Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945–1975 by Elain Harwood - review by Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades

Waddling Towards Modernisation

Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945–1975


Yale University Press 703pp £50 order from our bookshop

Architectural publishing is not an endeavour that is routinely associated with bloated displays of machismo. Yet over the past few years there have appeared a number of books defined more by their steroid-enhanced mass and XXXL dimensions than by their contents. Phaidon, for example, has given us The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture (7.1kg; 46 x 29 x 6cm) and Le Corbusier Le Grand (9.2kg; 44 x 34 x 8cm), one of the coeditors of which, Jean-Louis Cohen, has a well-rehearsed gag: ‘It’s not a coffee table book, it’s a coffee table.’ Now Yale University Press is getting in on the act. Elain Harwood’s tireless scrutiny of England’s architectural transformation in the postwar decades is a further addition to this bulky genre of scholarship by the gram (4.2kg; 29 x 25 x 6cm). One of the attractions, no doubt, of such books to university libraries and kindred institutions is that they are grossly unwieldy, and thus thief-proof. 

Elain Harwood works for Historic England (known until six months ago as English Heritage, which is now the title of a separate charity – both names make one wince). Her book is founded on research undertaken from the 1990s onwards to identify which fairly recent buildings merited listing. It has to be said that the research carried out by Historic England’s employees is more impressive than its advocacy, for it persistently allows jewels to drop through the net: Imperial College’s residential halls, Luder and Gordon’s entire oeuvre, Northampton bus station, Birmingham Central Library and Pimlico School are among the buildings it did not manage to save in its previous incarnation. It has recently failed to persuade the heritage minister, Tracey Crouch, to protect the Coventry ‘Elephant’, built in 1977; Basil Spence’s Hyde Park Barracks, completed in 1970, also appears to be up for the chop. Crouch is the badger’s chum, consequently a recipient of the rock guitarist Brian May’s largesse, and a qualified football coach – just the person, then, to adjudicate on a building whose restless invention still baffles that clamorous minority who long to live in the Prince of Wales’s quaint Neverland.

Among those vulturing around the Hyde Park site is the ineffable Quinlan Terry, the most offensive of the neo-Georgians: his early house, Kings Walden Bury, was designed in conjunction with his master, the classical revivalist Raymond Erith. But it quite lacks the suppleness, charm and conviction of Erith’s own work, displaying instead the now wearisomely familiar Quality Street facadism that reached its nadir at Richmond Riverside. That Harwood includes work by such backward-looking architects gives some idea of both the catholic scope of this book and the variety of what was built during the period covered, which is – an agonising realisation for those of us who lived through it – distant, historical.

Her title is a play on Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture. She quotes Giedion: ‘It is not the historian’s task to tell the public what pleases or displeases him personally.’ This is borderline specious. Like Giedion – like, indeed, most (architectural) historians – she has no recourse to approbation or reproval; she signals her biases by omission or inclusion. It is seldom that she offers an unexceptionable opinion, such as ‘the new towns seemed low density in ideas as well as in fact’. Maybe what appear to be her biases are those of Historic England; she is evidently constrained by that quango’s Weltanschauung, which tends towards caution, reasonableness, orthodoxy and good taste, a consequence of which is that the brutalism component of the title is severely under-represented.

The occasional hackneyed epithets – ‘young turks’, ‘life partner’ – and cheery mateyness that infect the text must, however, be Harwood’s alone. H S Scorer is Sam, Georgina Wolton is Georgie and H T Cadbury-Brown is Jim, though the otherwise omniscient author misses that the latter’s sometime collaborator, the courtier Hugh Casson (once described by Philip Johnson to a New York audience as ‘England’s leading after-dinner architect’), was always known as Hughie. She is generally outstanding on architectural family trees and provisional alliances. The sixty pages of biographies at the end of the book are absolutely invaluable.

In her introduction Harwood draws a somewhat questionable comparison between England during the three decades after the war and France in the same period, Les Trente Glorieuses (that’ll be glorious as in Dien Bien Phu, de Gaulle’s bloodless coup d’état and his wretched betrayal of the pieds noirs). How glorious were England’s ten years of rationing, shortages, near bankruptcy and outside toilets? France suffered nothing like the damage that Britain had sustained and it modernised rapidly. England’s waddle towards modernisation is manifest in the scarcity of buildings constructed in the decade up to 1955.

That scarcity is not reflected here. The twee style that derived from the Festival of Britain – really the Festival of Copenhagen-on-Thames – is disproportionately present. It’s the kind of stuff Historic England approves of: sensitive, contextually apt, slight, doesn’t cause upsets. Historic England’s collective mind-set recalls that of Pevsner, who bemusedly contended that Shakespeare, Hawksmoor and Butterfield, being mighty, do not possess the properties that supposedly define the Englishness of English art. They ‘can only be tenuously tied to the categories of national character’.

The dozen or so years after the war comprised one of the many architectural nadirs England has suffered. The first wave of Southampton’s rebuilding (1950–55) was rightly derided by David Lloyd in the Buildings of England: Hampshire as having ‘the look that the main street of an up-and-coming Middle West town might have had in the early 1930s if there had been planning control and Portland stone’. Compare that to the formidable strength, less than a decade later, of the towers on Weston Shore beside the estuary, the aggressive Wyndham Court and – Spence again – the city’s university buildings.

It is the architecture of tertiary education that forms the book’s longest chapter. These are the buildings that best bear witness to the postwar ‘consensus’, which didn’t seem all that consensual at the time: it was not until what James Callaghan called ‘a sea change’ occurred and Margaret Thatcher came to power that the bilateral accord of those years was retrospectively revealed. The quality of, among many others, Denys Lasdun’s works at the University of East Anglia, Cadbury-Brown’s at the Royal College of Art and Essex University, and Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s at the University of Leeds is considerable.

They were undertaken in a spirit of high seriousness, a quality that has vanished not merely from architecture but from all discourse. Alan Bullock, first master of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, who commissioned Arne Jacobsen to design the new college in the early 1960s, resulting in Jacobsen’s (strangely baroque) tour de force, said, ‘I am a historian and to me the architecture of a people tells, more than anything else, what they were, what they believed in.’ This is akin to the shibboleth ‘architecture reflects society’, which was a fixed idea among elderly modernists who worked for the common wealth.

Not the least of Elain Harwood’s achievements is to make us believe that they were, alas, right. This book is a deflected history of that far-off era before frivolity, greed, instant gratification and accessibility came to be venerated and became manifest in the garish boasts that rise all around us.

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