The Sixties scene
Twentieth Century Architecture 6: The Sixties Edited by Elain Harwood and Alan Powers. Available to AJ readers for £15 (p&p included) from 020 7250 3857
Following a series of conferences on 1960s architecture, the Twentieth Century Society has published a collection of contributions on the subject in its latest journal. During its early days as the Thirties Society (a love-child of the Victorian Society), many were wary of those involved, in the manner that one might regard trainspotters. Initially hostile to contemporary architecture, and still giving the appearance of being slightly impatient with current practitioners, the Twentieth Century Society has worked hard to reshape its image.
This book exemplifies the new, more tolerant approach. It also brings in the parallel fields of journalism, fashion and interior design; none of them in any great detail, but sufficient to give a broader cultural context to the architectural focus of the majority of the contributors.
In most cases the essays are interesting, if a touch over-specific. This is lower-case history, and one is subconsciously reminded of Reyner Banham's frustration during the 1960s about how much of British architecture remained so inward-looking and complacent. We are provided with many tales of those who built the Brutalist concrete blocks that the wider public came to detest, and, in this regard, this volume forms a companion to a similar book on post-war architecture north of the border, Rebuilding Scotland (1998). Yet it is curious for the image of the Twentieth Century Society that, when dealing with a subject that clearly affected all of Britain, it should allow its output to be partitioned in such a manner. Here the texts deal only with England, presumably as a reflection of the way the national conservation and listing bodies are filleted in the UK, but that doesn't make it right.
In terms of the content, we get Jules Lubbock trying (and failing) to wax lyrical about the University of Essex's high-rise concrete campus, and Gavin Stamp in self-justificatory mode explaining how the Victorian Society won the day and turned the tide against high-profile demolitions in London.
Stamp also charts his own personal transformation from Dylan-playing rebel to young fogey, dating his conversion to about 1968.
Simon Sadler tells, once more, the history of the formation of Archigram, a story so well known by now that I wonder why we need to hear it again. Elain Harwood does a typically earnest job in recalling the building programmes of various northern English cities, zooming around as if on a frantic weekend train journey; but by far the best and most original essay is that by Jonathan Hughes on innovations in medical architecture.
Hughes suggests that the obsessive theme ofcirculation, modelled on the parallel thinking by Colin Buchanan and others about urban traffic flows, came to dominate 1960s principles of hospital design. Indeed, the same graphic design team headed by Jock Kinneir was asked to design not only the famous sans-series lettering of our everyday road signs, but also the new softmodern graphics for the rapidly expanding National Health Service - the superbly titled 'Health Alphabet' of 1965. Hughes doesn't mention it here, but Richard Llewellyn Davies and his practice's simultaneous mastery of traffic-fixated town planning and hospital design during the 1960s is another prime example of the links he wishes to tease out. So the next time you find yourself in a 1960s hospital wondering why it feels so cold and alienating, imagine yourself on the hard shoulder of the M1.
In between the academic essays are scattered reminiscences from a few key 1960s architects. Peter Smithson talks elliptically about the Economist Building; Rodney Gordon deals somewhat more directly with the cash cows that he worked on while in Owen Luder's office; and Patrick Hodgkinson gleefully informs us that tenants still like the Brunswick Centre. Again, these are small memories, more useful as psychological insights into how a generation of architects viewed themselves and architecture, rather than adding much to knowledge.
However, one would not want to be too critical of a volume like this, given that it provides a lively and accessible insight into a fascinating period of British architecture.
And, yes, I do know from direct childhood experience that the '60s happened in the Celtic fringes as well.
Professor Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University