Wednesday 18 June 2008

Best laid plans

Britain's Lost Cities, by Gavin Stamp (Aurum Press)

As the Eurostar traveller steps through the restored Gothic glories of St Pancras station on the way to the boulevard of Paris, he or she may think that the battle for the conservation of old buildings has been won. It’s a given that, except amongst diehard Modernists, traditional architecture is good and should not be disposed of without due cause. But the very fact that this view is now taken for granted raises the danger that the havoc wrought by architects and their planner acolytes will be regarded as a thing of the past that can never happen again. At a time when demolition sites are splattered over Northern towns and London’s 2021 Olympic venue alike, this book is a timely reminder of past horrors and a warning against future ones.

This doesn’t mean that the book is a Victor Meldrewish threnody for past architectural glories, a mistaken assumption that might be strengthened when it’s remembered that its author was once regarded in some quarters as a leading Young Fogey. Remember them? Two decades ago they were tweedy young aesthetes, a throwback to the young men of the Brideshead generation who loved traditional architecture, spoke RP without shame or hesitation, knew their way around Debrett’s, worshipped in church according to the Book of Common Prayer or the Latin Mass. Actors like Jeremy Irons, Rupert Everett and Charles Dance were the YF pin-up boys. But the increasing loadsamoney ethos of the eighties did for them, put them onto the cultural back-burner. However, Gavin Stamp isn’t a kneejerk hater of all that’s been built since the guns of the Great War opened fire. For as well as being an architectural historian, he has also been chairman of the Twentieth Century Society, an organisation which campaigns for the preservation of Britain’s architectural heritage since 1914. Stamp’s appreciation of architectural accomplishments is not bound or defined – by decades. This CV makes his comments and criticisms all the more telling.

Stamp starts – truthfully and cleverly – by pointing-out that change ‘is inevitable. Cities cannot stand still; they grow, are adapted, modified, modernised, or they can decline and decay’, and goes to remind us that there ‘is no doubt that much was wrong and dispiriting about Britain’s cities. There were huge areas of run-down, poor-quality housing that deserved replacement. Polluting industries were sited next to residential areas; urban air was full of smoke, buildings were blackened by soot’. But he then lays waste to the orthodox explanation for the failures of urban reconstruction. The standard narrative for the destruction of British cities takes the line that it started with the German air-raids of the Second World War and was completed – often with the best of intentions – by post-war planners. In his pithy introduction, Stamp demolishes this legend by identifying the pre-war causes that were responsible, the first being the rise of the motor car. In 1922 there were one million motorised vehicles on Britain’s road (which were designed for transport methods of earlier eras) and few dared stand-up to the demands of motorists: cities would have to be rebuilt to accommodate their needs.

Enter the second cause – the town planner. This profession was a new one and had to encompass factors as diverse as health and sanitation, provision of open spaces, traffic regulation and housing needs. He had to create a work of art in the process. But – with few exceptions – many of the planners were engineers or surveyors, men with little interest in aesthetics and whose main concerns were with traffic-related matters. Warnings against wholesale rebuilding were generally ignored for, after the cultural impact of the Great War, anything which smacked of the old ways was discredited and a brave new world was sought-for instead. The vision for that world was supplied by the Continental Modern Movement and its theorists like Gropius and Le Corbusier.

Stamp also argues that British air-raids on Berlin and Munich in 1940 resulted in German retaliatory attacks on London and Coventry – and that air-raids on ancient German cities led to further destruction of British ones – the infamous Baedeker raids (although military historians would doubtless argue that the bombing of Warsaw in 1939 and of Rotterdam the following year indicate that German air-raids would eventually have been inflicted on British cities too in order to encourage surrender). But – whatever its causes - this destruction simply meant that the hour of the planner – many of whom possessed (or should that be suffered from?) a boundless self confidence – had come. Post-war financial constraints put grand visions for rebuilding on hold but, with the advent of 1950s prosperity – the ‘you’ve never had it so good’ era summed-up in a famous misquotation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan – rebuilding was back on the agenda.

