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Plymouth: Vision of a Modern City (Informed Conservation)
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
For anyone with an interest in postwar Plymouth - and that must include well over 200,000 people - or, indeed, anyone with an interest in British postwar planning and architecture, this book will fascinate. Its author is Emeritus Professor of Architecture at the University of Plymouth, and, as such, is fully entitled to his often trenchant views.

There are five chapters. In the first, Gould briefly summarises the context of the 1943 `Plan for Plymouth' of Abercrombie and Paton Watson, reviewing its sources and assessing its radical nature; alas, "in common with many of his contemporaries, Abercrombie despised all things Victorian ... its muddled architecture, insanitary conditions and mixed uses represented all that was wrong with city design."

Chapter two addresses the realisation of the plan in the city centre in two phases: 1945-51 and 1951-62. Gould argues that the nature of the modern city centre means that most Plymothians are aware of `The Plan' but that what they got is not completely what was intended. Quite a few old buildings were retained; main streets were narrowed; and the supposed inner intimate streets disappeared in favour of rear service-courts. Charles Church became lost in a roundabout and the bus station was stupidly built at the opposite end of town from the railway station.

Gould looks at the rules laid down for the new architecture and finds that, despite these, the results were "infinitely variable". He notes that "the 1950s was the last period when applied art and architecture went hand in hand. Both local and nationally known artists and sculptors decorated the new architecture of Plymouth." But the "strict regulation that was unquestioned in the early 1950s was less acceptable to a population of traders and developers who had `never had it so good' in the relatively affluent late 1950s." But, "Perversely, less money was spent on buildings as private wealth increased." Indeed, one concludes from Gould's account how so many opportunities were wasted, resulting in only half of Abercrombie's vision being fulfilled.

`Housing and Suburbs' is the title of chapter three. Here Gould looks at the suburban `villages' suggested by `the Plan' and contrasts this with their actual development: housing, amenities, pubs, schools, churches. Whilst conceding that many of the plan's promises were not kept, he has praise for many of the results, and once again opened the eyes of this reader to the value of what was conceived and built.

The fourth chapter assesses the significance of `the Plan', comparing Plymouth's postwar development with those in Bristol, Coventry, and Exeter. He also notes how changes had to be made as time went on to take account of the ubiquitous rise of the motor car. Gould notes the criticisms - the Daily Mail in 1961 reported how the city centre at night was as dead as the square mile of the City of London - but meanwhile the empty spaces in the city centre were gradually filled in bit by bit with little consistency of design: and much has ironically since been demolished.

In addition, "the original architecture was coarsened" and became unloved, whilst in the suburbs facilities faded. Yet, in Gould's opinion, Plymouth did not fare as badly as other similar cities, although for Gould to lay the blame for Plymouth's postwar architecture becoming forgotten nationally at the doors of a resurrected Coventry Cathedral is a little crass.

Conservation is the focus of the final chapter, Gould boldly declaring that "Plymouth is the most complete and sole surviving British post-war plan. It is as important and representative of its time as Georgian Bath or medieval York." But, "There is a lack of understanding and pride in the extraordinary achievement of the 1950s ... For the tourist, Plymouth remains the city of Drake and the `Mayflower'." Gould comments enthusiastically on David Mackay's 2004 plan for Plymouth's centre and is, of course, well aware that both conservation and development can be partners rather than enemies. As for the suburbs, conservation here has not been an issue, "simply because their unique qualities have not yet been recognised."

The book is profusely illustrated, picking up details on buildings that I had never noticed before. (I'm not sure that Gould is right to describe, as he does in the caption to the opening photograph of the first chapter, the Victorian terraces that made way for Western Approach as "slum housing".) The book ends with notes, references, a bibliography, and a plan of the city centre with a key showing the major 9and minor) postwar buildings.

More than ten years ago there were plans to knock down and redevelop Norwich Union House and the top end of Royal Parade. I thought at the time that this would be a dreadful error as it would not be long before fashions would change and the 1950s architecture would come to be cherished and seen to be of national importance. That time has now arrived. Now is the time for a full appraisal of the results of `The Plan', and Gould's book goes some way in doing this without becoming bogged down in too much detail.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 19 July 2012
This a great little book by an expert in the subject - Prof. Jeremy Gould of the Plymouth School of Architecture. This actually a refreshingly polemical account of Plmouth's exceptional post-Blitz architectural history (though there's sparse detail about much before WWII). As a local, it brings into sharp relief all of the contextual environmental characteristics that account for Plymouth's present condition (malaise?) - for better or worse. Importantly, it reveals the reasons behind the deliberate erasure of the City's pre-War history, but also the high minded utopianism of the Welfare State era City Planner - no less than Sir Patrick Abercrombie himself - who was simultaneously developing the post War Plan for London - with his particular emphasis on low density, dispersed suburbanism so fundamental to my own subjective experience of my home city. As well as these critical revelations (tucked away toward the end of the book) the book is also a celebration of the high quality and attention to detail of the early architecture and design 1943 to 1962, and thereby demonstrating the total lack of care and complacency (vandalism?) toward the achievements of that generation. The heroic old buildings and plan for the city have clearly been callously run into the ground by unthinking an uninformed local government who have consistently put penny pinching ahead of appropriate safeguards of acceptable standards of quality for the built environment which has resulted in the present public fiasco of a hopelessly collapsing Civic Centre; the main purpose behind this timely publication. It's oh-so easy to blame long dead architects- much more relevant to blame the present day mis-managers and profiteering landlords responsible for the failure to properly maintain and understand the shared inheritance of our suffering grandparents hard-won dreams for a better society. "Concrete Jungle"? - It's hand-carved Portland stone you moron, get your facts straight before you make your ignorant, uninformed decisions about installing another acre of cheap white uPVC windows......
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on 10 April 2015
A wonderful, accessible and entertaining guide to the development of our underrated and undersold mid century city. The book takes you through the development of the city and its' suburbs from WW2 to early 21st century. Reading this bookmade increased my appreciation of the unique post war plan behind Plymouth and made me want to revisit some of our special mid century publc buildings, churches,housing and shops.
Full of good quality photos of significant buildings, I particularly enjoyed the chapter about conservation of the Plan and its' right to be recognised as a 1950s piece of design.
Recommended.
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