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Decency and dullness

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Building a Better Tomorrow: Architecture in Britain in the 1950sby Robert Elwall.Wiley-Academy, 2000. 128pp. £24.95

Peter Moro once remarked that the Festival of Britain was not the start, but the end, of a particular period of British architecture. This might explain why the fireworks of Festival of Britain architecture fizzled out in the decade that followed; the festival really did mark the end of war and austerity, rather than provide a model for the future.

But it is the iconic images of the festival - the Skylon, the Dome of Discovery - which provide the natural cover shot for Robert Elwall's well informed and well illustrated review of the 1950s, which Lionel Esher described as 'one of the dimmest decades in our architectural history'. Elwall, photographic curator at the RIBA's British Architectural Library, has chosen carefully from the institute's collection to suggest that the 1950s produced perfectly decent architecture, of many styles. This is not a polemic but a broad survey, ranging from the quiet rural housing of Tayler & Green to the concrete innovation of Lasdun and Goldfinger, and from the pyrotechnics of the festival and Coventry Cathedral to the continuation of yesteryear (Goodhart-Rendel's Dockhead church).

As ever, there are few people in the photos. And it must be said that there is a sense of lifelessness about many of the buildings; whatever the merits of the new churches, you know that what you are looking at will soon become redundant. Just as America had Elvis and we had Cliff, so the fabulous cars, offices and shopping malls of the US found only a faint echo over here.

Even heroic structures like the Brynmawr Rubber Factory (by the Architects' CoPartnership) were marked by industrial misconception and early failure.

The two shots from the 'This is Tomorrow' exhibition come as a welcome relief after the decent worthiness of much which has gone before: they represent life,

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