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Manplan: Frustration

Read the first in the iconic Manplan series, originally published in September 1969, with documentary photography by Patrick Ward

Originally published in AR September 1969, this piece was republished online in October 2015

‘We architects have got to reform our concept of professionalism. If we don’t make certain changes …… we shall progressively forfeit the limited powers which we’re allowed at present to help shape the physical environment. This would be a tragedy if we were at least holding our own against the destructive forces of chaos and ugliness, but we are not even doing that. We are losing ground all the time against rapidly increasing pressures which are attacking the heart of our civilisation.

If you feel I’m exaggerating think about the topsoil of East Anglia blowing into the North Sea; think about the way we are destroying our precious heritage of towns and cities with ruthlessly sited urban motorways, visually squalid commercial development, and a peripheral sprawl of housing; think about assembly lines and strikes; think about the acoustic sewer in which the inhabitants of London spend their days [and nights]; think about Concorde, Stansted, and the Torrey Canyon; think about Ronan Point, not just as a lethal weapon but as a place for families to live in; think about the trainload of nerve gas that the American Army was going to move across the continent and dump in the Pacific; think about the Lake District covered in car parks and caravans; think about the idiot who poisoned practically all the fish in the Rhine; think about the things like this that are - happening all over the world that we don’t even know about; and most worrying thought of all-think about the tottering belief of our children in democratic forms of government. The evidence suggests we are in the middle of a massive deterioration in the quality of life, due partly to our inability to synthesize the actions of specialists, part1y to our own incompetence, and partly to the widening gap between the escalating size of our social and economic problems and the capacity of our forms of government to deal with them.

‘I’m not saying that architects are responsible for the mess we’re in, and even less that we have all the answers and only have to be asked to rescue the world. But I think we’ve got to accept a large measure of responsibility for the environmental crisis, and I believe that, given the freedom to do it, we are uniquely equipped to play a leading part in the solution.’

Andrew Derbyshire at the RIBA Conference ‘Preparing for the eighties’, 3 July 1969


Each Bank holiday the world and his wife destroy what they wish to embrace - beauty, tranquility, eighteenth-century landscape


Back to work, the daily journey is a crude struggle for the survival of the fittest

We face a change in demand so revolutionary that it has been called the replacement problem of the 1970s. But replacement of what? The backlog of outdated buildings, though important, is only half the problem. The other half - far more formidable - is the fact that ‘values’, like ‘progress’, are variables, so that doctrines that passed for iconoclasm at the beginning of the decade, by the middle look more like orthodoxy, and by the end, like reaction-cliché anyway.

Thus hard on the heels of one replacement comes another: the need to make new appreciations, re-think a whole range of problems, and re-think them in detail right down to the humblest moments of life-by-the-kitchen-sink. And if the larger issues are in need of an equivalent evaluation, the time to determine objectives is surely before not after the social capital of the whole nation-housing, schools, roads, hospitals, and the rest has to be renewed and the back-log made-up.


Each morning, cards, taxis and buses pour into the city from the suburbs, from the airport, from the Midlands, from the west, from the east, from the south, where they must fight for meters, meters that may not work but will surely expire. At the airport the taxis wait in serried ranks…at the air terminal none in sight


Out on the tarmac engines scream as planes queue to take off over the rooftops of surburbia. In the air they lie stacked waiting to discharge weary passengers

This issue concerns every architect whoever and wherever he is, indeed the whole building force, not to mention planners and politicians, and happens to be one for which architectural journalism can provide a platform. The REVIEW has therefore determined by way of preparation for the ’70s to re-examine the categories - health, welfare, education, housing, communications, industry, religion - and ask itself and its readers what images spring to mind at each signal, and of those that do, which apply to the next decade. Or to the last, and are really dead but won’t lie down. The aim being - hardly analysis - re-definition. Hence the general title of the coming special issues - MANPLAN - to remind ourselves as well as the reader that this enquiry is angled at achieving within the resources available what our society needs most rather than what will pay best.

