The Chronological Structure Suggested by Psychology

Given the half-century between the Great War and the Sixties, how can we ground the suggestion that one could affect the other so strongly? I suggest that the answer lies in the discipline of psychology, and particularly in the psychology of trauma. Using this field of study, a series of stages could be proposed as stretching between the battlefields of Flanders and many, strangely uncanny, Sixties housing estates.

Prior to this, and to set in context my reading of the Sixties, I need to explain my understanding of modernism. It seems to me that, firstly, modernity (lower case m) has roots that reach, arguably, as far back as the 12th century. This process gathered pace in the 19th, flowered early in the 20th and is still with us today. Secondly, that Modernism (upper case M) is an offshoot which developed during the First World War as a means for dealing with the implications of the failure of the progressive modern project which such total war implied. Thirdly, that the Modern Movement (upper case MM, ironically symbolising, in graphic form, the 20th century) is a further offshoot peculiar to architecture which developed in the late 1920s in response to the need for an artform which could solve the Gordian knot of how to build a home fit for heroes, but whose idea of home had become a memory of Hell.

The psychology of trauma allows us to read Sixties architecture as a series of projected images, in this case of a landscape that had impressed itself on young minds a half century previously. Trauma research suggests that processing of a traumatic event will involve projecting its memory image in order that the subject can gaze on it, come to terms with it (in however limited a way), and move on.

Taking this suggestion further, the 50 years could be divided into six sections, consisting of two sub-groups of three, based on the stages of post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a syndrome codified in the 1980s after another culturally divisive war, in Vietnam.

The two sub-groups are based on conscious and subconscious mourning. In general terms, taking the conscious sub-group first, a grievous event such as the death of a family member is usually followed by three phases of mourning: of forgetting, of remembering and of accepting. In other words, a survivor will first blank out the implications of the loss in order to cope with the immediate aftermath; then they will move into a period of remembering when they recall and retell the deceased’s life story, at a wake for example; before, finally, they will accommodate the loss within mind without undue affect, and move on. Thus, forgetting helps us to endure the initial shock, and survive; remembering/re-enacting helps us to come to an understanding of the event; and accepting helps us to leave behind what has happened and what has been lost.

Sometimes, if the event is too shocking – such as the mass slaughter of the Western Front – the grieving process is not completed, and a more sublimated, melancholic sequence is followed. The same three-phase pattern is repeated, only this time followed through subconsciously. This second sequence of the three phases of melancholic mourning is what characterises a diagnosis of PTSD. The survivor might not know they are experiencing the syndrome of effects, but an outsider can detect it in their behaviour, especially in how they relate to others.

If the three phases of melancholia are subconsciously driven, how do they progress without the help of conscious deliberation? How do they reach final resolution? The answer could be that the subconscious process repeats a neurological pattern already set by the conscious. It is a known path, only deeper in mind, becoming, in a sense, an echo.

This six-stage framework seems to be applicable to those who lived in the aftermath of the First World War. And for me, it can also be tracked in the progress of the Modern Movement in architecture.

The initial three, conscious, phases emerged as the Twenties progressed. The first can be detected in the early, largely blank memorials to the war, such as the Cenotaph on Whitehall; this was soon followed by more graphic accounts in stonework, such as the sculpture by Charles Jagger on the Artillery Monument at Hyde Park Corner; and, finally, there emerged late in the decade a short-lived fashion for black facades, for example Ideal House on Great Marlborough St in Soho.

The process did not succeed, however, in putting the dead to rest nor, more accurately, the survivors. Subconscious, melancholic grieving set in around the time of the Great Crash and the following Great Depression (a causal link between the war and the Depression was discussed as early as the Thirties). Because melancholia is subconscious, the means by which it is articulated are hidden to conscious perception. Among those means is the discipline of architecture. In effect, architecture in Britain from the Thirties onwards was used, perhaps abused, by the will, the drive, of memory to find terms, and images, for itself, and what it had apprehended.

Once again, the three-phase pattern can be traced in architectural style. The first, of forgetting, was projected in the great white – blank – facades of Modernist buildings of the Thirties; the second, of remembering, found form in the powerful, concrete Corbusian estates of the late Fifties and the slightly later claustrophobic estates, full of tight, trench-like alleyways, in red brick; and the third, of acceptance, was reflected in the singular attraction, characteristic of the late Sixties, for cool Miesian towers, black slabs that appeared across the city, like tombstones to the dead.

The suggested chronology for reading Modernist architecture in Britain as a response to the trauma of 1914-18, can be summarised as follows:

Early 1920s: Conscious architecture of forgetting (eg Cenotaph, Whitehall)
Mid 1920s: Conscious architecture of remembering (eg Artillery Monument, Hyde Park Corner)
Late 1920s: Conscious architecture of acceptance (eg Ideal House, Gt Marlborough St)

1929-30: Moment of subduction, when conscious mourning became subconscious melancholia

1930s: Subconscious expression of forgetting – white walls
Late 1950s-early 60s: Subconscious expression of remembering – new brutalism of grey concrete and brown brick
Late 1960s: Subconscious expression of acceptance – black slabs.