The urban planning disasters of the 1960s in Britain. We think we have learned from them, but have we?
Start watching the video at 14:00 if you don’t want to watch the whole documentary, which is a sort of myth-busting look at the 60s in England. There’s a fantastic segment on brutalism, the influence of le Corbusier, and the question of who benefited from the wholesale destruction of English towns and cities in the 60s. (Take a guess. Answer is at the end of the transcript I made of this segment, below.) Even if you like brutalism, as I sometimes do, this is pretty sobering. The more I learn about urban planning and the way people actually thrive in cities, the more I am coming around to Prince Charles’ way of thinking. Sorry to say, but in a Venn diagram I supposed I had to overlap with him somewhere. I am also coming to understand the adoption of Edwardian styles by the hippies in the 60s and 70s; they were aligning themselves with the old houses they were living in and that were slated for destruction. Modernism, much as we may love it now, was then simply what glass towers are now… the bow wave made by developers.
New goods, new cars, new houses. We thought we faced a future of infinite optimism. But in the headlong rush for change we created a new alien landscape, a concrete modernity. In the myth of the time, this was progress. In reality, it was the gates of hell.
“Revolting, horrid, nasty… I can’t think of a single building put up in the 1960s that shouldn’t be demolished.”
Four decades on, the most obvious scars of the 60s are the excrescences of tower blocks and the destruction of our town centres.
“It was a revolting time for architecture, a shameful time…
The main inspiration for the wholesale destruction of our towns and cities came from a French architect who called himself le Corbusier. He argued that we needed a whole new vision of cities and that houses were machines for living in.
It was a form of architect’s triumphalism that if they could imagine it, it must be good for people to want to live in. And quite often these developments lacked the kind of human scale which people could relate to and which communities could settle down into. They lacked centres, they lacked place in which people could feel really at home.
“It’s interesting that during the 60s that we couldn’t see that, we couldn’t see that these were in fact going to end up being places too anonymous for people to find their homes in.”
“The way that those tower blocks and those giant estates were created had nothing to do with what people needed to live in. Just think of a pile of giant upturned suitcases, you stacked people in there. Something was deeply wrong about the way they built those things.” – Mike Phillips
Soon a mass hysteria gripped Britain. Crazed planners wiped away much good housing stock. Drunk on the possibility of change, architects and planners started to apply their schemes to ordinary suburban streets of front doors and front gardens.
“They really did what the Luftwaffe failed to do in the war. They just knocked them down with not a single thought really for the communities that were being destroyed, and just without giving people a choice, put them into these highrises. And this was an atrocity, this was a disgrace…”
The politicians, the planners and the architects were intoxicated by modernity. Everything old, those neat established suburban streets and communities was destined for demolition.
“It’s interesting to examine our views now about our architecture and town planning of today, this incredible overconfidence that we had that what we were doing is right. Based mainly up on a total rejection of the past. Of course in the 50s and 60s people did tend to view the Victorian and Edwardian eras as almost contemptible.”
The folly of the mass destruction of our cities was plain to see at the time. Architectural writer and critic Ian Nairn railed against the vandalism that had despoiled Victorian Bradford and replaced its human scale with a bleak concretescape:
“The buildings are cut-rate metropolitan, the lampposts and railings are Brave New Town, the seats are pre-war municipal park, and the subway entrances with their rusticated stone are a kind of weak echo of Wuthering Heights. It’s far too open from the point of view of weather, as well. And we certainly have some weather here. What the centre of Bradford needs is arcades and canopies not windswept and rainswept pavement. Yet for all this openness Forster Square is no longer a proper shape, which it used to be. It’s just a whirl of traffic and you don’t know where you are anymore. If you add it all up, you get a long yawn where you used to have excitement.”
When you meet an architect working in the 60s you want to ask them “were you knocking down town centres, thanks very much, were you knocking down the centre of Birmingham for us and putting in the bullring, were you knocking down the centre of Cambridge for us, were you taking about eighteenth century town centres and putting in concrete monstrosities? These people did evil things.