In this and succeeding months the AR tries to prepare for the ‘70s and beyond – the last third of the twentieth century – by reviewing the state of the nation in those areas where it has a patent to speak – architecture and planning. A tall order, made taller by the necessity for the planner to redefine his terms. Housing for instance. Is current housing policy sound and if so will it be valid for the next decade? Or religion. What future is there for churches as building in terms of social – and thus town – planning?


The ‘holiday-on-wheels’ comes by night to the seclusion and serenity of a countryside setting with fine views … in the morning of those who also came to stay


‘An old lady in my church said to me that she never knew what fellowship was until she went to bingo. Through I began by laughing, I ended almost by crying, because it is a most penetrating analysis of the emptiness of so much that does for what is called modern affluent society.’ - Lord Soper, House of Lord debate on Material objectives and Social Welfare, 11 June 1969

Here, as elsewhere, appears the external confrontation between the feasible and desirable, what can and what cannot be done. The REVIEW has not exactly plumped for the unobtainable but it has rejected the conventional wisdom. Instead it takes as its yardstick real needs rather than minimum standards. Hence the title MANPLAN. A plan for human beings with a destiny rather than figures in a table of statistics.

Why bother when we are told continually we’ve never had it so good? Because, though modern man is in some ways wealthy beyond dreams, in others he’s never had it so bad. The reader is invited to leaf through the pages that follow and ask himself whether the consumer society is not paying to high a price for affluence in the pressures and frustrations which seem to dog the footsteps of every technological advance. The question is are they the inevitable fringe benefits? Or is there a gap in our thinking? Is technology for us or against us? MANPLAN proposes in the next few months to consider these matters in depth in the hope of coming up with some answers, but here forget technology and turn to the subject of this issue, the built-in spirit of defeatism which makes all our frustrations possible, since, like built-in obsolescence, it predetermines the end. We only skim the surface, but the picture that emerges covers the whole spectrum of despair from inconvenience through exasperation to tragedy and, of course, farce.


The house-building figures climb steadily, yet decaying housing is ever with us

According to Ted Hollamby, Lambeth’s borough architect, architects’ real frustration is ‘delay in building completion. In Lambeth, £1 million may have been raised on the capital account unnecessarily’. His plan for Brixton has been frustrated ‘because all the warring barons of the state compete and simply won’t agree’. ‘Ministry cost levels and standards have got to a level of ludicrosity – if there is such a word - where formulas such as “one desk for the matron, one chair and four drawers’, are put forward as standards’. Eric Lyons opens ‘the post every day in the hope that something exciting will come. My biggest frustration is the conviction that I am never fully stretched, but isolation of the architect is the real cause of frustration. We’re always designing buildings for ourselves so very few laymen have a love of what we’re doing’. ‘The trouble with planners is that negatively they have a benevolent disposition to interfere in design so that they can circumscribe the designer, and positively their exercises are often unrelated to real need and practical possibilities. ”Comprehensive” schemes become ends in themselves and a form of intellectual masturbation’.

And when it comes to metrication, despite urgent social programmes, the building industry in one architect’s experience- Kate Macintosh-stands like Ethelred the Unready: ‘Having gone through the persuasion process and emerged convinced that metric is a good thing for the sake of industry, for the streamlining of production runs etc., the architect’s frustration really begins. He finds that manufacturers appear in the main not only to be appallingly ignorant of the glorious future planned for their benefit, but also largely indifferent. Or, if this is not the case, enlightened management is failing to filter through the good news to its technical and publicity staff.

When I was appointed job architect for the Lambeth pilot metric study, I asked the librarian to circulate the manufacturers listed in the AJ Metric Handbook [produced March 1968] as having ‘modular metric products, components or systems currently available.’ Several did not reply. Of the twenty eight who did, ten were either not planning to produce metric information or had not yet published it, fourteen sent brochures with metric equivalents written against their imperial dimensions and only four were producing metric modular coordinated information ie about 14 per cent.

