Lack of nerve?
Building the Post-War World: Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Britain By Nicholas Bullock. Routledge, 2002. £24.99
What exactly did get built in the 10 years from the end of the Second World War to 1955? What were the ideologies, theories, material and technological constraints, the financial and political factors that influenced reconstruction in the aftermath of the war? Nicholas Bullock sees this period as one in which the talk was of 'building a new Britain', with the state playing a fundamental role. He stops at 1955, by which time the emphasis was on 'bringing Britain up to date' and, less idealistically, on 'the need to keep up with the United States, or as least ahead of Europe', with private enterprise to the fore.
This is certainly a period that deserves serious study, and no definitive assessment has yet been published - although the results of English Heritage's post-war listing survey are currently being drawn together in a book that will look at each major building type in turn. In an article entitled 'Europe Rebuilt 1946-56', JM Richards' contemporary assessment was very harsh: 'The only phenomenon which has emerged since the war is a meanly finished utility commercial style of no distinction whatsoever in Britain nobody cares.'
Bullock argues that this is an essentially stylistic judgment, 'framed in terms of the vanguard's formal preoccupations', and gives no credit to the unparalleled level of research that had been carried out and the 'equally heroic' meshing of plans for reconstruction with a planning framework. And it is good to be reminded that plans were thrown off kilter because of the flying-bomb campaign, which began in June 1944 and destroyed or seriously damaged 150,000 houses in three months - a huge increase in destruction at a late stage in the war.
Bullock's book is a thorough exploration of many fields. He examines not just the work of the avant-garde, the development of government policy and the impact of planning theories, including the role of periodicals such as The Architectural Review, with its emphasis on picturesque principles, but also looks at the continuities. The established practices that carried on working, the compromises and failures of nerve, as well as the successes and high-profile projects, were all part of the overall picture.
This means there is a substantial chapter on the reconstruction of Bristol, alongside the more predictable case studies. According to the author, the book's genesis was a series of lectures given at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, in 1990 (Bullock teaches at both Cambridge and the AA). These were given by practitioners with first-hand experience of the period, including Peter Moro, Peter Smithson and Colin St John Wilson, but their voices do not dominate the text, which demonstrates widespread archival research.
Bullock's conclusion is that the Second World War 'and the changes it ushered in transformed the nature of the Modern Movement. The war set Modern architects in the service of society.' So what went wrong? Why was 'society' so ungrateful?
Was it down to lack of nerve? He explains how our first direct homage to the Unité d'Habitation - the LCC slab blocks at the Bentham Road Estate - were only a quarter the size of the original, with no doubleheight space, no rue interieur, no communal facilities in the blocks, and with family housing in separate terraces; adaptations made mainly to comply with LCC space standards and restrictions.
What about Brutalism? Was it this reaction to the perceived feyness of 'Festival Style' that lost architects popular sympathy?
Was it 'the reinterpretation by the new avant-garde of the ideals of the pre-war masters of the Modern Movement' (Bullock's assessment of Hunstanton School), which led to dissent and distrust? Could we have gone in a different direction?
The book is billed and presented as a twopart affair, looking first at 'the architectural elite' and key buildings (this is where CIAM, the Festival Hall, the TUC headquarters, Coventry Cathedral (below left), Churchill Gardens (below right), Spa Green and the best LCC estates are covered); while the second half is a more practical and pragmatic history with prefabs, Wimpey's in situ concrete houses, and Wates' panel construction.
Bullock himself writes: 'What is called for is an account which can bring together these different histories. The significance of the Smithsons' Hunstanton School for the avant-garde, the importance of the Hertfordshire schools for new ways of building and education.' The only problem with Building the Post-War World is that it still feels like reading two books back to back; the synthesis is not fully achieved.
Catherine Croft is an architectural historian and director of the Twentieth Century Society