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In The Defence of Brutalism

In The Defence of Brutalism

About the Author

Lawrence Smeaton

  • Lawrence is a Graduate Engineer based in Glasgow working for Mouchel in the Bridge team. He is part of STEM, a Scout Leader and football fan. He spends his days daydreaming about being the next Telford.
  • Find out more: Twitter


As the joke goes at Universities, the Civil Engineering building is always the ugliest. For the University of Glasgow, this is the Rankine Building. A monstrous slab of brutalist concrete towering out of the ground like a mountain.

At this end of the campus, it sticks out like a sore thumb having the Glasgow University Union and Main Building (aka Hogwarts) to compete with in the same field of view.

At this end of the campus, it sticks out like a sore thumb having the Glasgow University Union and Main Building (aka Hogwarts) to compete with in the same field of view.

This is a tacky monolith of grey concrete and screed finishes. Unlike some brutalist buildings, this doesn’t even have the grandeur you would expect such as from the Boston Town Hall (love it or hate it) or even other buildings on Campus. The Boyd Orr is a classic 60s monstrosity and it towers over the majority of the university; The Rankine is almost modest in comparison.

I returned to the Uni for a STEM meeting (get involved!) and found myself with a little free time when it finished earlier than I expected. So I took advantage of my afternoon away from the office to take a few photos of the place. What I found was an appreciation for the building I spent four years in thanks to a year being out in the working world designing nothing but concrete.

Elevation on short face

Elevation on short face

The first thing you’ll notice once you get out of the head-box where you think everything is a cube is the cantilevers. Every single level cantilevers out from a series of columns located deeper inside the face of the building along the two long edges of the cuboid plan. Also there is a car park on the entrance level (the fourth level) and another 3 levels below this one. This, immediately, is interesting. The levels all cantilever, and halfway up the building is a car park which is situated solely on one cantilevered side of the building. The vast self-weight of the concrete braces the structure. If you look back at the cover photo you will see the dozens of floor beams just peaking out of the wall panels to emphasise the cantilevers.

Detail at entrance level

Detail at entrance level

This is monolithic concrete in its prime and, even if you don’t like the architectural look, is pretty well refined. In fact, I’d go one further to say that this building looks stunning and is simply lacking the correct cladding. The windows are boring, there’s a whole heap of exposed services and does anyone even like these precast aggregate panels? It looks like a gigantisized version of those toddler crafts projects where you cover a bit of card in PVA glue and throw sand at it until it sticks.


Looking down on the 3rd level (and roof of the second)

Looking down on the 3rd level (and roof of the second)

Other improvements needed include all this junk. Not the best look, I’m sure they could have thought a little more about ventilating the basement levels – which are convenient for avoiding direct sunlight (and people) near the end of the semester.


And this electrical service is badly placed, I originally thought it was some sort of steel bracing in my more naive years at the Uni which means that members of the public will probably think the same thing too. To go through all that effort to create a surprisingly free and open space in the middle of a building to ruin it with that is just frustrating. It needs a facelift, without a doubt, which is such a shame for something that I’m sure the Structural Engineer involved was pretty proud of.

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Compare and contrast with the new Stevenson Building built next door. It looks pretty but you see nothing. You see nothing of the structure and how the building actually functions which is always a frustration for Engineers who by our very nature like to pull things apart and put them back together! By looking alone, it looks like masonry work (although I’m sure most of us will know this is incredibly unlikely). It’s a much more attractive building but, I would argue is uninteresting. It’s a relatively simple steel frame hidden beneath some very nice windows and a tasteful modern façade.

Now I’ll leave the engineers to argue if they prefer the steel or the concrete design side of things (I’m obviously biased having spent the last few months detailing reinforcement), but imagine they gave the Rankine a modern facelift?

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  1. A nice article. I suppose those of us who grew up with brutalist architecture in the 50s and 60s have a mixed view. At one time they represented the future and the hope that that entailed, but equally they are nowadays regarded as quite an eyesore by many and demolition greeted with much relief !–high-rise/id/8142