This overall impression of either total indifference or of over cautious hesitation has been sharply reinforced by my own independent enquiries with manufacturers, one of whom told me patronisingly that his firm was already “modular coordinated” and indeed had been for years-on an 8 inch grid. Several others had apparently never come across standard Stationery Office publications on the subject and were glad of a few tips. The one manufacturer to give unambivalent positive response, was a firm originating in Scandinavia.

Of course, the industry is not supposed to be producing any metric modular coordinated products until 1970, but it most certainly will not be possible to accomplish it overnight. A great deal of careful preplanning will be required to ensure a smooth transition. Manufacturers will also have to send out plenty of advance publicity on their new metric ranges if stock piling is to be prevented and if they are to supply the Local Authority schemes which will be filtering through the Ministry, programmed to start on site from 1970 onwards. From the consumer’s end, there seems to be very little sign of this happening. After a period of struggle, first with the stringent disciplines of modular coordination, then with the inertia of the building industry, one’s faith in the great coordinated future begins to waver.’

In 1964 part of the River Avon was re-opened for navigation after fifteen years’ work by the Lower Avon Navigation Trust. In 1964 also the south section of the Stratford Canal was re-opened after three years’ work by Guides, Scouts, prisoners, RAF, soldiers and thousands of volunteers led by an architect, David Hutchings. Now Hutchings is leading another team of volunteers to tackle the Upper Avon -the last blocked and disused link in a circular system of waterways comprising those already cleared and the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. The operation will involve the building of ten new locks, six weirs, and the dredging of 175,000 cubic yards of mud. When this work is completed at an estimated cost of £280,000 - a fraction of what it would cost on a civil engineering contract basis – the work force is free-loaded vessels of up to 80ft by 16ft will be able to use the navigation. Stratford will be linked to the sea once more and the circle of waterways thus liberated is likely to become the most popular cruising route in Britain.


The richness of east end life is replaced by monotony and inhumanity


While people in the Gorbals continue to live in unbelievable squalor, a large Local Authority housing site in London lies for ten months unfinished, victim of industrial strife.

The Upper Avon is the latest battle in a campaign that goes back to the founding of the Inland Waterways Association by Robert Aickman in a (then) hopeless effort to save the navigational system of England, deserted by the Railways (its main owners), spurned by Local Authorities, ignored by Government, hated by Ministries, shrugged off by waterway authorities, neglected by riparian owners, all of whom could hardly wait to see the end of these muddy drains. Muddy drains they were, and those who strove to save them, intruders in a dirty business- a small band of zealots, unpaid, without influence, without finance, without expertise, who had no weapons to fight with except their hands. It was-literally-with their hands that they started rebuilding the canals. Following their efforts and those of other voluntary labour forces whole stretches of navigable waterways have been saved or re-opened. In the light of the possibilities of LASH-Lighter-Aboard-Ship, a novel goods moving technique which we shall examine in the October issue their achievement may have more economic significance than appeared then, but at the time it was an exercise in the defeat of inertia, hung round with every known form of frustration.

Frustration has been defined as a conflict of freedoms, the more or less necessary consequence of securing other people their rights; and planning as the art of effecting a compromise between these conflicting demands. This is nonsense. Planning is resolution not compromise. Our continuing failure to resolve the conflict of freedoms calls in question both our ability to plan and our creative capacity. Many of the frustrations illustrated in this issue could be swept away tomorrow but for a paralysis of the decision-making apparatus either in the Government or the governed. In succeeding issues we propose to offer some of the solutions. Here we have simply to remember the victory of one small band-the IWA-almost unique in the world of the ’60s, which practised the art of not accepting defeat, and by so doing swung authority behind its cause, engineering finally the spectacular re-orientation of Government policy on inland waterways incorporated in Barbara Castle’s White Paper -‘Transport Policy’.

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