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Were the 1970s really the decade that style forgot?

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On Saturday, the conference moved beyond purely architectural matters to address issues of style, fashion and, indeed, ‘lifestyle’ - not to forget ‘heritage’.


The 1970s, declared Gavin Stamp, was a period when ‘everybody seemed to be angry’. Modern architecture was generally lousy and the ‘terror’ of urban clearance still in full spate, producing atrocities like the Manchester Arndale Centre. An ‘anti-architecture culture’ emerged, as the gulf between architects and conservationists grew. But Stamp is now a reborn figure, co-operating in the listing of buildings he once detested - like Stirling’s Cambridge History Library - and conceding that the architectural reaction preached by Watkin and others produced nothing of value.


Stamp is, however, still reluctant to admit that modern buildings have sometimes enriched cities, which have to change to survive. Better the messy diversity of a real city, surely, than the subtopia of Milton Keynes, a 1970s creation not entirely convincingly expounded by Michael Synott (of the mk ‘City Discovery Centre’, no less). As Elain Harwood demonstrated in a comprehensive paper, modern housing, as done by Darbourne & Darke, Erskine and others, could be contextual and user-friendly. It was, however, a false dawn - cost-cutting and community architecture won the day.


Terry Farrell, the last of the architectural heavyweights to speak, recalled his years with Nicholas Grimshaw. The Park Road flats (completed 1970) was jointly conceived, but detailed by Grimshaw, but as the decade wore on (the partnership broke up in 1980) Farrell and Grimshaw’s interests diverged. Farrell was increasingly interested in adaptation and re-use, working for 14 years on the exemplary Comyn Ching scheme, and in housing. The attraction of High-Tech, with its universal solutions, waned and Farrell was unashamedly interested in aesthetics and symbolism. The Covent Garden Greenhouse was an attempt at High-Tech with meaning and feeling. The passion behind Farrell’s work, rather submerged, perhaps, in some of the big schemes of the 1980s, shone through.


The 1970s might have been angry, restless, uninspiring, even gloomy, but contained the seeds of the future. At the aa, Alvin Boyarsky presided over a nursery of talent - Coates, Hadid, Wilson, Tschumi, Libeskind et al. Deconstruction was born there, not at moma, but there was still room for Leon Krier to promote alternative visions, just as radical in their way. Gavin Stamp, it seems, regards the ‘star system’ as the bane of architecture, but Boyarsky believed in it firmly. And he even found space for Stamp and others to lecture and promote interest in unjustly forgotten architects like Oliver Hill and Goodhart-Rendel. A grim decade? Everyone seems to have had a whale of a time.


‘From Brutalism to Beanbags - architecture, design and lifestyle in 1970s Britain’ was a conference organised by the Twentieth Century Society.

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