SINCE the 1970s, any amateur critic of architecture would probably count themselves on safe ground if they were to disparage brutalism, the late-modernist aesthetic of flat abstract shapes rendered in rough-cast concrete, which can be seen in any number of car parks, high rises and 1960s university buildings around the country.

The very term brutalism is, as Barnabas Calder admits in this enthusiastic study, “a controversial, muscular term for a controversial, muscular style.” A byword either for cheap cost-cutting or for elitist experimentation, brutalist architecture in the popular imagination is what happens when architects don’t consider for a moment that real people will have to live and work in the buildings they design.

As Calder persuasively argues though, this is to do a great disservice to a style that exemplifies the profound optimism of the post-war welfare state, and that shows what is possible when high technology is allied to an exalted sense of public service. It is also a style that in its materials and craftsmanship is anything but cheap, and that requires enormous technical skill to get right.

Calder used to lecture at the University of Strathclyde’s School of Architecture, and he presents here an entirely personal appreciation of brutalism. Rather than start with its intellectual origins in the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s work, or with the innovations of the Bauhaus movement, Calder begins his journey in the far north of Scotland, in the village of Achmelvich.

Here, in 1955, a recently graduated architecture student called David Scott designed and built what has become known as “Hermit’s Castle”; a rough-cast concrete hut that in the “romantic primitiveness” of its construction, and the isolated, poetic environment in which it was built, demonstrates the artistic potential of the style. Brutalist architecture is not, Calder seems to say, just a method of cheap mass production. It can be an aesthetic response to place, and can have as much artistic validity as any Gothic cathedral or Greek revival town hall.

From here he presents his favourite buildings in chronological order, including the Barbican Estate and the astonishingly bold National Theatre in London. On the way, he celebrates daring architects like Ernö Goldfinger, designer of Trellick Tower, and the Scottish architects James Gowan and James Stirling, whose internationally celebrated Engineering Building at the University of Leicester is, in Calder’s evocative phrase, “a sneering, hip-thrusting Elvis of a structure”.

This is also an account of brutalism’s decline and fall though, and Calder is adept at outlining the convoluted ways in which town planning can become enmeshed with the profiteering side of commercial architecture to the detriment of the built environment as a whole. When architects like Goldfinger or Gowan and Stirling were given clear briefs and the respect of enlightened local authorities like the London County Council (later the Greater London Council), the results could be spectacular. When commercial firms were employed by councils like Glasgow’s, which failed to adequately steer the design and construction of the Anderston Centre for example, the cost-cutting results could be appalling; “a monumental warning against badly implemented halfway houses”.

What killed off any lingering affection for the brutalist style was probably its association with social decay. High rise flats became “the storage places for society’s most troublesome and vulnerable individuals”, and could very quickly fall into a vicious cycle of crime and anti-social behaviour that made them highly unattractive places to live.

Calder demonstrates how the Barbican estate in the City of London, emphatically not designed for social housing in the same way, avoided this fate and remains an aspirational (and incredibly expensive) address for the professional middle-class. Animosity to the style is also directed at the raw material itself. “Concrete” may be frequently used as a term of abuse, but Calder shows the painstaking craftsmanship that can go into its composition and handling, as well as its extraordinary versatility.

In his account of the differing fates of the Strathclyde Architecture Building and the Glasgow School of Art’s Newbery Tower, one saved and the other destroyed, Calder shows how public appreciation of the brutalist style may be on the increase, even if threats to individual buildings require a range of well-organised responses in order to protect them. This is a strongly-argued and at times refreshingly polemical book, one guaranteed to change your opinion of an ambitious and much-maligned architectural style that, like it or not, has had a profound affect on our built environment.