Man-Made Future Edited by Iain Boyd Whyte.Routledge, 2007. 256pp.£24.99
The received view of post-war British architecture is one of the inevitable triumph of Modernism, thanks to the advocacy of certain key individuals and the lessons of wartime. Modernism, based on research, collaboration and industrial production, brought to the rebuilding of British towns the lessons of the boffins' war: technology and planning were to reshape society.
The virtue of this collection of essays is that it scrutinises some major aspects of this story, though its coverage is arbitrary and uneven. In chronological terms it starts before the war, not with the pioneering Modernist houses of Connell, Ward & Lucas and the like, but with the struggle for control of the Architectural Association.
There the gentlemanly H S Goodhart-Rendel failed to stem the students' conversion to the new ethos of group working and research-based design, articulated by the young Richard Llewellyn-Davies. The students' scheme for Faringdon in Berkshire, published in 1938, was a harbinger of the ruthless confidence of post-war planning.
Moving on through the war years, other essays deal with the graphics of the town plans which proliferated after 1945, most of them unconvincing except for the brilliant diagrams and drawings of Otto Neurath and Gordon Cullen. Predictably, Donald Gibson features in two essays, because as city architect at Coventry from 1938 he had prepared radical redevelopment plans well before the bombing started, and what he achieved was the most complete, and certainly the most wellpublicised, of the schemes based on pre-war ambitions. Louise Campbell describes him as 'an idiosyncratic blend of the technocrat and the idealist'.
More than any other contributor it is Jules Lubbock, writing on the genesis of the 1947 Planning Act, who catches the mood of the time and the way in which a consensus emerged in favour of a scientifically planned society led by the experts from Whitehall.
For Lubbock, land-use controls and zoning, paving the way for Modernist planning, were at odds with how most people wanted to live. But the strength of the wartime ethos allowed their introduction almost without a murmur.
The book takes us to the brink of the New Towns movement but says not a word on that. Instead it concludes with essays on the new universities of the 1960s and a military barracks of the same era (Spence's Hyde Park Cavalry Barracks); both of them planned environments but surprising choices in a collection which sidesteps bigger issues.
The most disheartening aspect of this collection, written mainly by academics, is that few of the authors seem to have ever visited the places they are writing about. Perhaps they would argue that their focus is the intellectual environment of Modernity rather than the built results, but this lack of critical engagement with what was actually achieved leaves half the story untold.
Robert Thorne is a historian at Alan Baxter & Associates