With 1951’s Festival of Britain the nation’s soon-to-be-ousted Labour government gave voice to an idealised, brighter future through a celebration of all things modern. Flatteringly dismissed by Winston Churchill as socialist propaganda, the event sought to showcase a resurgent Britain rising out of its post-war austerity at a rapid pace. As well as the unmissable, Thames-side Skylon tower and Dome of Discovery, the Festival also showcased numerous, less conspicuous, but intentionally modernist structures scattered about London, including a cinema, pleasure railway and show-home dwellings. The Festival recorded over ten million paying visitors to its main exhibitions but, South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall aside, physical evidence of the event was swept away in the wake of the Conservatives’ October ’51 election victory. Its optimistic, inclusive philosophies still had legs, however, and would manifest themselves in social policy and architecture during the next couple of decades, albeit to the backdrop of a resilient class divide and in juxtaposition to a resistance to socialism that would later culminate in Thatcherism.
There exists therefore a nostalgia of a future lost embodied by the Festival’s propaganda and represented by architectural and social progression which fleetingly ran counter to the neo-liberal monster Britain would become; one in which poverty and unemployment became dirty words.
The architecture of a proposed egalitarian London can be traced back to the 1930s when Russian-born architect Berthold Lubetkin envisaged a reshaped society in which architecture helped to break down rather than re-enforce class divisions. In practice, this overtly socialist notion was best exemplified by Lubetkin’s modernist housing projects where each dwelling was the replica of the one adjacent, an approach which contrasted with archetypal British rows of back-to-back houses.
In his 1940 essay The Lion and the Unicorn George Orwell appears to have been confident social change was afoot when suggesting World War II would break down class barriers: “This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing class privileges. There are every day fewer people who wish them to continue. Nor need we fear that as the pattern changes life in England will lose its peculiar flavour. The new red cities of Greater London are crude enough, but these things are only the rash that accompanies a change.”
Shortly after the war, a newly-formed Labour-Tory coalition government not only laid the groundwork for the welfare reform which ultimately led to the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS) under Labour in 1948, but also sought to re-order public space, particularly in the capital. The coalition delivered the means to create open space within London through the construction of various greenbelt sites, as well as halt the urban sprawl exacerbated by the large numbers left homeless by the war. Outside the capital, meanwhile, new communities in Essex and Hertfordshire were founded as part of the New Towns Act in 1946.
Ultimately though, solutions to housing shortages and other social problems needed to found and implemented within the city limits. Here, emerging architects found themselves at the vanguard of social change.
The Tories defeated Labour in the general election of 1951, restoring Churchill to the seat of prime minister. The new government, though compelled to retain the welfare state, abandoned notions of an egalitarian society; a compelling Labour Party poster campaign featuring images of Lubetkin’s Finsbury Health Centre was, for instance, banned.
Lubetkin’s revolutionary ideals caused a stir with those on the right side of politics even prior to the 1954 completion of the Bevin (nee Lenin) Court apartment complex, which was built on the site of where the Russian leader spent time living in exile. The severing of Britain’s wartime alliance with Stalin ushered in an era where all things socialist were distrusted, including the welfare state. Appearing in Tom Cordell’s documentary film Utopia London, architectural consultant Dickon Robinson argues the main reason modernist architecture failed to gain favour was because of the authorities’ “sub-conscious awareness and subconscious suspicion of the overtly political agenda”.
In short, because modernist buildings spawned from revolutionary socialism, they were politicised and stigmatised irrespective of the lifestyle benefits some of them may have delivered to those less fortunate. Modernism seems also to have suffered from being a European import running counter to English nationalist, conservative ideals of an idyllic countryside.
Compounding the aesthetic rejection of modernism was the fact many of the high rises foisted on public housing occupants by heavily subsidised local authorities were built in too much haste and using sub-standard building materials. At Ronan Point in London’s Docklands, structural inadequacies came home to roost just two months after the tower’s 1968 occupation when, following a gas explosion, a building collapse resulted in fatalities.
In Estates: An Intimate History (2007) Lynsey Hanley writes of “a half-century in which council housing grew from a single block in the East End of London to something like a national industry, with industrial methods to match”. “The Macmillan government egged on councils and architects, who saw the bomb-stripped landscape as a blank canvas on which to project their own versions of Le Corbusier’s ‘Radiant City’ of giant urban towers and low-rise suburban satellites.”
Ongoing critiques of modernist housing usually lose sight of the reason the building boom happened in the first place, as LSE’s Anne Power reminds us in the documentary High Rise Dreams: “People were living in miserable housing conditions and we did have a huge housing shortage and people did end up living on the whole in better conditions and we did end up without an acute housing shortage. So I don’t think we should underestimate both the concrete achievements and also what was being attempted.”
Construction of high-rise tower blocks in the UK was largely inspired by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, in particular his Unité d’Habitation development in Marseille, and early streets-in-the-sky were built as part of a policy to integrate public housing with the general community. On the other hand, the placement of blocks from the late ’50s onwards instead solidified a separation between the haves and have nots.
As filmmaker Cordell laments, “Instead of being the aesthetic of a new, classless society, the big estate became the symbol of Britain’s continued class divide”.
Which probably means it’s high time Alice Coleman got a mention…
© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2012.