Scotland’s lost architectural futures

This article was first published on Sceptical Scot.

The unexpectedly bitter controversy over the proposal to demolish Glasgow’s Red Road Flats during the 2014 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony was symbolic of Scotland’s complex relationship with the legacy of post-war Modernist architecture.

For nearly half a century the six 31-storey towers stood as sentinels on the Glasgow horizon, anticipating some future utopian city.

Over time the blocks became associated in the popular imagination with crime, deprivation, leaks and infestation. But they also – quite literally – lifted thousands from the Gorbals slums over which they were built, providing modern homes for thousands who had known only squalor.

Speaking in 1966, shortly before work on the Red Roads project began, Glasgow Corporation convenor Edward Clark proudly announced that the flats were designed for ‘citizens in the Springburn area and other districts who look forward to living in decent surroundings with all the modern amenities that they have so long desired.’

The estate is one of several major Scottish post-war architectural ventures featured in Lost Futures, a new book by Owen Hopkins published to accompany the Futures Found exhibition at the Royal Academy, a collection of film, photography and other media exploring ’The Real and Imagined Cityscapes of Post-war Britain’.

Hopkins’s survey, which looks at some 35 projects from across Britain, including housing estates, schools, libraries, factories, restaurants and power stations built from the 1950s to the 1970s is inspired by the remarkable resurgence of interest over the past decade in Britain’s post-war architectural heritage, a reassessment – after years of ridicule and neglect – driven by a chronic and worsening housing crisis.

The multifaced crisis – whose causes include the failure of successive governments to replenish the stock of social housing in the wake of the Thatcher government’s ‘right-to-buy’ policy; the financial pressures on local authorities to authorise lucrative regeneration projects on prime city centre land once occupied by housing estates; and the chronic dependence of the British economy on inflated house prices – has inspired a new generation of architecture commentators to recover the collectivist ideals at the heart of the post-war reconstruction project.

The most prominent include Owen Hatherley, whose work has sought to recall the spirit of political utopianism that ran through architectural Modernism, the high-minded hope that the new architecture pioneered during the 1920s by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and the Soviet avant-garde should serve ordinary people, transforming the environments and homes in which they lived. As Aneurin Bevan, Housing Minister in the Attlee government once put it when opening a new estate: ’Nothing is too good for the working classes.’

Hatherley seeks to draw a stark contrast between the earnestness of the Modernists and the freewheeling post-modernist and Private Finance Initiative aesthetic of the 1980s and 90s, with its playful ‘barcode facades’, shiny surfaces, rainbow colours, wood veneer, and penchant for showy atriums, an undeniably modern architecture shorn – in Hopkins’s words – of ‘the socially transformative mission of the post-war architecture it so frequently replaced.’

Hatherley’s peers include Douglas Murphy, whose Last Futures explores the wilder shores of 1960s masterplanning with its dreams of cities floating on the seas or sheltering under geodesic domes, and John Grindrod author of the best-selling Concretopia, an engaging history of the planners who built the post-war housing estates and New Towns.

These and others are part of a wider movement encompassing organisations such as the Manchester Modernist Society and an array of social media channels including This Brutal House, a celebration of all things concrete. And the unapologetic advocacy of a classic social democratic programme by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has only served to intensify hopes that it may be possible to revive the lost ideal of mass social housing.

A new ’rational Britain’

Hopkins’s survey – ‘intended neither as an attack nor as lament’ – attempts to cut through the charged political discourse that he believes risks obscuring an accurate picture Britain’s Modernist legacy, presenting each project through brief, matter-of-fact commentaries illustrated by photos taken shortly after construction, showcasing the buildings as their architects had intended they be seen.

The book’s introductory essay offers an accessible overview of the rise, fall and renewed rise of post-war Modernism. The soaring ambition to build a ‘rational Britain’ of gleaming tower blocks, green parklands and civic squares, with traffic confined to by-passes and criss-crossing flyovers, was one element of the comprehensive programme of reconstruction that flowed from the 1942 Beveridge Report, which looked ahead to a new country from which the evils of want, ignorance, squalor, disease and idleness were to be banished.

Modernist ideals of functional elegance, light and spaciousness were showcased at the 1951 Festival of Britain, where futuristic structures such as the Dome of Discovery and Skylon offered most visitors their first encounter with avant-garde architecture. The gentle Scandinavian Modernism characteristic of most of the Festival buildings – most famously the Royal Festival Hall – went on to serve as the template for much of the architecture constructed over the next 30 years, built at breakneck speed by both Labour and Conservative governments – under Harold Macmillan some 300,000 new houses were being built every year.

But as early as the mid–1950s, the high watermark years for post-war Modernism, discordant notes of protest could already be heard, some from within the heart of the architectural establishment.

The influential critic Ian Nairn, in the celebrated ‘Outrage’ edition of the Architectural Review published in 1955, complained that the planners were turning Britain into a ‘Subtopia’, characterised by the ‘annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern’. The alien ambience of the new concrete landscapes began to surface in literature and film, JG Ballard setting his dark fables amidst leaf-strewn plazas, dank underpasses and forbidding tower blocks, and Stanley Kubrick using the Thamesmead estate as as the dystopian setting for A Clockwork Orange.

And it soon became apparent that the futurist visions of the Modernists were often far ahead of the construction technologies and budgets available to them: many of the new buildings were assemblages of prefabricated components and sheer glass walls unable to cope with the British climate, leaving them vulnerable to damp, infestation and draughts. The poor build quality of the worst of them was highlighted in spectacular fashion by the collapse of one of the Ronan Point blocks in 1968. (A tragedy echoed this week with the fire at Grenfell Tower in Kensingon.) By the 1970s the new estates were identified with crime, litter and deprivation, their reputation plumbing the depths with Alice Coleman’s influential 1985 report Utopia on Trial.

