Robin Hood Gardens, Alison and Peter Smithson,...

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After World War II, Britain required massive and rapid reconstruction. Modernist architects were enlisted to rebuild its schools and housing as cheaply and as quickly as possible. This sense of urgency meant the humanist ideals of the Modernists were ignored with long lasting and ocassionaly tragic consequences.

Post-war reconstruction

Even before the devastating bombings of World War II, affordable housing in Britain was in a terrible condition. Industrialisation had brought new markets, a consumer boom and prosperity for the propertied classes and towns and cities had expanded with little planning. The living conditions for the people that turned the wheels of Industrialisation – the working classes – were dirty and cramped.

Victory in the War had caused a swell of optimism. There was a feeling that the need to rebuild Britain was also an opportunity to build a new nation both socially and structurally; a chance to rectify the mistakes of the past. This meant that concepts previously ignored could be considered. British authorities began to look to Modernist architecture to solve its housing crisis. Politically, two Parliamentary Acts provided the Modernists with an opportunity to rebuild Britain in its image. The Butler Education Act of 1944 and The New Towns Act of 1946 ensured that by the mid 50s an incredible 2,500 schools would be built and ten entirely new towns were either under construction or on the drawing board. This required a fast, efficient solution.

‘Béton brut’ and the new brutalists

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret or Le Corbusier’s ideas for urban planning and construction were shaped by an admiration of 20th century engineering principles: mass production, logical design and function over style. He believed these processes could be applied to the design of rationally planned cities to provide a healthy, humane alternative to the chaos of the Victorian slum. Writing in 1921 in the magazine L’Esprit Nouveau, Le Corbusier stated that a house should be ‘un machine a habiter’: a machine for living in.

Le Corbusier

Auguste Perret (who Corbusier had worked with at the beginnining of his career) first championed the use of reinforced concrete for construction and Corbusier would later use this material in his designs in the most efficient way. The concrete would remain uncovered, still bearing the marks of the wooden shutters used to form it. This came to be known as ‘béton brut’ or ‘raw concrete’. The process would go on to be used widely in the urban regeneration of Britain because of the speed of construction and its affordability.

Although Corbusier was prolific, many of his urban plans never left the drawing board but his ambitious ideas sparked debate and shaped the future of Modernist architecture. In particular, his successful Unité d’habitation in Marseliies became a prototype for many poor imitations of his social housing vision in Britain during the 60s and 70s.

Unité d'habitation

Alison and Peter Smithson formed a formidable British architectural partnership in the mid 20th century, pushing forward the cause of Modernism. The Smithsons were uncompromising in their determination to define a new approach to Modernist architecture, which, like Corbusier, they believed could exploit the low cost and simplicity of mass-produced materials and pre-fabricated components. In his text The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic, the Smithson’s friend, design theorist Reyner Banham hailed them as the pioneers of “the new brutalism”, a play on ‘Béton brut’. Although a kind of architectural establishment in-joke, the term stuck.

Alison and Peter Smithson.

Although resolutely Modernist, the Smithsons attacked the urbanist dogma of architects like Le Corbusier who stated that cities should be zoned into specific areas for living, working, leisure and transport and that urban housing should consist of tall, widely spaced towers – the machines for living in. They worried that this vision would lead to sterile cities, devoid of community which would lead the residents to feel individually isolated. In 1953 the Smithsons wrote:

‘Belonging’ is a basic human need – its associations are of the highest order. From ‘belonging’ – identity – comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where the spacious redevelopment frequently fails.

This statement proves that despite the failure of some of their work, they, like Corbusier were concerned with combining modern architecture and technology as ‘a means of expression that would serve the common good’. (Khan H-U, 2009 p152)

In the late 60s, the pair were given the opportunity to indulge their urban vision on a site in Poplar, East London. Robin Hood Gardens is an example of their ‘streets in the sky’ concept. The wide balconies – the ‘street’ – which connected the flats, allow for its residents to walk, play or even cycle along them. Like many projects built around this time the building was plagued by structural flaws, overcrowding and a high crime rate, leaving it unloved by many of its residents. Then and since it has been derided as an example of architectural folly rather than the model for progressive social housing the Smithsons had hoped for.

Robin Hood Gardens

The Brutalist blueprint

In 1961, the ‘streets in the sky’ concept inspired the design of Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate. Park Hill was intended to provide local authority housing for thousands of people. At the time, Sheffield was a largely working class industrial city whose best days were behind it. Sheffield Council hoped that the estate would signal the rejuvenation of the city and to provide quality homes in a deprived area.

