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The Lost Decade

A book of essays on British architecture in the 1970s falls short of achieving its aim of being a pioneering scholarly work on a ‘lost decade’

With a title like that, proper footnotes for most of the 11 articles, a comprehensive time line and half an inch thick, you expect something a bit definitive and scholarly from this 10th in a regular series published by the Twentieth Century Society. Or as contributor Gavin Stamp slightly defiantly points out, the former Thirties Society.

But forget scholarly because the book lacks a bibliography. Plus, in an act of pathetic niggardliness, it lacks an index: difficult to explain in this era of word processors most of which have a very effective Index button. You have also to remember that the society’s avowed agenda is to promote and preserve architecture and design from 1914 onwards, which is not quite the same as attempting to take a dispassionate, scholarly view. In any case, picking the right dozen or so key 1970s topics and the right dozen or so experts to write about them is a bit like trying to perm the lines on a cosmic football pools card. So although the idea of looking at a hundred of the 242 competition entries for the Burrell Collection competition as a kind of instant cross section of architecture in 1970s Britain is an interesting one, the result, like the successful scheme, is a bit inconclusive. The pieces by Alastair Fair about theatre design, Hannah Parham about mosque design in London and Simon Wartnaby (happily very briefly) on Gun Wharf are worthy enough but not all that interesting or helpful in explaining the decade’s architecture.

There is too Catherine Croft’s David Rock hagiography. There he is in that great 1975 mug shot, all wild hair and sexy grin. I’ve worked for David, like him enormously and reckon him one of the few architects who ever had a grasp of how society works at the larger scale. It’s a kind of caring conservatism which factors in the reality that community development has to be marketed and funded. I’ve always been reminded of the way Sigmund Freud insisted that paying his consulting fees was part of the patient’s therapy. But however significant Rock’s contribution to grassroots development (the title of his most important study), it is not necessarily central to the ramshackle edifice which is ’70s architecture.

I’m not sure that singling out Rock in this way is either fair to him or helpful in understanding the decade. So too Roland Jeffery’s piece on Milton Keynes, one of the few non-disasters in that monstrous social engineering experiment otherwise known as the New Towns. It’s a pedestrian narrative which ignores one of the most interesting things about the city’s architecture: the very serious attempts to weave a kind of inchoate symbolism into the formal grids of the city’s centre.

The participants are probably a bit embarrassed about it all now but the architecture department at the time was a hothouse of thought transference experiments between Bedfordshire and London where most of the architects lived: respectful preservation of imagined ley lines, the inscribing of a vast yet unobtrusive Neolithic and very expensive symbol across one of the squares in the shopping city, the unbuilt pleasure park below the modest cliff at one end which featured, among many other arcane pleasures, a glass bridge and a miniature Silbury Hill, and those giveaway names of the two roads either side of the shopping city: Midsummer Boulevard and Silbury Boulevard. Surely this sub-text to the Miesian clarity of the formal bits of Milton Keynes architecture should feature in any proper study. And that extraordinary water organ which never quite got built and …

There are also some pleasures. Louis Hellman’s account of his rebellion at the GLC architects’ department is a refreshingly personal memoir which captures the anger of the committed young turks of the decade. His big beef was the leaden MACE schools building system, the shadows of whose early grim advocates have reappeared in the education ministry this year. The young turks are long gone.

More thought-provoking is Geraint Franklin’s ‘White Wall Guys’ which looks at ‘a revival of critical interest in the white boxes of the initial, pre-war phase of Modernism’. What at the time seemed to be a bunch of guys grimly but ideologically virtuously working out the last gasps of the Modern Movement were, as Franklin explains, doing exactly what Modernists had long despised about the Victorians, viz reviving old styles. I think what confused us is that what was being imitated was barely a century-old style and the belief that Modernism had eliminated the notion of styles. In that convoluted thinking this meant that this wasn’t a revival of a style.

Gavin Stamp, one of the original young fogeys and properly proud of his Thirties Society membership, delivers a vintage Piloti-style broadside against such events as ‘the puzzling rise to celebrity cult status’ of Rogers and Foster. He notes the Poulson affair in which the architect’s bankruptcy ‘exposed a vast web of corruption and bribery in public life’. He reminds us that in a 1972 RIBA Annual Discourse, the former editor of this organ, JM Richards, delivered a hatchet job on Modernist architects backed up two years later by Malcolm MacEwan, a top RIBA functionary, which was followed by a small deluge of ‘devastating’ anti-Modern texts. In an aside Stamp characterises me as ‘no friend of neo-vernacular’. In fact this made-up word emerged from a commissioning discussion with James Madge at Queen Anne’s Gate about a revisit he was about to write for AJ about Lansbury, the Festival of Britain demonstration site by the Blackwall Tunnel: neo-vernacular as in the equally despised neo-Georgian.

The big piece in The Seventies is by Elain Harwood and Alan Powers. It is a sweeping survey of the decade which probably should be read first followed by the reader dipping into the following adornments. If you are in a hurry then read Hellman for atmosphere, Franklin for thought-provocation and Stamp for fulmination. Oh and the timeline at the end. I’m sure you can pick holes in it but it’s clearly the starting point for the proper scholarly study of the ’70s. Which will have an index.

The Seventies: Rediscovering a Lost Decade of British Architecture

Author: Elain Harwood and Alan Power (eds)
Publisher: Twentieth Century Society
Price: £19.50


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