One of the biggest architectural comeback stories of the decade belongs to Brutalism. The style–instantly recognizable for its hulking raw concrete forms–was once detested for its harshness and domineering presence, but now it’s basking in renewed appreciation.
Blue Crow Media, an independent publisher based in London, has been part of Brutalism’s recent resurgence. The company has been steadily publishing city guides focused on uncovering modern concrete masterpieces all around the world, chronicling how the style evolved locally. You may have read about Paris, London, and Washington, D.C., and the publisher has recently released maps for Sydney and Belgrade.
I wanted to know how a tiny publisher became one of Brutalism’s biggest–or at least most active–advocates. The answer lies with its founder and sole full-time employee, Derek Lamberton.
Lamberton, who studied avant-garde Russian art and architecture in school, launched Blue Crow in 2010 as a developer of city guide iOS apps focused on London’s food and drink scene. He developed a few guides on things like independent coffee shops and craft beer bars, but realized that remaining competitive in app publishing would require significant outside investment–which could compromise his creative integrity–so he decided to pivot into a print company. Plus, he wanted to get back to his architectural roots.
“A map of Brutalist architecture seemed both unconventional and sensible to me, which I suppose sums up what the company is about,” he tells Co.Design via email.
The first Brutalist map Lamberton made focused on London. “Nobody had published a guide to these buildings, and I thought we’d start here where we have a strong audience and there are enough independent bookshops to make it viable,” he says. “A book was simply not on the cards due to costs involved and the need to hire warehouse space to store copies.”
Publishing a new map is a balancing act for Blue Crow. It has to weigh whether or not a city has a robust enough independent bookstore industry to support sales against how interesting the architecture is in a specific location. For example, Blue Crow knows its products–which have gorgeous graphics and photographs printed on quality paper–sell well in London where there are many bookshops. However, Belgrade, which has fascinating architecture in spades but bookstores are more sparse, is more of a gamble.
“But when a fan of Brutalism is found, there is general excitement and plenty of sales,” Lamberton says. The London map remains the most popular, with Paris a close second. While American bookstores stock Blue Crow’s maps, they haven’t been as popular saleswise here as abroad, even though they’ve been covered by major media like the New York Times and the Washington Post. (Lamberton declined to disclose sales figures.) That said, the next Brutalist map Blue Crow will publish is a guide to Boston.
Blue Crow is expanding its catalog to include artistic interpretations of transit maps with extra information about their signage, graphics, and architecture. The first two are London’s Underground and Moscow’s Metro, which are due out this fall. Additionally, the company has about 20 new maps–including some that deal with new themes–in the works.
Lamberton is aware that he’s dealing in an ultra niche market. (“The revenue is enough to maintain a high level of quality, but not enough to sit back and relax,” he says. “This is an ideal tension for me.”) But even so, he’s given me–and I’m sure other architecture fans–a new way and format to appreciate Brutalism. Hopefully the maps, which are a lot more gorgeous and digestible than dense history books, help other people fall in love with the style, too.