The utopian dreams of 1960s architecture

Rediscovering the bracing visions of mid-century architects and planners. 

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In the 1960s we were promised jet-packs. The chief planner of Leicester suggested the city should have an underground, a monorail, a helipad, eight floors of car parking and a system of electric rickshaws to replace taxis. And, according to “Traffic in Towns”, the 1963 government report that sought to plan for a future in which everyone used cars, we should also have hovercraft, helicopters and conveyor belts, all “as possible substitutes for the motor car”. Elon Musk can do one.

Otto Saumarez Smith’s detailed and engrossing book about the mid-20th-century boom in urban redevelopment is as much a history of what might have been as one of what actually happened. The built environment bequeathed by the 1960s, he writes, has been “denigrated in books such as Crap Towns and Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards”: they document a “gimcrack modernism of tacky pedestrian precincts, grim underpasses, budget mega-structures, and gargantuan car parks”. What we ended up with was a long way from the bracing visions of architect-planners, working against constraints that were mainly social, historical and political, but increasingly financial as the decade wore on.

The book starts, as did the Sixties, in a rush of optimism and enthusiasm for a generation of architect-planners whose epic schemes to remould Victorian cities for the late 20th century were led by a collective social conscience rather than individual megalomania. They were influenced less by Le Corbusier than by the concept of “Townscape”, which advocated “urban forms that privileged the pedestrian” and designs which, while often bracingly modern, complemented, rather than obliterated, existing buildings such as churches.

They perceived their task as immense, urgent and morally necessary, particularly in the north of England. In 1964, the Guardian reported on a “man-made hell in South Lancashire”, created by the Industrial Revolution and exacerbated by the onset of industrial decline. The Rector of Warrington claimed he worked in a “muck heap”, while a consultant at the town’s general hospital stated that nearly a tenth of acute admissions in the previous year were of women having taken overdoses “in a state of mental depression” due to the poverty and misery of their surroundings.

But there was something missing: namely, money. The schemes proposed at the start of the 1960s were based on two assumptions: first, that economic growth would be sustainable and infinite (cue hollow laughter), and second, that a general trend towards mass affluence raised everyone with it. The reality in places such as Blackburn and Liverpool, which put forward two of the most drastic redevelopment schemes, was that they lagged far behind other parts of the country in terms of average income and car ownership, both predicates for new schemes based on driving and shopping. A new town for 100,000 ex-Londoners at Hook, Hampshire, its design influenced by the “dry beauty” of Scandinavian modernism, never materialised, albeit for political as much as economic reasons.

There was also, in Saumarez Smith’s words, “an astonishing lack of imaginative foresight” in plans that depicted, for instance, “people happily promenading” under a giant flyover rather than scurrying under it as fast as possible. Graeme Shankland was known as “the butcher of Liverpool” for his plan to sort out the city’s traffic problem by building a six-lane
motorway through the middle of it. The failure of the scheme was a mixed blessing for Liverpudlians, who grew used to thinking its wartime bomb sites would never be filled – with motorways or anything else. The sociologist Tony Lane wrote of the city in 1978 that “the decline of Liverpool is not simply statistical, it is visible. ‘It looks as if it’s been bombed’ is a favourite local expression that does not exaggerate.”

But if you’re looking for cartoon villains you won’t find them here – with the possible exception of Keith Joseph, Harold Macmillan’s housing minister, who used to go to bed counting the number, not the quality, of planning applications he’d approved. In their place are complex portraits of Shankland and Lionel Brett, the aristocratic architect and writer who believed comprehensive redevelopment was the only way to rescue our “tragically squalid and unworthy” urban centres. By the end of the decade, he felt “it was only too painfully obvious that the welfare-state generation had failed, except in a few odd corners, to deliver the goods”.

For Saumarez Smith, those “few odd corners” of good Sixties planning include university campuses such as those at Sussex and Churchill College, Cambridge, as well as Coventry city centre, where many fine postwar buildings are now under threat. In recent years the legacy of British modernism has been rescued by writers including Elain Harwood, Owen Hatherley and the author himself, who, “born after the glory days of the welfare state” looks back “on the physical remains of this vanished era with nostalgia for a lost idealism”.

In 2019 we know that the jet-packs never came, and are nowhere on the horizon. Upwards of 28,000 premature deaths a year in this country can be linked to the effects of air pollution, while the number of cars on the road in Britain has increased by 12 per cent in a decade, because you can’t ride on a bus service that’s been axed or take a train that’s been cancelled.

Today’s city centres are half pedestrianised, half choked by ring roads that feed privatised car parks which might have housed usable public space or civic centres. The “Precinct People” lounging on “spacious sun-baked piazzas” – as parodied by Alan Bennett in 1967 after seeing one too many Townscape-influenced master plans – are now stalked by “enforcement officers” ready to pounce on illicit vapers. Few can countenance the idea that there must be better ways to make a city thrive other than through baseline economic growth.

That the book ends with a sense of “tragedy” and “intense disillusionment” is less of a judgement on the characters involved and more on the inherent penny-pinching – or money-misdirecting, perhaps – of the British political class when presented with the chance to create a dignifying, elevating, equalising public realm. The strength of Boom Cities lies in its insistence that blaming individuals for the failures of a whole political and economic system is too easy. It makes us see the things that should have been different, and the ways in which they could still be. 

Boom Cities: Architect Planners and the Politics of Radical Urban Renewal in 1960s Britain
Otto Saumarez Smith
Oxford University Press, 208pp, £65

This article appears in the 29 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty