Phase 5: The Will to Remember (1950-1975) – Memory Triumphant

I understand Sixties architecture as the main expressive episode along a complex path lasting half a century. In this fifth of six phases, I see the original, unreal city of the Western Front, with all its ironic streetnames and parodic homely reminders amid a landscape of trenches, as having been rebuilt back home.

As with the three conscious stages of mourning, the initial phase of unconscious melancholia, of blanking out through white walls, did not last long, barely surviving to the end of the Thirties. Then gradually, and in a process made more opaque by the intervention of the Second World War, a will to forget metamorphosed into a will to remember, to re-enact.

Car park entrance to the Brunswick Centre, Marchmont St, Bloomsbury; Patrick Hodgkinson, 1959-72. © RO’C

The opportunity for this transformation was provided by the need for large-scale rebuilding after the physical devastation of the Second World War. A good description of the landscape this left is given by the London writer Michael Moorcock (FT, 27/6/2009): “There were places where London was simply not – a few irregular mounds of grass and weeds with rusted wire sticking through concrete, like broken bones, exposed nerves. These parts of London cold very easily be identified because almost nothing survived except the larger 17th and 18th century buildings such as Tower Hill, the Customs House, the Mint, the Monument. And, of course, St Paul’s, her dome visible from the river as you came up out of the delicious stink of fresh fish from Billingsgate market, a snap of cold in the bright morning, and walked between high banks of overgrown debris along lanes trodden to the contours of the land. You had made these paths by choosing the simplest routes through the ruins. Grass and moss and blazing purple fireweed grew in every chink. Sun glinted on Portland stone. You never got lost. The surviving buildings themselves were the landmarks you used, like your 18th century ancestors, to navigate from one place to the other. Slowly the big brutal blocks of concrete and fake Le Corbusier flats began to dwarf St Paul’s and the Royal Mint, and the familiar trails disappeared, along with the alleys and yards, the little coffee shops and printers. Like an animal driven from its natural environment, I’d turn a corner and run into a newly made cliff.”

But I believe that it was the First World War, not the Second, which provided the unconscious creative inspiration for the comprehensive redevelopments that began in the mid-1950s. The models for city planning did not emerge from a tabula rasa, as had been argued for Modern Movement plans, nor were they rooted either on contemporary sources or historic traditions, say from the 18th or 19th centuries, despite deliberate allusions to Italian hill villages. Rather they were motivated from something in between, something held within living memory: the painful and largely repressed memory of the unreal cityscape of the Western Front.

A flavour of the possible effect of the Great War on Fifties design is available through the career of Harold Macmillan. With the Grenadier Guards on the Somme in 1916, he spent an entire day wounded and lying in a foxhole with a bullet in his pelvis while reading Aeschylus, in the Greek. He was wounded three times in total. He lost so many Oxford student friends he always felt unable ever to return. In 1951, with the return of Winston Churchill, author of the Gallipoli campaign, he became Minister of Housing. From 1957 to 1963, he was Prime Minister. The point to be made is that for every creative architect drawing up new plans, there were committees full of men such as Macmillan whose job it was to approve one or the other. It is surely not so far-fetched to suggest they would have approved those which triggered reminders in their memories.

The new style came to be called Brutalism, a style that the Prince of Wales has called “an insane Reformation that went too far” (12/5/2009, 175th anniversary of RIBA). The architecture critic Jay Merrick (Independent on Sunday, 18/1/2004) said Brutalism was: “an arsey variant of Modernism which largely deleted streamlined gracefulness and smooth finishes in favour of a bit of volumetric rough. It was a reaction not only against Bauhaus purity but against the kind of evidence turned up in a post-war government Mass Observation survey which suggested the British wanted to leave [wartime's] bareness and utility behind. The Council of Industrial Design was adamant that ‘contemporary’ architecture did not mean geometrical, abstract or functional designs. The rupturing credo of the Independent Group was pursued in architecture by two strange young architects, the Smithsons. Architecture, they insisted, had to demonstrate thought, almost as if polemics were buildable. They stuffed Plato, among others, into the shredder. They spoke of the ‘charged void’ and ‘the secret life of pure space, the permanent built form which will persist when the school [Hunstanton] has given way to museum or warehouse, and which will continue to exist as an idea even when the built form has long disappeared.’ They were intellectual dudes, Modernism’s desolation angels.”

The art critic Tom Dyckhoff covers similar ground (Times, 2/6/2004): “[Prince Charles' 'carbuncles'] were the first, if flawed, attempts by British post-war architects to create mass modern architecture with a human touch. They were the first in the avant-garde to attack modern architecture of white walls and machine aesthetics as inhuman. They were called Brutalists from the French brut, meaning raw, direct. The National Theatre, the Hayward and the Barbican were the architectural equivalents of the ‘angry young’ plays of John Osborne, the films of Lindsay Anderson: ‘real’, angry, populist, anti-intellectualising, democratic. The Prince dubbed the Tricorn shopping centre [Portsmouth] ‘mildewed elephant droppings’, but skateboarders loved it. This was architecture to run around in, to explore like pieces of sculpture, to let yourself go in.” My point is that, the architects, in building architecture that allowed people “to let go”, allowed them to re-experience the past. In this, the architecture was a curious affront to the past, in the sense of denying 19th century and even early Modernist structural paradigms, while at the same time embracing the past, in the sense of re-creating a very real landscape.

This “letting go”, as I argue elsewhere, was Janus-faced, at once both in thrall to the past while enthusiastic for the future. Within architecture, I sense these two modes in the contrast between the Brutalists, all superannuated concrete and mistrustful alleyways, and those who might by called the “Archigramistas”, after the group led by Peter Cook, whose Meccano-ish, plug-in cities on stilts were an uninhibited hymn to a playful, almost childlike, future. The flux between the two can be sensed in the architecture of John Weeks, who in April 1962 devised the form for Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, north-west London. This was his first foray into his idea of “indeterminate architecture” which focused almost wholly on servicing, logical routeways and flexibility. It was architecture stripped to the most basic of functions, ready to go in any direction.

For examples from this core phase, please move on to the Main Evidence.