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 RIBAJ.com.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.