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Manplan: The Bravest Moment in Architectural Publishing

In September 1969, the Architectural Review launched the brave and hard-hitting Manplan. Today, this dark humanist manifesto still strikes a chord in the debate of architecture’s social responsibilities

In March 1969, critic Reyner Banham, editor Paul Barker, geographer Peter Hall and architect Cedric Price co-authored an anarchic article in New Society called ‘Non-Plan: An Experiment in Freedom’. They sought to apply bottom-up thinking to top-down planning policies, proposing ‘A precise and carefully observed experiment in non-planning’.

The authors claimed the problem was that ‘there’s seldom any sort of check on whether the plan actually does what it was meant to do, and whether, if it does something different, this is for the better or for the worse’. Although ‘Non-plan’ was a well-intentioned proposal to hand power back to the people and oust the state from the planning process, its most tangible manifestation was arguably the Thatcher government’s Enterprise Zones in Docklands.

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The opening spread from Manplan 1 sets a dark, oppressive and pessemistic tone

Six months later Hubert de Cronin Hastings, long-time proprietor of the Architectural Press and one of AR’s editors, launched his response: Manplan. The title came from taking ‘as its yardstick real needs rather than minimum standards … A plan for human beings with a destiny rather than figures in a table of statistics.’ Essentially an alternative approach to architectural journalism that also functioned as a humanist manifesto, Manplan focused not on buildings, but on people, and not as individuals, but as a society.

The first issue of September 1969, called ‘Frustration’, must have been a shock for subscribers. It is dark, both literally and figuratively. The late Robert Elwall, historian of architectural photography, was fond of saying that they even devised a special matt-black ink to print the issues. This ink sucks in light quite literally, in contrast with modern architecture’s preference for white space, making the tone dystopian. Several pages in ‘Frustration’ simply comprise a small black and white photograph in the centre of a sea of black with a simple statement such as: ‘The regulations of prevention and prohibition and well-intentioned guidance rain unceasingly upon architects and builders.’

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The editorial introduces Manplan in September 1969, ‘the picture that emerges covers the full spectrum of despair’

The magazine was highly designed as an object in its own right to make an impact and alarm readers unused to such pessimism in their architectural magazines and who must have themselves felt the frustration that Hastings was trying to portray, finding none of the other usual magazine sections for relief. Manplan 1’s cover was of a phrenological head covered in words, including, prominently, ‘Frustration’, and a camera lens for his right eye. 

Decapitated heads or skulls, occasionally adapted from anatomical drawings, and always eyeless, appeared on all eight Manplan issues, gradually becoming more macabre. Manplan’s aim, said the editorial, was ‘by way of preparation for the ’70s to re-examine the categories − health, welfare, education, housing, communications, industry, religion’. The ambition was more than analysis, but redefinition of these categories ‘angled at achieving within the resources available what our society needs most rather than what will pay best’.

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A Pearly King and Queen against a typical working-class backdrop as captured by Patrick Ward, who documented a month of frustration in Britain

For a quarter of a century, Hastings had campaigned in the AR for more of an aesthetic approach to town planning based on Picturesque theory, a campaign known as Townscape. This took many guises from Gordon Cullen’s ‘Casebooks’ to Ian Nairn’s ‘Outrage’.

At the age of 67, with an eye on retirement, he was appalled at the mess the architects and planners had made and the opportunities lost to reconstruct a more beautiful and better world after the war. In this respect, Manplan was something of a tantrum, an exasperated two-finger salute at the profession he loved deriving from his own frustration that his own efforts to inspire a better world through his magazine had, he felt, failed.

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All 8 Manplan covers featured eyeless heads or skulls, perhaps representitive of the reclusive Hastings scrutinising architecture and society, omnipresent in mind if not body

Manplan 1 was both the best and most negative of the series, but it offered only problems with no solutions. Photographer Patrick Ward was asked to document a month of frustration in Britain. Theresulting photos were taken on grainy 35mm film rather than with a large format camera that the architectural press usually courted. This was inspired by the September 1961 Architectural Design in which Roger Mayne went to Sheffield to photograph everyday people going about their business with the new architecture forming the backdrop, a technique he started at Southam Street in the 1950s and used by the Smithsons to illustrate their Urban Reidentification grid at CIAM 9.

In Manplan, the subjects go about their daily lives at home, commuting, on a day out at a stately home, at work, at school, in a care home, in a nursery, shopping, protesting, waiting, queuing, smoking, standing, striking, staring, waiting.

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‘The traditional armoury - banners, pickets, militant demonstrations - peaceful and violent - are paraded to a public bored by industrial anarchy’

Manplan 2 was the most prescient of the series, looking at the future of transport and communications: ‘the rescue of travel from its dehumanising and devalued status is more likely to be achieved by a revolution in communications than by act of Government’. Ian Berry was the photographer but the style remained informal. Quotes from government reports in a small font accompany larger banners of slogans marching over several pull-out leaves,  the most striking of which is a seven-page long blue and silver drawing of the futuristic Advanced Passenger Train. Statistics punctuate the text.

Some proposals and drawings accompany a reappearance of optimism in the form of technology: containers, jumbo jets, cars in their parks, computers, silicon chips, ‘bedside computers’, wristwatch-walkie-talkies, transmission by lasers, microwave radios, CCTV, picture telephones, cordless telephones, portable videotape recorders, pneumatic tubes, robotugs and inventions as yet undreamed of, which, ‘could enable twentieth century society to exchange its restless and often needless mobility for real contact man-to-man untramelled by distance’.

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‘In industry the boredom is interrupted solely by hot headed unofficial strikes’

From the third issue, guest edited by Norman Foster and photographed by Tim Street-Porter, business almost returns to normal with a focus on buildings, and system building in particular. Three pages of views and reviews at the back offer a little reprisal from the oppressive tone. The remaining five issues became bimonthly but followed a similar pattern divided between photo-essays and proposals in the form of exemplary buildings in education, healthcare, local government and housing.

The argument was that social reform precedes architecture, but that architects should partake in this reform. There was much more emphasis on participatory design, and on users’ needs than on high architecture, a more holistic view of architecture in society where locals are empowered to make decisions about their environment, where community matters, and where architects are involved.

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The bold and sinister attitute of Manplan began on the striking front covers, one of which is featured on this month’s issue

Manplan’s message was brave, ahead of its time, hard-hitting and so unpopular. The experiment is commonly considered a circulation disaster for the AR, but figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation show that it didn’t suffer as much as other magazines at that time, including its nearest competitor AD, which was about to enter its ‘little magazine’ phase. However, the campaign scared the other staff members.

Editor Jim Richards wrote in his autobiography that he ‘would have nothing to do with it’. Hastings subsequently retired him in 1972 and retired himself the following year when he became the only editor to win the RIBA Gold Medal. He didn’t need to build: Manplan was his architectural masterpiece.

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