MY badge arrived in the post late last year. A Christmas present from a friend. A little lozenge of metal with the one-word legend, "Brutalist." Of all the Christmas presents I received it might be my favourite.

Is it OK to say you like brutalist architecture yet? To suggest that you rather enjoy intimidating concrete, that you can see a beauty in its big and beefy bulk? To argue that the South Bank in London, or maybe even Paisley Civic Centre, is an eyeful rather than an eyesore?

Well, maybe. Next month sees the publication of architectural historian Barnabas Calder's book Raw Concrete, which outlines the author's conversion to the beauty of brutalism as well as telling the story of the rise and fall of the architectural movement. It comes hard on the heels of Christopher Beanland's similar book, Concrete Concept.

Meanwhile, in less than a fortnight, this year's Scottish Festival of Architecture will launch with the Hinterland event on the site of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia's ruined modernist Roman Catholic seminary building near Cardross designed by architects Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan, both of whom have died in recent years. There are also plans to reopen the building in 2018. Oh and you can pick up a magazine, The Modernist, that does a very nice sideline in badges.

In short, after decades in which brutalism and post-war architecture have been the subjects of aesthetic distaste and at times a vehicle for social demonisation, things may be opening up for a more nuanced debate.

Brutalism is, as the author Christopher Beanland has suggested, "architecture on heat". Or maybe we could call it modernism on drugs. Coined from the French word "brut", meaning raw, it is certainly the style that most obviously characterises post-war architecture; a style of grand, sometimes overbearing, sometimes just plain weird, structural gestures. Think of the scalloped edges of the Marina Centre in Chicago or the way the Barbican estate in London greets the eye with alternating curves and arcs and angular sharpness. It's also the architecture of public space – in the 1950s and 1960s brutalist galleries, museums, libraries, hospitals, universities and schools and of course, most notably and often notoriously high rises were built all over the country.

For some, they remain ugly and that's fine. Not everyone is going to like them. Maybe brutalist buildings will always remain a minority taste. (Though we don't seem to mind intimidating buildings when they're medieval. Think of Edinburgh Castle.)

The Herald: The Barbican, London. Taken from Concrete ConceptThe Barbican, London. Taken from Concrete Concept

But at a time when many of these buildings are being pulled to the ground, the current revival of interest is at least an opportunity for re-evaluation. Not just in aesthetic terms but in social-historical ones as well. Because it allows us to look back at an era in architectural history that, yes, was often hugely flawed but was also hugely ambitious. And it's a story that is also at heart political. It's a story, too, that has been told largely by detractors.

In the run-up to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, the organisers had what you might describe as a rush of blood to the head. For the opening ceremony, they said, we're going to blow up the Red Road Flats live on telly. The plan was to demolish five of the six blocks (the sixth still having occupants at the time). It would, Glasgow 2014 suggested, be an "unforgettable statement of how Glasgow is confidently embracing the future and changing for the better".

The plan, of course, lasted just over a week before, faced with huge public disapproval, the idea was dropped over "safety concerns".

Perhaps because they were so dumbfounded by the baw-heided crassness of the idea, few people pointed out that there had been a time when the Red Road Flats themselves had been a statement of the future for Glasgow. Designed by the architect Sam Bunton and built in the mid-1960s,he tower blocks were for a time the tallest residential structures in Europe. In the post-war years, Glasgow, more than any other city in the UK, was embracing the high rise as an opportunity to provide new and better housing for its citizens.

But those utopian ideals have long been boarded up in the mainstream narrative about post-war architecture. That narrative is still at work even now. It is still the stuff of horror films (Attack The Block and the forthcoming High-Rise) and scare speeches by the Prime Minister. (In January David Cameron railed against "brutal high-rise towers" and promised to tear them down. It emerged last week that the promised £140m fund to achieve that was no more than a loan to private developers.)

The anti-brutalist narrative is now so familiar it hardly needs restating, but it goes like this: in the 1950s and 1960s, architects took it upon themselves to build social housing and public utilities in a style that was overbearing and ugly and didn't work. High rises were damp, badly built and perfect havens for drug dealers and anti-social tenants. In short it was homes fit for zeroes.

And so it's no surprise that many of the buildings that towered over our towns and cities in the post-war years have been, or are in the process of being, demolished. The Red Road Flats were finally brought down last October, five years after the Trinity car park in Gateshead – made famous for its appearance in the Michael Caine thriller Get Carter – was flattened. (Caine has quite a brutalist cinematic CV. His 2009 thriller Harry Brown was filmed on London's notorious Heygate estate, a concrete development built in 1974 which has since been demolished. Caine was outspokenly in favour of pulling it down.)

Arguments, meanwhile, have raged for years over the future of such distinctive (beautiful/horrible; the choice is yours) structures as Preston Bus Station, with its striking curved concrete fins piled up like a stack of razor clams. Destruction is the inevitable conclusion of this particular architectural narrative.

And yet. And yet. There is a counter-narrative developing. As well as the books and exhibitions, last autumn saw the National Trust run "brutal utopias" tours in Sheffield, London and East Anglia. More cogently, developers Urban Splash have been refurbishing flats in the Park Hill estate in Sheffield, the largest listed structure in Europe, while Ernst Golfinger's Balfron Tower in London is currently being turned into luxury flats. The interest in these properties is, for want of a better word, concrete. How does that fit in with the "monstrous carbuncle" theory of brutalism?

Rather, it speaks to another story of brutalism. The one that argues that the story of public building in the wake of the war is the story of possibility. It was a time of cheap materials, cheap energy and lofty ambitions. "It's a period when things got better than they'd ever been before for creating buildings," suggests Barnabas Calder when I speak to him. "Suddenly you could do things on a scale that only the incredibly rich or the incredibly powerful could do before."

