Building a better Britain: Why it’s time for a return to architectural idealism

London's Balfron Tower: for all its brutalism, now a sought-after address. Image: AFP/Getty.

The image of British architecture tends to be dominated by the older famous names who build all over the world: Richard Rogers of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and “Cheesegrater” in the City, Norman Foster of Gherkin and British Museum fame, Zaha Hadid with her galleries, museums and London 2012 Aquatics Centre.

But from the 1940s to the 1970s, the profession was very different. Then more than half of all architects worked, largely anonymously, in the public sector, above all on housing and schools. Architecture was politicised: the task in hand post-war was to build a better Britain, and state funds, from Labour and Tory governments alike, were made available to do so.

Then, “commercial” architects like Richard Seifert of Centre Point fame were openly sneered at by their socially-minded colleagues. Now, British architecture is an almost completely private consultancy business and Centre Point is a listed building, now being restored.

But also valued and listed today are the best examples of the social, better-society architecture built by the public sector in the post-war years. Once everyone had got over the “crumbling no-go concrete council estates” reaction of the 1980s, and demolished or fixed the bad ones, it turned out that there was a lot of good stuff as well.

The latest book of post war listed buildings published by Heritage England – officially the best buildings in the land – is stuffed with council housing. Take Balfron Tower in Poplar, a mid-1960s Brutalist masterpiece by Hungarian émigré architect Erno Goldfinger. This is controversially being renovated for private sale, with the existing tenants kicked out.

Such good publicly-funded architecture has been market-tested and (in big cities such as London, Manchester and Sheffield) found to be good. Social cleansing then duly takes place as capital moves in, the estates are tarted up and rebranded, and those in need of social or affordable housing are pushed to the urban edges.

The Brutalist style – so associated with council estates, though in actuality it spanned all building types including Oxbridge colleges and the (of course listed) National Theatre – is now regarded with wonder by a new generation. It’s chic, raw concrete. When I chaired a debate on the style earlier this year, I expected maybe a dozen people to turn up: instead the place was packed out and everyone seemed to be in their 20s and 30s.

 To this generation, it’s social and architectural history. It is almost as if there was a vanished race of giants that built such wonders – and that is true. The giants in question were the unsung architects of the local authority architects’ departments. Photographs of the time bear out the male tweed-and-pipes stereotype, but also recorded the arrival of a new postwar breed of equally committed women architects.

That world of a shared architectural endeavour has of course vanished, along with nearly all the public architecture offices, but it is mourned. In my job I deal with architects all the time and they have a new hunger for the chance to improve society. Understandably: that’s what their very long and expensive training equips them to do.

Architects are in the utopia business. There’s unease about being seen to be associated with, say, the forests of half-empty luxury apartment towers for overseas investors that infect London, or being the lackeys of developers wanting to fillet historic areas like Spitalfields.

So I’m going to test this. I’ve launched a thoroughly journalistic award in the architecture magazine I edit, the RIBA Journal. “The MacEwen Award: Architecture for the Common Good” is named after a splendid pair of Hampstead ex-Communists. Malcolm MacEwen was the political correspondent for the Daily Worker who – after the CP schism of 1956 – helped found the New Left Review and then moved into campaigning architectural journalism. His wife Anni was the prominent postwar architect-planner who first sounded a warning against slicing up cities to build motor roads.

We’re going to award places that offer the most benefit to the most people, across society. Richard Rogers, whose firm has just built a new type of affordable social housing for the YMCA in Croydon, supports it.

Can the new generation of architects get their social mojo back? I sincerely hope so.

Hugh Pearman is editor of the RIBA Journal and architecture critic of The Sunday Times.

You can find out more about the MacEwen Award at


Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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