Review: Concretopia – a Journey round the rebuilding of post-war Britain

Review: Concretopia – a Journey round the rebuilding of post-war Britain

John Grindrod, Concretopia – a Journey round the rebuilding of post-war Britain (Old Street, 2013).

Concretopia is almost certainly the first history of the post-war modernist project in British cities and towns, and it is without doubt the first to try and address a non-architectural, non-specialist audience. It’s a popular history, doing all the things one would hope for from such a history – interviewing dozens of planners, architects, residents, journalists and conservationists, and weaving their accounts through a narrative of modernist architecture’s post-war alliance with both social democratic local governments and with inner-city developers.

What spurred it, on Grindrod’s own account, was an attempt to understand his hometown of New Addington, a London ‘overspill’ estate on the edges of Croydon. He recalls being shown a video in geography class, where this very place was described as ‘a town planning experiment that had gone badly wrong’. ‘There was no reaction from us’, he tells us, ‘mainly because to express interest, surprise or engagement was a fatal sign of weakness’, but it did begin a curiosity about how the place where he lived came into being. ‘If this was bad planning, did that make us bad people from a bad estate?’ In fact, by the end of the book, he realises that New Addington was a collection of the era’s cliches. Beginning with suburban semis inspired by Welwyn Garden City, and moving through a wan, windswept version of the post-war new towns, with their houses and maisonettes separated by wide green lawns, coming to a smattering of system-built towers, New Addington had the lot. But it had them in a vague, undecided way, in a tense attempt to rehouse working class Londoners on the land of a hostile Tory council on the edges of Surrey.

New Addington is a cautionary example, though not quite a bad estate full of bad people. What Concretopia does make clear is that design does have particular consequences. A half-hearted suburb like New Addington or a consciously designed new town or a highly thought-out, well-made estate are, in his account, qualitatively different; architecture is not irrelevant. This is counter to the ‘accepted narrative’ where, as in a ‘superhero blockbuster’, the evil planners are defeated by a coalition of plucky conservationists. Here, ‘postwar buildings are concrete monstrosities in the same way that political correctness is always going mad‘.

The account is roughly chronological, following post-war rebuilding from the initial emergency prefab programme, through the New Towns and the gentle ‘Festival (of Britain) style’ of the Attlee era, through the rise of Brutalism and the parallel emergence of inner city ‘comprehensive redevelopment’ at the hands of Arndale and the like, the mass housing programmes of local authorities like Newcastle and Glasgow, the corruption scandals associated with John Poulson, and the rise of conservation that ended this era in the 1970s, with a final valdedictory chapter on the National Theatre and the Barbican, both now widely, if hardly universally, well-regarded, establishment structures. It is a defence of the post-war era, for sure, but not a one-dimensional one – someone from New Addington was hardly likely to be a completely unambiguous cheerleader for post-war planning – but put alongside more sceptical accounts like Lynsey Hanley’s Estates (which it has a certain amount in common with, in voice and approach) it’s obviously very sympathetic.

Yet as an attempt to explain and sometimes vindicate an era which has been thoughtlessly dismissed for three decades, Concretopia is in a way kicking in an open door, given that several writers, film-makers and artists have been busy rehabilitating this stuff for a decade now. Grindrod’s book is certainly the opposite of an architecture tumblr with chic monochrome images of depopulated Brutalist landscapes. The book is populated, and the voices of the planners and the ‘planned’ is much more dominant than Griindrod’s own rather unpretentious authorial voice.

This is to its benefit, and helps in presenting the narrative in more surprising ways than rise-decline-and-fall. The New Towns, for example, come across as somewhat small-c conservative planned settlements, whose commitment to equality was initially very rigorous. At Harlow, the designer Frederick Gibberd moved in, and had an application for an extension to his house declined by the very Development Corporation whose head architect he was. Conversely, one employee of Smithfield market recalls that he wasn’t allowed a house in Stevenage because he wasn’t a skilled worker. Grindrod follows how these places later became outposts of working class conservatism. One Cwmbran resident recalls, incredulously, how people were ‘desperate to buy’ private homes rather than rent their houses from the council, even though the houses they were buying were fundamentally identical to, and opposite, council houses.

One of the more controversial examples covered here is Glasgow, which had by the 1970s the most high-rise housing of any city in Britain. Much of the account here is a useful corrective to the nostalgia for 19th century Glasgow and its tenements. ‘I came home from school one day’, recounts one interviewee, to find ‘the back of our building completely collapsed’. Immediately six families on the street were moved to ‘overspill’ estates on the outskirts. Stories of chemical fires in factories next to housing are a reminder that the ‘mixed use’ city so adored by Jane Jacobs and her contemporary followers had certain drawbacks. So in a desperate attempt to both solve the city’s appalling housing conditions and to keep them within the city boundaries, convenor of housing David Gibson let builders system-build enormous slabs to be shoved in any and all infill sites in the city, the opposite of any kind of planning. Even here, architecture made a palpable difference – one of Grindrod’s interlocutors recalls living in three of Glasgow’s blocks. Some were just ‘mundane, stereotyped’ flats, but Basil Spence’s (demolished) Hutchesontown C was an exhilarating experience, ‘like life on Mars’.

Concretopia is sometimes a little too breezy, and packs an enormous amount into its 350 or so pages. Like much of the Spirit of 45 genre, it says little about the social changes of the 1945-1979 era other than the rise first of a vaguely socialistic, collective democracy and then of the far more individualistic, home-ownership obsessed consensus that would usher in Thatcherism. Though the sketches of historical context are sharp and useful, they are lightly outlined, and there is nothing on the racial politics of the era and its influence on housing – something which is key in understanding, for instance, the East End of London. The Empire is always just out of shot, even in Grindrod’s description of the ‘Lion and the Unicorn’ pavilion at the Festival of Britain. With those caveats, though, this is about the best history of the intersection of post-war architecture and politics (often with a small ‘p’) that you could hope for – personal, erudite, even-handed and driven by a subtle, but still present underlying anger at the ‘dismantling of the Welfare State under the dubious banner of ‘austerity’. It is also a useful reminder for those on the left who would see the pre-neoliberal era as a monolithic ‘planner state’ that the working class got a deal out of the postwar compromise, a deal which increasingly looks pretty cushy.

 

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