Thu. May 19th, 2022

A Modernist row of two-storey housing
Parkleys, a 1950s housing development in Ham, Richmond-upon-Thames, designed by Eric Lyons © Chris Matthews

Every era has its conflicting architectural fetishes. The 1960s might now be associated with tower blocks and Brutalism but the decade also coincided with a renewed affection for Victorian buildings: the stations and town halls, the spiers and turrets. While architects had their eyes on the future, the people were often looking to the past, mourning demolished structures, buying Victorian doer-uppers, browsing junk shops for antiques to fill them with and trying to stop motorways from being driven through their newly gentrifying neighborhoods .

In the 1980s, architects were wrestling in the mud over postmodernism and “High Tech” but the people were watching country-house dramas, shopping at Laura Ashley and Ralph Lauren. And now, while architects are again building in brick and indulging in “placemaking” (attempts to create a public realm avoiding the excesses of car-centric Modernist planning), a younger generation is looking wistfully back to an era of plentiful council housing and drooling of Brutalist buildings.

What began as a minority pursuit for a hardcore of architecture obsessives seeking out long-neglected elevated walkways and moody multistorey car parks, the once much maligned concrete monstrosities belittled by the Prince of Wales, is now mainstream. Nostalgia for Modernism, the sadness over an unfulfilled, pre-climate-change future of guilt-free plenty and acres of concrete – architectural hauntology – is everywhere.

Owen Hatherley, long an eloquent proselytiser for municipal Modernism, has produced a new Britannica for our era of reassessment. Modern Buildings in Britain is a massive doorstop of a book and, with its faux-concrete cover (beneath the dust jacket), almost a Brutalist structure in itself. Hatherley has visited almost every significant Modernist building in Britain. His observations are personal, a little quirky, mostly positive. Frankly, he loves it.

This is not a new idea. Nikolaus Pevsner, the German-born art historian who was so shocked to find Britain lacked a record of its architecture that he got his wife to drive him around the country while he documented every worthwhile structure, embarking on his series The Buildings of England in 1945. Since then, Historic England’s resident Stakhanovite Elain Harwood has produced a series of monumental books including England’s Post-War Listed Buildings and Space, Hope and Brutalismworks as physically weighty as their subjects.

Black-and-white photo of the high-rise engineering block at Leicester university
Leicester University’s engineering building, designed by Stirling and Gowan (1963) © Chris Matthews
Black-and-white photo of the angular roof of the stand at Gala Fairydean Rovers football ground in Galashiels, seen from the road
The stand at Gala Fairydean Rovers football ground in Galashiels, Scotland (1964), designed by Peter Wormsley © Chris Matthews

Concrete-fetishism has become a crowded subculture. But unlike many of the others, Hatherley comes from a place of socialist politics. He is nostalgic for this world that might have been and which developers, with the avid support of the government and local authorities, seem bent on destroying. He is as passionate about provincial libraries and civic centers as about the epic housing estates and arts buildings that have tended to preoccupy architectural historians. And, in the name of regeneration, so much of this historic layer is being lost – from the idiotic destruction of the distinctive center of Coventry, one of Britain’s great Modernist set pieces, to the decanting, rebuilding and gentrification of housing estates – that there is plenty to get upset about.

Yet, given that this book is too heavy to drag around on the train (Hatherley is, admirably, a great advocate for public transport as well as a long-suffering user) and has such a huge remit, you do wonder exactly who, and what, it might be for. But whatever the answer to that may be, Hatherley has superbly documented a moment in which we are rapidly losing what many have only just learned to appreciate.

John Grindrod, meanwhile, has alighted on the period where Hatherley started with his critique of Blair-era architecture A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010). His new book, Iconicon, is something very different. Subtitled “A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain”, it is, ironically, better on exactly the opposite. The stories around the O2 Arena (formerly known as the Millennium Dome and recently dramatically shredded by Storm Eunice), the Gherkin, the Olympic Park and the rest are well known, perhaps even overfamiliar. Where Grindrod is really good is on the buildings that precisely are not icons, the layer of almost invisible, shoddily built and shockingly under-designed stuff in which most of the country spends most of its time: the office parks and retail sheds, the executive estates and the crappy spaces between investment towers.

Having been born in Croydon, Grindrod is a native of an optimism around Modernism which faded at the edges, where its poorly defined perimeter gave way to the dull suburbanism of bland brick closes and cul-de-sacs. Interviewing residents and developers, alighting on terrible housebuilders’ marketing and the 90-something per cent of architecture than has never been anywhere near an architect, he outlines the peculiarly British mix of commercialism and laissez-faire regulation that has led to dim sprawl and shocking disaster, culminating not only in the housing crisis but in the tragic 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower.

Between them, these books tell a story of lost opportunity and an increasing, nagging inability to understand architecture as anything other than a standalone object or a mechanism for financial return. The impending chaos of our urban skylines and the lack of any vision for what our cities might become is in contrast to a brief mid-century era when there wash a vision and, even if it might have ultimately been wrong, it was at least intended for us, to make life better. Its shrinking ruins remain magnificent.

Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer by Owen Hatherley, Particular Books, £ 60, 608 pages

Iconicon: A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain by John Grindrod, Faber, £ 20, 496 pages

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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