That was allied to a wholesale recognition that social housing after the war was a huge issue for Britain. War damage, housing shortages and a desire to tackle the blight of poverty meant even Conservative governments embraced the idea of slum clearance. At the same time, architects were embracing new European architectural ideas inspired by Le Corbusier and were suddenly interested in making big structural gestures. Ambition and need were fused.

"In high rise housing, Glasgow sees possibly the most extreme embracing of it anywhere in the world, certainly in the non-communist world," suggests Calder. He cites councillor David Gibson – the city's housing convenor in the 1960s – as a prime mover. "He had this really passionate conviction that the conditions of the slums in Glasgow at the time were so disgusting that no human being ought to tolerate them. He therefore spent his weekends pacing around Glasgow looking for sites and his weeks pushing through committees the funding and development of many, many high-rise blocks, most of which have now gone again through the extraordinary policy swings of the Glasgow Housing Association."

Glasgow's housing policy was an example of a high-minded socialism, almost self-consciously heroic, Calder suggests. But it's reductive to suggest brutalism was first and foremost a political statement, he adds. It was as much about novelty. We forget that things we now take for granted – central heating, lifts – were once hugely novel. You didn't have to be a card-carrying member of the Labour Party to think it was worth building homes that incorporated these "luxuries".

Furthermore, Calder argues, it's not as if there were no commercial iterations of brutalism. Richard Sieffert's design for Glasgow's Anderston Centre is the classic example, he says. "Sieffert churned out literally thousands of such projects up and down the country and indeed worldwide."

Inevitably, the results didn't always match the vaulting ambition. The Red Road Flats are an example. Alison Irvine, author of This Road Is Red, has interviewed many of the residents dating back to the 1960s and she concludes that the buildings ultimately failed on practicalities. The lifts were too small, there were problems with damp and concerns over asbestos in the walls. "They were well intentioned," Irvine suggests. "But I don't think they worked."

Utopian principles need to be matched by real-life practicalities. But to be fair that did happen in many locations. "These buildings all had very different stories," argues John Grindrod, the author of Concretopia, the pioneering 2013 study of post-war British architecture. "Some buildings were shockingly badly constructed, chucked up very quickly and there was a lot of greed and fast money being made. You also got some very experimental buildings where people overreached themselves with the technology that was available at the time.

"Basil Spence's flats in the Gorbals were a classic example of that; a fantastic, super-modern design that was really too modern. It couldn't actually be built at the time."

But there were plenty of others that were well thought out and well built and, Grindrod contends, "that stuff has tended to last".

It was the bad buildings that dominated the public view, most notoriously in 1968 when a gas explosion caused the partial collapse of Ronan Point – a 22-storey tower block in Newham, East London – killing three people (two more would die of their injuries).

Things would get worse. By the late 1970s and on to the present day, high rises began to be portrayed as sites of urban breakdown. This was a conflation of the buildings and wider social problems. Not all of that should be laid at the door of architects however. In the 1970s the economic downturn meant maintenance budgets were slashed while wider social problems such as rising unemployment and the influx of cheap heroin in the 1980s transformed council estates and high rises for the worse, a problem that critics contrived to blame on the buildings. (Cameron is still doing it.)

And yet that is not the whole story. All the while people lived lives in these new towns and high rises. They got married and raised families. It's fair to say, as Christopher Beanland points out, that Gregory's Girl is just as viable a vision of post-war architecture as High-Rise: "Cumbernauld is a very odd place but you see these very normal, sweet lives being played out. So it doesn't just have to be a dystopian reality."

If anything, the utopian narrative is the one that seems to be on the rise. Why? It's partly architectural fashion. What goes around comes around even in architecture. It just takes rather longer. But more than that it's a form of nostalgia for a time when architects and planners thought big.

"We've got a younger generation of people who are very interested in it and I think a lot of that is tied up with ideas of the welfare state and social justice and housing for all," suggests John Grindrod. "It's no wonder that young people are looking at this period in the 1950s and 1960s and are very interested in the fact that people felt like they could do enormous things and now people feel like they can't do anything. The only things that get done now are if you are a rich person.

"I think there's a massive interest in this because people are amazed to think that this ever happened. Because it's so alien to us now."

Does that mean those of us who wear our brutalist badges are yearning for a future that has already passed into history? Of course. But you can still yearn for what you haven't got.

Today we are knocking down libraries and building gated communities. We are replacing blocky and – yes sometimes overpowering – concrete with glass and steel moneyed anonymity. We are not building for working-class people any more, but we are building for the one-per-centers. Or we are reclaiming the brutalist architecture for them. Social housing tenants in Goldfringer's Balfron Tower were decanted in 2010. Last spring it was announced that there would be no social housing provision in the tower after all.

The utopian vision of brutalism and post-war architecture is just that; utopian. Like an estate agent it glosses over the cracks in the façade. And there were many. But look at where we are now, with a housing crisis, bland anonymous new architecture and the upwardly mobile moving into homes once designed for working-class people. For all its flaws, brutalism was a style meant for people. Today, iconic architecture is meant for the wealthy. (Think of the City of London; think of the Shard.)

Is it really going too far, then, to suggest we have lost something in the years between?

Christopher Beanland will be speaking at the Aye Write! Festival on Saturday, March 12 at midday. His new book Concrete Concept: Brutalist buildings around the world (Frances Lincoln, £20) is out now. Barnabas Calder's Raw Concrete will be published by William Heinemann on April 21.