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4.6 out of 5 stars
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4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 22 August 2016
'I expected a balanced and critical analysis of what went wrong with post-war planning and architecture', say some reviewers. Well, exactly.
The received wisdom (and it is very much received, uncritically absorbed and usually coloured by one's political outlook) is that the 30 or so years after the war was a 'failed experiment' of leftish utopianism, a blip which is now unfit for purpose and inferior to the ideas the preceded it.
This attitude doesn't just apply to architecture, however. The howl of middle England at the anguish of post-war change, while simultaneously having benefitted wholesale from it and smugly patronising it as a kind of wooly-headed dogooderism, is something to behold.
The irony of the rather different and refreshing picture that John Grindrod entertainingly paints in Concretopia is that the decades of rebuilding after the war were a collective blossoming of ideas, genuinely noble intentions and effort, in the midst of austerity and huge debt – the kind of genuine achievements that should inspire a patriotic pride and yet are consistently belittled by those who shout their patriotism from the rooftops and yet all too often wear it as an image, a badge, all surface.
And yes, here's the dull caveat, as if it need be stated....not everything was perfect, nor perfectly done , mistakes were made etc etc...Ronan Point, corruption....all covered, thank you.
Concretopia is not balanced, because the propaganda it offers a counterweight against is not balanced. What it is however, is as witty, passionate, entertaining, informative and hugely readable as you would never expect a treatise on planning and architecture to be.
Grindrod offers a highly personal and selective trip through the many periods and ideas that make up the post-war building boom – system building, brutalism, high and low rise estates, garden cities, new towns and so on.
Like many of the excellent recent books and articles that focus primarily on Brutalism, he slays the multitude of myths, illogic and downright lies that have constituted much of the commentary on this period. The repudiation of the most common ones is worth repeating here – firstly, not all concrete buildings, nor high-rise buildings, are brutalist, nor modernist, nor is all modernism brutalist. The use of these terms interchangeably is a sure sign of the uninformed – precisely the sort of person who should read this book.
Neither were the residents of the buildings, as conventional wisdom dictates, frozen out and dehumanised by middle-class architects and planners displaying either a haughty prioritization of form over function or a smug paternalism (indeed, which is it?).
The post-war period needed unprecedented amounts of people housed, and fast. The proportion of people that lived in squalid conditions is well documented. Entire town centres needed rebuilt, indeed entire towns needed built, all despite a crippling debt. The technology of the day was reinforced concrete. The talents of the brightest young and the most experienced of war veterans were all employed to make this happen. The idea that it could have been achieved, in the timescale or budget needed, by modernisation of existing housing or giving everyone a twee cottage with front and back garden is laughable, yet this seems to be what critics suggest.
In the best of the developments, the thought that went into both the present and future needs of the new residents is quite incredible (imagine wishing to cater for the needs of your customer - this must be the 'utopianism' that we keep hearing about).
People weren't just rehoused, they got for the first time many of the basic comforts that we take for granted – hot and cold running water, central heating. By most accounts they were delighted and many still are, decades later. But we never hear from them, except in a book like this.
Those that were failed, not by the architects or planners, but by penny-pinching councils and short-sighted social housing policy, are potrayed as the norm. One suspects that ordinary folk receiving the benefits of cutting-edge architecture and planning rankles with some sections of society.
The most incredible aspect of all this is that this period produced in many cases buildings that are, both objectively and subjectively, superior to those today, in an atmosphere of genuine concern for the collective good and austerity and debt incomparable to today's. And it was done fifty and more years ago. The contrasts with the ego and greed-led trophy architecture, endless bureaucracy and uncritical fetishisation of the past, the carping that any undertaking by the government for the common good is unrealistic/dreaming/utopian/communist and worst of all the endless sprawl of cheaply-built, squashed together, identikit retro-tat of today could not be more stark.
The sheer arrogance and myopia of our historical dismissal of this period is a disgrace and that's why you should buy this superb book, why you need to, and once you have, it is not an exaggeration that you will see Britain in a new light.
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on 17 January 2016
I downloaded this book to see what a book about concrete could be about. I expected it to be a dul

