The shock of the newish

<strong>Images of Change: an Archaeology of England's Contemporary Landscape</strong>

Sefryn Penr

To become "part of the heritage" is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the artefact or monument in question is patched up, preserved and well tended; on the other, it becomes tamed, reduced to a consensual part of the halcyon past. English Heritage is a quango, formed out of the Department of the Environment in 1983, at the height of the reaction against the new face grafted on to England by old Labour's "white heat of technology". This was when Victoriana returned along with Victorian laissez-faire, and building developments clothed themselves in heritage drag. English Heritage would seem to be central to this move, with its properties such as Eltham Palace or Inigo Jones's Queen's House filled with simulated period furnishings.

So it is especially interesting that, gradually, English Heritage has come up against heritage conservatism itself. While TV programmes and books such as Demolition or Crap Towns pander to the public horror of all things ferroconcrete, English Heritage has been rescuing some of the most controversial postwar buildings. Heroically, it even listed Owen Luder's wild, reviled Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth, alas too late to save it from the wrecking ball. This unlikely bravery now produces Images of Change - a gazetteer of the recent past, as a lavishly illustrated guide to motorway service stations, shopping centres, council estates and holiday camps: the landscape of the past 60 years, and perhaps exactly the things English Heritage was formed to fight.

A charting of the English landscape as it is, rather than as we would like it to be, has not been attempted on this scale since Patrick Keiller's book/film Robinson in Space 11 years ago, or even Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! 24 years before that. Images of Change has a similar eerie poetry to these works, and the photographs, frequently aerial shots, take places as prosaic as Butlins, a 1960s hospital, or the centre of Milton Keynes and make them strange, revealing their peculiar geometry, their ruptures with the 19th-century country we think we know.

The places charted in the book are divided under four subheadings - "People", "Politics", "Profit" and "Pleasure" - with everything from "defence research and development" to "edge towns" and "artificial surfaces" included therein. Sefryn Penrose and the other contributors have an infectious enthusiasm for these places, perhaps because they are aware of how we ignore them in favour of the more familiar idea of heritage. The title is well chosen, as these landscapes appear and disappear with remarkable speed - tower blocks dynamited after 20 years, distribution sheds designed to be dismantled with maximum ease.

There is sometimes a feeling of nostalgia and loss here, more keenly felt than it might be over the ancient monuments that are supposed to stir the emotions. The holiday camps of the 1950s, shown here as jolly panopticons, had a reign of only a decade before ease of foreign travel made them superfluous. More poignantly, the landscape of the welfare state - social housing, the National Health Service, prefabs, new towns - appears as a reminder of a road not taken: Britain as a saner, Scandinavian country with a cool acceptance of modernism, modernity and social democracy, rather than the Americanised "privatopia" of today. Not that this is a melancholic book. The story becomes so resonant of the traces erased, the industries made obsolete, that the contributors poke fun at it. In a section on "television landscapes", Penrose visits the former "Teletubbyland" in Warwickshire and observes how "the field was ploughed back into parkland, as if the Teletubbies had never actually existed".

Yet this hints at what can get lost in the book's "archaeological" approach. The view from above, the panorama, the object removed from its original context - all create a distance that obscures how much these changes were contested. We are told that the welfare state was supplanted by an acceptance that "the market works", and the landscape of Butskellism, succeeded by that of Blatcherism. There is no sense of just how bitterly disputed this "settlement" was at Orgreave, Wapping and elsewhere. Similarly, the landscapes of class are too often absent: for instance, there is no section on the streetscape created by gentrification and the middle classes' return to the cities - new spaces that any inhabitant of London or Manchester would be very familiar with indeed. Today's unsustainable England of ubiquitous private cars and private developments is presented as if it just "happened".

Bearing these caveats in mind, Images of Change is a wonderfully enjoyable, even an important, book. It is designed to be used, and by charting the country of Sizewell, Thamesmead and Bluewater as carefully and fondly as we usually do the England of Stonehenge, St Pancras and Bath, it might just lure us away from the sadly prevalent view that something has to have been built before 1945 to be beautiful.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us