (Part One)

There didn’t seem to be much in the form of entertainment on the EK312 from Dubai to Tokyo last Saturday. However, in the Arts and Music section, I came across an art documentary called Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness. It was presented by writer, journalist, essayist and film-maker, Jonathan Meades. I remember watching a Jonathan Meades art documentary at university called Jerry Building, the subject matter focused on architecture of the Third Reich. It was my first exposure to Jonathan Meades; he’s someone you don’t forget easily; he’s very visual, witty, and articulates such colourful sounding phrases that I’m usually reaching for the dictionary just to comprehend his rhetoric. Incidentally, I still retain a 20-year-old doodle with a comment by Meades from the Jerry Building documentary! Unlike other art presenters such as Simon Schama and Andrew Graham-Dixon and no disrespect to them, he has a very theatrical, eccentric and comical way of presenting his programs. He might walk into shot from left to right and something unexpected might fall on him. Also, his dress sense is very individual for an art presenter (i.e. a black gangster suit and black shades). When discussing his documentaries with friends/ work colleagues, I often get mixed opinions about him as an art critic. I’ve found you either love him or hate him. In my opinion, he doesn’t try to stamp his point of view on you yet he makes you think deeply about the subject matter and possibly change your way of thinking.

In Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness, Meades looks at how modern gothic architecture in Victorian times influenced the modernist buildings (brutalism) of the late 50s/early 60s; often looked at in derision or contempt and seen as concrete monstrosities. A phrase you will become accustomed to during the program. However, as Meades points out, ‘Why should buildings and landscapes look friendly?’ and goes on to say, ‘We don’t expect films or novels or paintings or sculptures to be pretty so why should we expect buildings to be pretty?’ He has a point there though the more important point he makes is that architects from the 1860s to the 1960s were not viewed as servile technicians or social workers but as a maker, an artist. They make something that didn’t before exist. The program brought back memories from my university days, notably when a group of us made a short documentary about architecture in the Bristol area. We chose the high rises in the Bedminster area. Before shooting commenced, I recall researching the urban planner, Le Corbusier. The man whose dream was to build high-rise structures where people could live in harmony vertically. In countries such as Italy, France and Holland his utopia became a reality. However, in Britain, the high rises of the late 50s/early 60s became stigmatized and were often associated with social problems such as (in the program’s words) addiction, family break-downs, sexual violence, long-term unemployment, looting, diseases etc. Overall, it’s an insightful documentary that makes you draw your own conclusions on Brutalist Architecture.

A doodle from a university lecture when watching Jerry Building in 1994, I wrote, ‘The treehouse of the mad child that wanted to rule the world’ (J Meades 1994) . The treehouse being Berghof, Hitler’s private retreat in the Bavarian Alps.