Against the Odds

Form SHB coverA book review by Michael Webb

Against all the odds, England produced an incredibly rich harvest of architecture in the three postwar decades. The country emerged from six years of war, bankrupt, battered yet defiant. It had to make up for years of stagnation and rebuild city centers while embarking on a huge housing program. Idealistic architects worked for local authorities to create apartments, new towns, schools and cultural buildings, turning adversity to advantage. Early efforts were frugal, but somehow the resources were found to create buildings of extraordinary distinction and lasting worth.

In an encyclopedic survey, Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945-1975, sponsored by Historic England, a preservation organization, and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art at Yale, Elain Harwood explores 12 categories of buildings, celebrating the best and providing a richly detailed context. Like their peers in postwar America, the key players were far more progressive than the society they were building for. They believed in the gospel of Le Corbusier—that modernism was the humane, rational path to a better world, and for these 30 years their ideas prevailed.

I grew up in London in that era, and wrote my first book, Architecture in Britain Today in 1969. Almost everything I celebrated and the architects I most admired were cordially loathed by the great majority of my fellow countrymen, for whom the Prince of Wales was the intemperate spokesman. Unsurprisingly, my book (with its cover illustration of a brutalist parking garage), sank like a lead balloon.

For the past 40 years, the balance has shifted from public to private, from local authorities seeking to serve a broad constituency to developers in thrall to corporations and the one percent. Frugality has given place to shiny trophies, and brutalism (even the richly textured National Theater) is as unpopular as ever. That makes this book all the more valuable, for it chronicles an achievement as valuable, socially and aesthetically, as the current wave of speculative towers is shallow and ephemeral. England has become a different country from the one I knew, one in which the best architects are compelled to serve unworthy ends. On the plus side, modernism has finally won acceptance and the potential is there to realize a social agenda if enough people rally to its support.

Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945-1975, Elain Harwood, Yale University Press; $60.

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