Introductory Argument for the Main Proposal

Sixties architecture is a divisive subject. For some, it represents a positive ideological force. This perspective sees it as a movement that responded to its own time, to the ‘white heat of technology’, by using the materials of the decade to imagine forms for the future. For others, the tradition is negative, backward-looking and loathsome. For them, its ideology was misguided and out of date, its plans bred alienation, and its forms were an ugly intrusion from the past.

To understand this breadth of opinion, I understand the Sixties as a shearing moment, when a forward-looking enthusiasm for progress sheared against, and pulled away from, a more melancholic reversal into the past. For a while the two desires – one to reach for a better future, the other to reach back and resolve a grievous past – were in flux. What emerged in that moment of flux is the characteristic architecture of the Sixties.

This moment of flux can be seen as the point at which the Modern Movement gave way to the post-modern. The former had been born in the Twenties, in the shadow of the Great War. In my understanding, it seems to have possessed an imperative, a memorial root to its manifest ideological force. This had to be expressed before it could give way to the post-modern. The revelation of that imperative in the architecture of the Sixties is the last chapter of a psychological narrative, an odyssey of homecoming through the stages of traumatised experience.

In particular, this story suggests that Edwardian Britain had bestowed on its citizens an unusually strong sense of home and identity but that, during the Great War, its greatest single concentration of vitality, its volunteer and conscripted armies of young men, relocated to a new home on the Western Front. For these five million men, the trenches became home for four long, traumatising, years. On their return, with the smell and sight of their dying comrades prominent in their memories, they heard the political promise of ‘homes fit for heroes’. However, they found they could not reconstitute themselves as being at home, physically or with themselves, until they had come to terms with their memories by projecting the horrifying landscape of their Somme and Flanders home into the world around them.

My proposition is that, as this generation came to its natural end, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it fulfilled, via the unwitting agency of Modern Movement architects, a psychological imperative owed to itself by recreating the landscape of the trenches in the plans, the housing estates and homes of its cities. Only when this rebuilding of the home that had been the trenches had been completed, and an acceptance of profound and universal loss had been achieved, could Britain set about reaching towards a renovated homeliness, and a reconstituted identity (which it is still constructing today).

To read this narrative-in-concrete, I suggest that we should look at the architecture of the time from a new perspective: through the lens of the trenches. Then, the uncanny similarity between the two landscapes could be seen as a symptomatic outcome of the work of melancholia.