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Photograph: Chris Matthews

14 stunning modernist buildings in the UK you have to visit

From the Scottish Parliament to the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, discover some of the UK’s most stylish twentieth-century architecture

Sophie Dickinson
Written by
Sophie Dickinson
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When you think of modern buildings in Britain, what do you imagine? Unimaginative shopping centres, or Brutalist blocks of flats? Modernist architecture is one hell of a broad school, stunning and imposing in equal measure – not always good, but not always bad, either. Often, if buildings are doing their job, they’re not always obvious or notable. We just live among them.

Owen Hatherley’s new tome, Modern Buildings in Britain, is the ultimate guide to the art galleries, housing estates, civic halls, cathedrals and factories that make up our towns. It’s seriously definitive, running to over 600 pages. Hatherley guides the reader through the country, including abandoned underpasses and Cambridge faculties that you can visit ‘without some wanker demanding your credentials for being there’.

Best of all, a load of these beautiful, brutal, ingenious sites are open to the public. We’ve collected 14 of the best here, but there are far, far more in the book. 

RECOMMENDED: The best things to do in the UK

Modernist buildings in the UK you have to visit

This gallery started life as a concrete cube, repainted with details each time a new exhibition was held inside. It’s a cool concept, and a perfect distillation of the genuinely groundbreaking modernism found in Milton Keynes. It’s now outgrown this space, and instead the gallery and theatre are both clad in a shiny, reflective metal grid. Stick around to watch a film or take a free exhibition tour.

Turner loved Margate’s cloudscapes, and this David Chipperfield-designed gallery tries to get as much of that dramatic, temperamental sky inside as possible. It’s right on the edge of the promenade, meaning the windows let in all the light, as well as the views of the busy seafront and the ocean itself. Visit the exhibition space, then go for a wander (and have an ice cream, too).

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It’s hard to avoid the Millennium Centre if you’re in Cardiff. The copper building, adorned in Welsh and English inscriptions, is the focus of Mermaid Quay. It controversially replaced plans for a Zaha Hahid-designed cultural centre, but that bit of beef has largely been forgotten over the last 20 years. Now, it looks at home, showing popular musicals like Six and Singin’ in the Rain, plus free workshops for local young people wanting to get into theatre.

The entry to Blackpool Pleasure Beach can be hard to find among, well, everything else on the promenade. If you manage not to get distracted by the flashing arcade lights, kiss-me-quick hats and the rattle of rollercoasters overhead, the theme park’s façade is actually pretty mesmerising. It’s pleasingly ornate, framed with a spiralling tower and curving decorative elements reminiscent of seashells. Take a look before going on the rides. 

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There’s something very sleek about Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre. It stretches out horizontally along the street, lights beaming through its glass-panelled front. Look up, and the building blends into the baroque musical hall on the corner, topped joyfully with what looks like chimneys from a twentieth-century cruise liner. This year, the theatre is putting on performances of Othello, As You Like It and Mike Bartlett’s Bull, which all look great. 

A surprising entry, but then Dudley Zoo has a surprising history. It was built in 1937 on the site of the ruined Dudley Castle, and now meerkats, chimpanzees and lions live among playful, zigzagging modernist sculptures. Head to the Bear Ravine – currently occupied by llamas – to find a fun inversion of the traditional zoo set-up: the visitors are exposed on a terrace, while the building gives the animals plenty of places to hide.

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The Winter Gardens in Sheffield pack a whole load of plants into this relatively modest building. Wood-beamed archways make this a sort of church for the foliage enthusiast, with pathways guiding you through the vegetation. It’s a great detour through the city – emerging into a gallery space, café and into the upper part of Sheffield. Oh, and admission is free. 

The London Underground rightfully gets a lot of love. But the UK’s other public transport systems are pretty special, too, like Newcastle’s speedy, efficient Metro system. A lot of its stations are – like the Tube – stylish, experimental spaces, like at Tyne and Wear. The foliage-covered building is practical and slides into the surroundings effortlessly. Use it to get around the city centre, and definitely check out the organic farm at Ouseburn and the wooded Jesmond Dene

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Pretty simple, this one. A lovely, ornamental landscape planted with roses and perennials, a spring-fed pond, a sensory garden, ancient hedgerows and a play space for children. They were built in the 1950s, so there’s that air of very-thought-out town planning. What’s not to love? 

Bold and imposing, the Norrish Central Library in Portsmouth wants you to read. Really, seriously, read. If Brutalism is your thing, Norrish’s widow – the architect who designed the building – donated a load of rare art history books to the library. There’s normally an exhibition on display, too, plus a permanent naval history exhibit and the specialist Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. 

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Preston Bus Station, Preston
Photograph: Chris Matthews

12. Preston Bus Station, Preston

Slated for demolition as recently as 2014, this undulating, aerodynamic bus station is far bigger than necessary, but all the more beautiful for it. Doesn’t matter if you’re not getting a bus (although you can, to the Lake District or into the Ribble Valley), hang around here for vintage signs, concrete balustrades and some of the strangest characters in Preston. 



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The Scottish Parliament building is weird. It’s a fortress in places, but vast and open in others. In short, it’s nothing like its English counterpart. Its spiky, knobbly exterior is much more breezy inside, where MSPs sit and debate in a curved, light-wood auditorium. Book a tour and find out all about the seat of power, then walk up the nearby Salisbury Crags and see the complex from above.

The Hepworth Gallery has the same, airy calm as somewhere like Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard (another modernist building open to the public). The Yorkshire gallery isn’t a quaint, riverside cottage, though – it’s a hulking, slightly alien-looking design. The open, concrete spaces are softened by windows looking out into the gardens, as well as Barbara Hepworth’s work itself, which is given the space it deserves in the roomy exhibition space.

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