There was also gathering opposition to Modernism’s stark aesthetic, which had been taken to unapologetic extremes by the ‘New Brutalist’ school. Complaint about the ubiquity of ‘concrete monstrosities’ found its most famous expression in Prince Charles’s 1984 address to the Royal Institute of British Architects objecting to the ‘monstrous carbuncle’ originally proposed for the National Gallery extension.

By the early 1980s, when the Thatcher government made council homes available for sale, the social vision of the post-war planners was in ruins. As Hopkins puts it: ’Modernist forms and socialist ideals became almost interchangeable – each representative of the other.’

Hipster Brutalism

Hopkins’s heart often seems to be with Hatherley and the other ‘militant Modernists’, his purportedly objective commentary occasionally slipping into the same elegiac mode for a lost age of social architecture, as when he complains that ‘schools, libraries, public buildings, even factories, which a generation or two before had been designed and built as expressions of collective or civic values, were derided as concrete monstrosities to be razed from the face of the earth.’

But for the most part he sticks to the book’s mission statement, insisting that careless politicisation of the post-war legacy misrepresents the intentions of the planners and architects who commissioned and designed it.

He is particularly concerned that Brutalism, for example, taken by revisionists to represent the cutting edge of post-war socialist Modernism, should be recognised as a much more complex, ambiguous phenomenon. For Hopkins, the Brutalists were at least as preoccupied with pursuing their own aesthetic vision as projecting a particular political perspective, seeking to inject a sublime strangeness into the urban landscape:

When faced with a building like the recently listed Preston Bus Station … it is impossible not to feel its boldness, overwhelming scale and unflinching nature as somehow transcending time and place. Its builders did not shy away from the future, but actively tried to shape it; the building stands as that ambition to change the world made concrete.

He argues that the Brutalist revival flirts with a shallow hipster socialism that wilfully misinterprets the intentions of the architects:

In an online world where what we share on social media becomes part of our idealised self-image, retweeting a photo of a post-war housing block is a way of aligning oneself with a kind of counter-cultural trendiness that plays on post-war architecture’s former pariah status, while also implying a vague and suitably non-committal alignment with leftist politics. In this sphere, Brutalism in particular has become a shareable – and tradeable – currency of cool.

It should be noted that Hopkins’s concern is shared by a good many of the revivalists themselves. Hatherley’s most recent set of essays, for example, The Ministry of Nostalgia, laments the incorporation of Brutalism and the wider Modernist movement into the heritage industry.

Hopkins is on stronger ground when noting that the primary motivation for the ongoing demolition of great swathes of the architecture of the 1950s, 60s and 70s is not a vindictive desire to bury the built legacy of social democracy, or a philistine reaction against avant-garde aesthetics, but the pragmatic need to replace buildings that have reached the end of their natural life.

Many structures from the era were put up quickly, within strict budgetary constraints, in full knowledge that they would last no more than 50 years: the seeming acceleration in the rate of demolition in recent years simply reflects the fact that many have had to be replaced at the same time.

Scottish futures

That is the case for most of the Scottish projects reviewed by Hopkins, which, in addition to the Red Road Flats, include the Hutchesontown C tower blocks built in 1965 as part of the same masterplan to reinvent the Gorbals as a pleasant open space of interconnected parks, towers and gardens.

Designed by Sir Basil Spence, one of the Festival of Britain architects and designer of Coventry Cathedral, the striking Hutchensontown blocks were a product of the Glasgow Corporation’s 1945 ’Bruce Report’, which envisaged a ‘Year Zero’ reconstruction of the city’s historic centre, with even iconic buildings such as the Glasgow School of Art and Central Station to be pulled down to make way for a rational plan inspired by Le Corbusier’s vision of the Radiant City. In addition to the surviving tower blocks and estates the primary legacy of the plan today is the motorway that cuts through the heart of the city.

Spence designed a remarkable sci-fi structure, two modular slabs incorporating 10 towers standing on splayed pilotis linked by adjacent balconies. The blocks ensured decent housing for thousands of families who had endured slum tenaments, but like so much post-war social housing they were poorly maintained, and were demolished as soon as 1993.

Hopkins’s survey takes in another famous Scottish post-war landmark, the Cockenzie Power Station designed by Robert Matthew (another member of the Festival of Britain team) whose twin 149 metre chimneys loomed as a spectral presence on the East Lothian skyline for nearly 50 years till their demolition in 2008.

But the most haunting of all, perhaps, and in Hopkins’s assessment ‘one of the great ruins of the modern age’, are the remains of St Peter’s Seminary on the wooded banks of the Clyde by the village of Cardross, a poetry of concrete and cantilevers inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.

By the time this spectacular building was completed in 1970 it was already doomed: the Second Vatican Council had decreed that priests should be trained in the communities they were to serve rather than in seclusion. The seminary closed just a decade later and, after a few years service as a drug rehabilitation centre, was abandoned to the elements.

Now roofless and overrun by the surrounding woodland, there are plans to partially refurbish the building as an arts venue. But, fittingly in Hopkins’s view, the proposals do not involve the full restoration, ensuring the site will retain ‘the ruined quality that has caught the imagination of so many over the last three decades.’

For Hopkins St Peter’s is emblematic of the sublime otherness of much post-war Modernism, a complex movement driven by political, economic, aesthetic and other currents. His book offers ‘a haunting glimpse of a future that never quite happened’, but that perhaps indicates that other futures, beyond a seemingly hopeless housing shortage, are possible.

All images copyright the Royal Academy of Arts. The image at the top shows Hutchensontown C, Glasgow, built 1965.

Lost Futures: The Disappearing Architecture of Post-War Britain by Owen Hopkins is published by Royal Academy of Arts.