I downloaded this book to see what a book about concrete could possibly be about. I got a surprise. It is about the reconstruction of Britain's post second world war bomb out towns and slum clearance, covering a period from about the 1950's to the end of the 1970's. The author tells about why new towns were build, and designed the way they were. He also describes the ideology behind the town centres and some of the period's iconic buildings. It is story of the success and failure of these ideas. It gives an insight not only into the building boom and corruption of the time but also into the more noble ideology and hopes of town planners and architects who were trying to forge a better Britian. I for one denegrated the concrete of the era and despised the ugliness of most modern buildings. Since reading this book I have begun to look at modern architecture in a new way. I have now become more deserning in condemnation and praise because I understand better the aims behind the works. This change of attitude has made this book work for me, after all books should make us think, I think. I have also come to understand better what these buildings and centres were in reaction to, this is something I had never concidered before. All in all I was very suprised by this book. I would recommend it as a read for anyone, but if you are interersted in social history I woud certainly suggest you give it a read. It has a nice light touch of someone passionate about the world he lives in.
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on 17 April 2017
Well researched and engaging. Although I didn't entirely agree with Johns assessment of the buildings described. The social history and enthusiasm between the author and people he interviewed was fascinating to read
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on 3 May 2017
Engagingly written with personal histories and experience that really fill out the detail. If you are a child of the 60s or 70s you will find so many memories in here!
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on 18 March 2017
An essential book for anyone with an interest in post war modernist architecture and planning, lovingly and entertainingly told by the author.
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on 17 July 2014
A snapshot throughout the country, of the rush, scandal and corruption to clear the slums, after WW2 and re-house 'en mass'. Some chapters better than others. (Probably, depends where you live or personal connections, making certain parts of the book, more engaging). Very well researched and excellent references for further reading.
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VINE VOICEon 21 February 2015
A very personal and idiosyncratic book about Britain's post-war building boom.

Having been born in a new town, I moved to another one after a few years in London, and have visited a few others, so I found some chapters absolutely fascinating. They were not actually about either of the towns I lived in, but I'm pretty sure the issues were the same.

But the book isn't just about the new towns. Much as it would have increased the chances of me getting to read about Crawley or Basildon, it would have just been the same story over and over again. Instead, there are also sections about the precursors to the new towns (Letchworth), the inner city redevelopment of Newcastle, Sheffield and Glasgow, the Festival of Britain and the National Theatre, Coventry cathedral, the Barbican and the Elephant & Castle. Oh, and Milton Keynes, New Addington/Croydon and some places I had never heard of.

I liked the objective approach to the book. It seems that commentators on architecture or planning are either completely dismissive of anything made from concrete or completely brutalist, but this is a lot more nuanced, admiring what is admirable about, say the Cumbernauld town centre or Sheffield's Park Hill estate while not ignoring what was wrong with them

While this is essential for anybody living in a new town who wants to understand a bit more about how they came about I think it will interest just about anybody.
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on 21 May 2017
great book the rise and fall of concrete houses in the sky fascinating to see how some developments started off lively and loved to slump into flight and decay....i remember visiting milton keynes decades ago and being amazed at how indoors it was...the non town of hook was fascinating...wish there was a bit about multi storied car parks as i live in a place dominated by one...great read the author keeness shined out it has motivated me to read more oh and next time i,m in london to re look at the southbank
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 November 2014
Concretopia is a cleverly-structured and highly personal account of Britain's postwar redevelopment, from the breezy make-do optimism of the first prefabs to the squalor, hubris and corruption of the John Poulson era. It's a genuinely tragic story. It's hard to believe now that today's gang-ridden inner-city high-rise no-go zones were the product of an idealistic attempt to build a new socialist Jerusalem amidst the rubble of Britain's postwar devastation. John Grindrod does an excellent job of piecing together how and where it all went wrong - and, occasionally, where it all went right.

Grindrod has travelled the UK to visit many of the grand (and less grand) residential and commercial developments of the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s. Many of the most striking moments of his book are his interviews with the people of who live and work there. This is grass-roots social history at its best, and really brings home the successes and failures of the mid-century generation of architects and town planners that so profoundly shaped today's urban and suburban environment. Grindrod's affection and enthusiasm for some of Britain's more unloved corners is such that it will make you start planning day trips to Coventry, Croydon and Cumbernauld. If you've enjoyed John Kynaston's histories of postwar Britain, and if your heart beats a little faster in the presence of immense slabs of pre-cast concrete, then this will be right up your street.

A big thumbs-up to Old Street Publishing for an excellent job on the paperback edition: nice crisp type, lots of well-chosen photographs and some really groovy cover art. Warmly recommended.
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on 20 February 2014
If this is your chosen subject of interest then this is a very good read. Obviously not everyones cup of tea.
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