There was large-scale cooperation between municipal authorities and private enterprise. Enthusiasts for the Modern Movement dominated the higher echelons of the architectural profession along with ‘a visceral and blinkered rejection of the dark but substantial legacy of the Victorians’. The well-intentioned wreckers had a ball. In 1968 the partial demolition of the Ronan Point tower block in London’s East End – the result of a gas explosion – began a process of questioning about the Modern Movement, whilst the uncovering of the Poulson affair – more of that in a moment – exposed the cosy, corrupt relationships that often existed between architects and local and national politicians. Civic societies and conservation groups started springing-up and refurbishment, rather than demolition, began to be favoured by local authorities.

Having set-out his general thesis, Stamp proceeds to give practical examples of the destruction that has been wrought. Time and again the photographs of what was lost not only through enemy action but because of post-war planning show streets and buildings – especially in an 1860s picture of Liverpool’s Lord Street and a 1914 one of Bristol’s Wine Street – that convey a sense of human scale that is nevertheless bustling with activity (the former’s Regency buildings were obliterated by bombing, the latter is now a barren open space). The picturesque shops of Coventry’s Butcher’s Row are shown just before their destruction, not by German bombers in 1940, but by the city authorities some five years earlier (today those shops would be tailor-made for small businesses). Post-war plans for the city’s rebuilding were unpopular and, as Stamp notes, the new Cathedral, consecrated in 1962, ‘was surely the last modern building that the general public queued to see’.

Excellent slum clearance, along with some public work to relieve unemployment, was carried-out in pre-war Leeds – a city that suffered only nine bombing raids – but conventional post-war anti-Victorian prejudice soon ensured the destruction of buildings like George Gilbert Scott’s Gothic Westminster Bank. In London, we see aristocratic town houses such as William Kent’s Devonshire House, Matthew Brettingham’s Norfolk House and Robert Adam’s Lansdowne House which were demolished or mutilated to make way for American-inspired flats and hotels as well probably the capital’s most famous martyr to post-war planning, Philip Hardwick’s Euston Arch.

In the 1960s, ‘local government leader and criminal’ T Dan Smith attempted to transform Newcastle into ‘the Brasilia, or the Milan, of the North’. His attempt would fail due to fallout from the downfall of the ‘architect and criminal’ John Poulson, but the destruction of works such as the island block of fine Classical buildings containing the old Town Hall and Corn Exchange would go ahead anyway. As Stamp says, today’s Newcastle is ‘more like the Croydon of the North’. Mediocre modern planning blighted Medieval Norwich – we see Magdalen Street, an ancient route north of out of the city – before it was bisected by a flyover but, on a happier note, we learn that ‘people power’ can have an effect. In Portsmouth, war-damaged but repairable buildings – including a Greek Revival former Guildhall and the George Hotel where Nelson stayed before Trafalgar – were demolished, but a public enquiry was able to save the Arts and Crafts church of St Agatha’s, Landport.

Stamp records a form of destruction that serves as a paradigm for the West’s almost unique self-hatred for the achievements of its culture in general. As he says, these ‘lost buildings may not be acknowledged masterpieces’, but they had ‘charm and interest, positive qualities and value to those who had eyes to see’. Indeed, it’s a pity that the book lacks any ‘then and now’ photographs so that what has gone before can be compared with its dismal replacements. But his insight is far from being accepted in architectural circles, as witnessed by the recent almost-hysterical opposition to the use of Classical architecture for the extension of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. But what can be done to renew architecture, prevent it from sinking either into pastiche of the past or being bedazzled by promises of a brave but inhuman future? Obviously, a fresh look at the criteria for, and management of, planning systems is needed, but this is only a partial solution, for systems are not infallible (and they are, arguably, open to abuse as being playgrounds for the ‘gifted’ amateur, the professionally truculent, the searcher for a fast buck).

Also, reform of architectural schools is needed: students need to learn practicality – nobody wants buildings that either inhibit function or fall down – and to be exposed to – and encouraged to explore and experiment with – a plethora of styles. The schools also need to encourage a spirit of individualism and playfulness, rather than act as architectural sausage machines. But, for this to happen, there will be a need for the acts in general to recover a sense of pride in the achievements of the past, along with the recognition that Modernism – in all its forms – is simply one style among many, not the unquestionable lode-bearer of social improvement. The idea that an artist must be a member of, adhere to, and promise the beliefs of, a particular clique must also go. In the meantime, this book serves as both a reminder of past achievements, and what happens when they are wantonly neglected.


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