Top positive review
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After decades of propaganda, nothing less than the revealing of some of modern Britains' greatest efforts and achievements
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.