It was not only the commentators who loathed the new architecture. Those earmarked to live in the new high-rises were keen to have their voices heard too.
“I don’t like that the proposed plan… who wants to live in that? Who wants to live in a tower flat or even a few stories above and have to ask a caretaker please may I hang a picture on the composite walls, please may I keep a cat. In fact in some of these places it would be cruel to keep an animal in. Conceding that a great many of the modern places you could not do those things, well I say that places that are built where you can’t do homely things, the things that make home, the things that spell home, those places are not home.”
The ‘need’ to build more and more houses led to the pioneering of quicker and cheaper construction methods, system build and prefabrication.. New methods, new materials.. untested methods, untried materials. These system built dreams were often soon wracked with condensation, rot and mold.
The government subsidized highrise buildings, thus hiding the real cost. What’s more it turned out that the promise of increased density was also myth.
“I think the strange point about all this is that the main selling point about all these tower blocks is that you can get more people on less land. And actually that’s the reverse of the truth. Actually if you built terraced housing, you’d have got more people eon that land than the tower blocks do. Because in order to meet planning regulations to let light into the bottom of the tower, the towers have to stand so far apart in often underused parkland that you can’t get very many people on these plots.”
In 1968, the house of cards came tumbling down. Something happened in a system-built tower block in East London that marked the turning point in a decade of destruction.
“Ministry officials actually started to look at the material they had, and journalists started to dig into it, and expert academics started to look into it, and architects, and actually what they found to their horror was the analytical basis of a lot of this just wasn’t true. It wasn’t going to be cheaper, it wasn’t going to be faster, and it was actually going to cost more to maintain.”
It only took this one collapse to reverse government policy. The 60s had been a massive totalitarian vision, experts planning a perfect future for the benefit of…. well, who?
“Property developers, yes, did well out of the 60s. People who invested in property in various ways did well. Nobody else who was involved in the area did very well, no.”
Well! Any of this sound familiar? Today it’s “LEED Platinum” which we know to be a total scam. And nobody talks about the fact that the glass condo towers will be far too costly to fix and will all have to come down within 35-40 years… The fact that “density” is the developer’s mantra but that height is not the way to achieve it—it’s only the way that property developers make the best profits..
We’ve learned nothing if we listen to developers and their captured city halls today and nod when the talk about density being ‘green.’ This greenwashing of towers is 1960s Bradford all over again.
“Those town planning bullies of the 60s gave us another legacy: mile upon mile of concrete roads. Towns and cities became more friendly to the car and totally hostile to the pedestrian. The mindless destruction of all things Victorian also swept away miles of rail track and countless stations. More than 2000 stations were closed with the most dramatic effects in Scotland.”
34:00-40:45 On the racism of England in the 60s, including Enoch Powell’s “river of blood speech”
40:45 On the sexism of the 60s. “The pill only meant the freedom to have sex” (not to study, work, affirm themselves). “For women, the concept of the progressive 60s was essentially where they were expected to sleep with as many men who wanted to sleep with them. That was the notion of sexual liberation… Women had been liberated into the age of decoration and the starvation diet..It was good news… for men.” “Women instead of becoming freer became more available.” But there is little discussion here of the roots of the wave of feminism coming in the 70s. Still, this is pretty similar to the take of my aunt, who lived through that era as a hippie squatting near Long Beach, B.C., and many others.
The documentary’s interviewees and stock footage commentators are pretty posh and include a number of quasi-reactionaries and an anti-abortion woman, and perhaps there’s a reflexive dislike of youth culture – but overall it’s an interesting myth-busting look at an era we are probably still too starry-eyed about (I include myself). The analysis of the entrepreneurial capitalism of youth/rock music/festival culture is well done, and is an echo of the sheer commodification of spirituality that is today’s New Age movement.