Park Hill’s problems quickly became apparent. It was intended to be a version of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation but the estate allowed some of the worst aspects of urban life to remain. The structure was full of shadowy spots and escape routes and although it included shops, a school and a pub, it did not allow for any of the vibrancy or diversity that had evolved organically in the area over decades or even centuries.

Park Hill Estate

This style of council housing became the blueprint during the 60s and 70s and almost all of the developments suffered the same problems. Bare concrete was an easy target for vandalism and the poorly planned voids and alleyways within the buildings created an atmosphere of claustrophobia and fear. The unforgiving climate of Britain attacked bare concrete, leaving the steel reinforcements exposed. The structures soon looked shabby and uninviting and in a climate of economic strife and mass unemployment the Brutalist aesthetic could not have been more unwelcome.

Foundations built on sand

The beginning of the end for Brutalist, ‘system-built’ social housing was the disaster at Ronan Point, East London in 1968. The high rise collapsed after a gas explosion leaving four residents dead. System-built flats had become a popular construction method with 470,000 new flats and houses built this way the previous year. This led to quality control being largely absent. An examination of the joints of Ronan Point found them to be filled with newspaper not concrete. Walls did not rest on beds of mortar but on levelling bolts, enabling rainwater to seep into the joints. The whole weight of the building was resting on these bolts and consequently the gas explosion led the block to collapse. To the general public the disaster meant that not only were these already unpopular buildings ugly, they were unsafe too.

Ronan Point

The eagerness for this and other system-builds of the time was politically motivated. Municipal leaders saw high density housing as a solution to population drain, giving them more leverage in Whitehall. A subsidy was even given to local councils for every floor built over five storeys, creating a clear financial incentive to build higher and quicker. Ronan Point could be seen as a symbol of post-war political rhetoric. When the public saw the high rises shooting up they could be sure that the government was fulfilling its promises to rebuild. The collapse of the high rise left this rhetoric sounding increasingly hollow.

Other Brutalist projects followed, some even becoming successful and icons of pop culture like Erno Goldfingers Trellick Tower and in recent years there has been a reconsideration of the Brutalist aesthetic – Park Hill for example has recently been rethought and regenerated, however the disaster at Ronan Point spelt the end for widespread use of the New Brutalist blueprint.

Conclusion

While Modernism had arrived on a wave of great optimism in Britain, this was soon replaced by harsh reality. Britain’s industrial cities were bound by generations who had worked in its mines and factories and although life was hard, the working class had a clear sense of identity and a feeling that they belonged. Economic depression, the end of industry and mass unemployment during the 70s and 80s left the working classes almost as shellshocked as the generation that had emerged from the War. The familiar landscape they had been bought up in had been replaced with poorly built constructions that left them feeling isolated and dehumanised. This was not the urban utopia that the Modernists had wanted to build; it was their governments discount version of it.

Despite their failures, Modernist and even Brutalist buildings have proved that when built soundly and cared for they can be successful. Sadly, social housings failures during this period led many to lay the blame at the feet of the Modernists, but blaming visionaries like the Smithsons and Le Corbusier as the architects of the failure ignores the deep and genuine concern for human health and comfort that underpinned their work. It is a tragedy that the utopian dream of Modernist architecture could not be realised; this was a missed opportunity to rebuild a better Britain, structurally and socially, one that may never occur again.

Bibliography

http://www.open2.net/modernity/

Lowe N (2009) Mastering Modern British History. NY, Palgrave Macmillan.

Bedaria F (1991) A Social History of England 1851-1990. London, Routledge.

Khan H-U (2009) International Style. GmbH, Taschen.

Images

Figure 1: Le Corbusier. Nina Leen/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images Jan 01, 1946

http://www.life.com/image/50501617

Figure 2: Unité d’habitation. Photographer and date unknown.

http://www.panoramio.com/photo/118966

Figure 3 Alison and Peter Smithson. Photographer and date unknown.

http://www.d-talks.com/2011/02/robin-hood-gardens-re-visions/aps-at-priory-walk/

Figure 4: Robin Hood Gardens. Sandra Lousada. Date unknown.

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/03/critic-visits-robin-hood-gardens.php

Figure 5: Park Hill, Sheffield. Photographer and date unknown.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/paolomargari/464986123/

Figure 6: Ronan Point. The Daily Telegraph, 1968.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ronan_Point_-_Daily_Telegraph.jpg

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