Alan Stewart

The LDS director picks three goliaths of the brutalist age, from a spaceship in Mexico City to a Birmingham signal box – all of their time, yet somehow timeless

I was born in Mexico City and lived about four streets away from Praxis House, the home-studio of architect Agustín Hernández Navarro. It was my first experience of brutalist architecture. The house lies in one of the forested valleys on the west side of the city, where many of the homes are makeshift structures that seem to hang from the cliff face. In this context, Praxis House was almost like a spaceship.

Its futuristic form, heavily influenced by pre-Colombian architecture, rises on a single shaft of concrete from the forest canopy. It’s an amazing example of how you can use concrete to create any shape your mind can think of. Brutalist buildings often appear in quite odd locations.

Marcel Breuer’s Pirelli Tire Building in New Haven, Connecticut, is on the edge of an Ikea car park but has been successfully retrofitted as a designer hotel. Like Praxis House, the character of the building relies on the three-dimensional possibilities of concrete.

It’s not just about a dramatic shape, but also the depth and rhythm of the facades. As a practice, we’ve looked closely at how brutalist buildings use profiled concrete to cast sun and shadow throughout the day – you can see their influence in the moulded details at One Pool Street (CQ 284).

Another reference project for us is the grade II-listed New Street Signal Box in Birmingham, which has horizontal bands of ribbed concrete, punctuated by pure vertical elements. In itself, very brutal, but it plays to the harsh environment it’s in.

These buildings are all relics of their time, in the sense that you could never build like that today. But they’re also somehow timeless – like a good watch, they just keep going. The fewer that remain, the more we need to hold on to those that do. It’s very hard to justify the embodied carbon wasted by demolishing these loose-fit structures that could be useful for hundreds of years.

The Pirelli Tire Building shows how something designed for office use can become a hotel, or just as easily co-living or student housing. The rooms are well proportioned, they have good windows, and the thermal properties are just incredible – Hotel Marcel, as it’s now known, is the first Passivhaus hotel in the US.

It will be interesting to see how the next stage of the Birmingham Signal Box’s life plays out. It has been decommissioned and is being used as a training centre by Network Rail, but it would be a terrible shame if it fell into disuse. It could make a great exhibition centre or a community hub. The flexibility is there – it just needs the right vision.

Alan Stewart is director of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Photos Alexandre Guirkinger / Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo; Arcaid Images / Alamy Stock Photo