Sunday, 7 July 2019

When did post-war romanticism begin?

There's a few people showing these two images on Twitter, I think a before and after photograph of Birmingham. Lots of people horrified at the destruction of fine old buildings by brutalism.

I'm trying to remember back to my childhood, but I seem to recall that in general, people were rather in favour of the new buildings, and the idea that we should keep a load of old stuff around is something that came later. And I think it was about the mid to late 80s, probably when everyone realised how awful a few council tower blocks were that it all went the other way.

The problem is that I remember those old buildings and however charming they looked on the outside, they just weren't very good. The town library had poor lighting, was cold and a bit mouldy. The modern library had large windows, and was comfortable.

I also think that we've done a lot now to keep old buildings and make them more pleasant. So, St Pancras station is rather nice. Of course, that also cost something like £800m to do, far more than what was spent on expanding and refurbishing the modern station at Reading (which also works better as a station), but as the traveller doesn't see the cost, no-one notices. This changes the way people think about buildings. Old buildings are fine, if you aren't directly paying the extra cost. It's also why the private sector tends to err towards the modern because if you run an office in a listed building, you're going to pay more than a shiny Regus office.

I think it's a shame this happened. My memories of the 70s and 80s were of optimism for the modern. Moving forward into a better age. And I don't think it's a party thing. Both Labour and Mrs Thatcher were keen on building new, shiny infrastructure.


Sackerson said...

An era when the two main political parties vied to see which could boast of having built more "housing units" - I still remember hearing that in childhood. Hence brutalism and using Corbusier as a cover for throwing up cheap, ugly and builder-profitable edifices.

Sobers said...

I think it has its roots in the ethos of the post war age. Collectivism was the thing back then, the idea of the State could direct society far better than allowing it to be driven by the invisible hand of all the individuals within it. So all those old buildings represented (to the post war mind) the wrong, the old, the misguided. The State was going to direct us to a new era of atomic power, jet powered rocket cars and futuristic concrete high rise buildings. And given that the old ways had just given the world 50m dead and entire continents razed to the ground, who can blame people for thinking there might be a better way forward?

They were wrong of course, but they weren't to know that then, they had no history to guide them. The current crop of neo-socialists should know better - they have the history of the second half of the 20th century as a guide to how collectivism pans out. But of course that wasn't socialism, this is the new socialism, thats never been properly implemented, and they plan to do just that, good and hard.............

Andrew S. Mooney said...

In two words, this guy: Ian Nairn.

As in, "This stuff is awful," and it usually was, in that shiny white Brutalist concrete works great upon the Cote D'Azur and in California, but it quickly looks a bit grubby in Sheffield.

He didn't mind it if it was done with a view to the site itself, as in the Halifax Building Society headquarters, or the Huddersfield Market, which he likes because it has been executed with a need to address the site itself, which he briefly explains is on a slope and unusual:

Halifax's Victorian market is still there and unchanged.

In his early work, "Outrage," Nairn pioneered the idea that every town increasingly looks the same, due to corporate requirements and cookie cutter architectural practices that were simply lazy and paid no attention to the site that they were being imposed upon. In the end the booze got the better of him so he is largely forgotten, but in his day he was on national TV.

Birmingham was his home city. He popularised the idea that much of modern architecture is just rubbish.

Mark Wadsworth said...

In answer to the question, my only barometer of adult public opinion in the 1970s (when was still a child) is what my parents were saying, and I remember my dad actually cried when they decided to tear down two lovely old Victorian iron-work corn exchange type buildings in central Bradford and replace them with modern shopping malls.

So I would say the backlash against modern stuff happened at the same time as modern stuff was replacing the lovely old stuff (notwithstanding that the new stuff was objectively much better use of central shopping space).

Curmudgeon said...

I'd say the backlash really got going in the 1970s when all the utopian dreams of the 60s were revealed as false promises. Hence CAMRA, steam railway preservation, the Good Life etc.

Plus much Brutalist architecture was very poorly built and didn't last.

Sackerson said...

Here's a touchstone: Queen's College Chambers, Birmingham - and look at the modern build beside it, which looks like a cretinous satire on its beautiful neighbour.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Totally unnecessary brass band music at 1 minute 32 to remind you where 'Uddersfield and 'Alifax are.

Lola said...

Vandalism. State sponsored lefty collectivist vandalism. I'm 67 so I saw in the 70's what 'they' were getting up to. Beautiful city centres like Newcastle were blitzed to make way for a new brutalist structures. Just go and look at the old and new Sunderland railway station. And 'slum' clearance was now such thing. A lot of the 'slums' were perfectly serviceable housing (as were those destroyed by Prescott & Co. under Blair). A lot of it was about 'control' and deciding for people how 'they' should live.

Tim Almond said...


That makes a lot of sense. Modernism was a reaction against the "bad old world". I do worry that there's costs of what followed, though.

Bayard said...

My mother remembered, when the tower blocks started going up in the '50s, people saying "Slums of the seventies". Unfortunately they were not wrong.

One problem with the perception of ancient architecture is because so little of the really crap stuff survives - it has all either fallen down or been demolished - it is assumed that it was all good. With Modern architecture, most of the crap stuff is still with us, so the perception is the other way.