Here & Now 10: Did the post-war planners kill our cities?


1. Welcome
2. Editorial

8. Making it happen
Nicholas Falk reviews some recent good place guides

11. Getting closer: AoU and INTA
Head of INTA Michel Sudarkis sets the tone for future collaboration

12. Going to scale: Fixing our broken housing market
Nicholas Falk and Jon Rowland offer 10 steps to tackle one of the biggest issues of our time

15. If you rebuild it, they will come
Jay Merrick tells the story of unlocking creativity in Dunoon

18. URBAN Emergence Manifesto
Simple ideas that capture the complexity of cities

21. Engineering a vision for new towns
Steven Bee in conversation with Judith Sykes from the Useful Simple Trust

24. The social masterplan
Dr Noël James on the single biggest reason behind the success of Milton Keynes

30. 10 lessons from MK
After organising the AoU’s recent symposium in Milton Keynes, Biljana Savic reflects on lessons from this new town for all urbanists

34. Grey sky modernists
David Rudlin and Shruti Hemani on why Britain’s gusto for the modernist movement led to ‘Subtopia’

37. From concrete to glass
The post-war trajectory of London’s high-rise housing paints a complex picture of inequality vs luxury. Tim White and Mel Nowicki investigate

40. Planning cities around streets
David Green argues why it is streets from which our cities should emerge, not land use and physical structures

49. Urban idiocy
Brilliant but flawed ideas for the city

51. My own view is…
Robbie Kerr on the art of borrowing



Rethinking modernism

We have just returned from Aarhus after a wonderful congress in Denmark’s second city. One of the highlights was the drinks reception in the city hall, designed in the late 1930s by Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller. Two members of our party were seen actually stroking the interior of the building, so beautifully was it detailed. In Scandinavia modernism is like that, it is something that happened, that was often done very beautifully and now takes its place alongside the other architectural styles that have characterised the 20th century. This is very different to the attitude we have to modernism in the UK where it is very much seen as the baddie in the story of the 20th century city.

In November 2008 the Academy explored these issues at a symposium in Liverpool held as part of the city’s year as European Capital of Culture. The RIBA had organised a major Corbusier exhibition in the crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Academy symposium pointed out that, great architect that he might have been, Corb was a bloody awful urbanist. My personal favourite quote of his is that “café bars will no longer be the fungus that eats up the pavements of Paris” which is really all you need to know to realise that while he may have called himself an urbanist, he was not one of us.

Modernism is however about a lot more than Corbusier. British modernism (and its ugly sister, brutalism) is a complex brew that drew influence as much from the Arts and Crafts movement as it did from the Bauhaus. We have grown to hate many of the modernist townscapes in the UK and in doing so dismiss the motives of our modernist predecessors. But maybe we have been too hasty? This year the Academy has been seeking to reevaluate modernism by focusing our awards on post-war places. This led to some fascinating discussions and we ended up shortlisting Coventry, Milton Keynes and Corby alongside the Brunswick Centre and the Golden Lane Estate in London, the Byker Estate in Newcastle and Smallbrook Queensway in Birmingham.

All of these places allow us a glimpse of what the modernists were trying to do. They allow us to see past the peeling paint and the pigeon shit to the gleaming white (or the béton brut) city of the future that they were trying to build. Many were planned as complex sequences of urban space on multiple levels to combine efficiency with a rich and complex urban experience. Maybe they are due a re-evaluation? Maybe we should be brushing them down and washing away the grime to see them again as they were originally designed (as we have done with our Victorian architecture that was also once despised). These are some of the questions we ask in this special post-war issue of the Journal.

My personal view is that modernism is what you get when you allow architects to design cities. They can’t help designing everything including the way that we live. But drawing happy people in an underpass or on a street in the sky doesn’t mean that these places can ever create environments where people will be happy. I tend to think that the places we have shortlisted are extraordinary exceptions to the rule that modernist environments are terrible urban places. They should be preserved of course, but only as a warning of what can go wrong when we mess with the fundamentals that make a city work ­— but that’s just me.

David Rudlin AoU


This edition of Here & Now has a particular focus on post-war planning in the UK, or more particularly whether it was all bad. In the dawn of the post-war era in amongst the debris of bomb damaged Britain, there was an optimism. There had to be something better than the hell people had just been through – for the second time in the living memory of many at the time. The National Health Service is perhaps the most obvious beacon of this optimism. But so too were the mass housing programmes that saw the huge, soulless estates and concrete tower blocks.

Since then we have learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work when making places for people to live. While there is always more to learn, we should be able to get it right. The problem at the moment seems to be getting it at all.

The reasons for the UK housing crisis are well rehearsed from continuous lack of investment over decades, poor planning, higher than predicted rise in populations and over-emphasis on ownership.

Britain is the fifth or sixth wealthiest nation (by GDP) depending on when you measure it. It has the capability to meet this challenge. Indeed, the AoU’s report in response to the government’s housing white paper suggests 10 ideas that could help fix this. But as the authors say, no one ‘profession’ or discipline holds the key – it demands a cross-sectoral, cross-professional collaboration. An entirely different kind of thinking that the Academy is well placed to promote.

Still, there is one other thing we also need. Optimism! After almost 10 years of austerity, the word still hangs tenaciously from government lips.

Alastair Blyth AoU

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