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Review - The 1970s - Alan Powers

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In anticipation of the Twenteth Century Society's conference on '70s architecture, Joseph Rykwert, Peter Blundell Jones, Adrian Forty, Gavin Stamp and Martin Pawley reflect on the significance of the decade. Alan Powers introduces this Critics special.

The Seventies in Britain: The Worst of Times, the Best of Times? Twentieth Century Society Conference, 23-24 November, Architectural Association London

A decade is a false division, but a convenient one. Because of the political change of 1979, characterised by union strikes and the election of Thatcher, we are apt to treat the ’70s as being on the far side of some conceptual barrier. Since then, the State has certainly shrunk, and not always architecturally for the worse. Even so, it can be argued that the ’70s were the formative time for everything that has come after, rather than the ’60s gone sour.

This struck me in particular when trying to structure an overview of the whole century’s architectural culture for my book, Britain (2007). I characterised the ’70s with the overworked word ‘Happiness’ – a strange response, you may say, to a decade of miserable limitations, but I would argue that High-Tech was a euphoric alternative to the modernism of concrete, redefining work as leisure. The funkiness of ’60s pop culture scarcely came out in the architecture of that decade, but the ’70s was trimmed with ironic details.

This decade was the arena for a fundamental rethinking of architecture’s political and social role and its engagement with the public. Diversity and inclusion encompassed old buildings, as practical conservation and adaptive re-use moved from the margins towards the centre, resulting in the salvaging of Covent Garden and other historic town centres. Belief in the importance of childhood and play informed a ludic attitude to design at Byker, as well as the design of retail interiors. There is no better place to observe these phenomena than Milton Keynes, which forms one strand of our upcoming conference. Bletchley Leisure Centre by FaulknerBrowns (1975) was also the first of its kind; a warm sociable place to enjoy yourself, rather than a severe command to get fit. Bletchley and the shopping centre are both now under threat.

In the ’70s, philosophical ideas about indeterminacy and flux displaced rigid Newtonian schemes of ‘design methods’, so that pluralism was not an unthinking default mode but a conviction in itself, responsive to man and nature alike. Theory encompassed the operative (computing and autarkic houses) as well as the reflective (Post-Modernism and reflections of Neo-Rationalism from New York or Venice). With the Heinz Gallery
as their playground, architectural historians found that architects could learn from what they unearthed from the past.

The government has codified 30 years as the time it takes to be able to look backwards without prejudice, but the programme of post-war listing so bravely embarked upon by English Heritage in the early 1990s, came to a virtual standstill before the work reached the dateline of 1970. The clock is still ticking and the developers are busy – something needs to be done, unless we choose to consign most of a decade of architectural production to the mercies of the market.

Alan Powers is the chairman of the Twentieth Century Society

Resume: Seventies even groovier than the Sixties, says Powers.

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