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Environment / Climate change

Building a better Britain: Why it’s time for a return to architectural idealism

The image of British architecture tends to be dominated by the older famous names who build all over the world: Richard Rogers of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and “Cheesegrater” in the City, Norman Foster of Gherkin and British Museum fame, Zaha Hadid with her galleries, museums and London 2012 Aquatics Centre.

But from the 1940s to the 1970s, the profession was very different. Then more than half of all architects worked, largely anonymously, in the public sector, above all on housing and schools. Architecture was politicised: the task in hand post-war was to build a better Britain, and state funds, from Labour and Tory governments alike, were made available to do so.

Then, “commercial” architects like Richard Seifert of Centre Point fame were openly sneered at by their socially-minded colleagues. Now, British architecture is an almost completely private consultancy business and Centre Point is a listed building, now being restored.

But also valued and listed today are the best examples of the social, better-society architecture built by the public sector in the post-war years. Once everyone had got over the “crumbling no-go concrete council estates” reaction of the 1980s, and demolished or fixed the bad ones, it turned out that there was a lot of good stuff as well.

The latest book of post war listed buildings published by Heritage England – officially the best buildings in the land – is stuffed with council housing. Take Balfron Tower in Poplar, a mid-1960s Brutalist masterpiece by Hungarian émigré architect Erno Goldfinger. This is controversially being renovated for private sale, with the existing tenants kicked out.


Such good publicly-funded architecture has been market-tested and (in big cities such as London, Manchester and Sheffield) found to be good. Social cleansing then duly takes place as capital moves in, the estates are tarted up and rebranded, and those in need of social or affordable housing are pushed to the urban edges.

The Brutalist style – so associated with council estates, though in actuality it spanned all building types including Oxbridge colleges and the (of course listed) National Theatre – is now regarded with wonder by a new generation. It’s chic, raw concrete. When I chaired a debate on the style earlier this year, I expected maybe a dozen people to turn up: instead the place was packed out and everyone seemed to be in their 20s and 30s.

 To this generation, it’s social and architectural history. It is almost as if there was a vanished race of giants that built such wonders – and that is true. The giants in question were the unsung architects of the local authority architects’ departments. Photographs of the time bear out the male tweed-and-pipes stereotype, but also recorded the arrival of a new postwar breed of equally committed women architects.

That world of a shared architectural endeavour has of course vanished, along with nearly all the public architecture offices, but it is mourned. In my job I deal with architects all the time and they have a new hunger for the chance to improve society. Understandably: that’s what their very long and expensive training equips them to do.

Architects are in the utopia business. There’s unease about being seen to be associated with, say, the forests of half-empty luxury apartment towers for overseas investors that infect London, or being the lackeys of developers wanting to fillet historic areas like Spitalfields.

So I’m going to test this. I’ve launched a thoroughly journalistic award in the architecture magazine I edit, the RIBA Journal. “The MacEwen Award: Architecture for the Common Good” is named after a splendid pair of Hampstead ex-Communists. Malcolm MacEwen was the political correspondent for the Daily Worker who – after the CP schism of 1956 – helped found the New Left Review and then moved into campaigning architectural journalism. His wife Anni was the prominent postwar architect-planner who first sounded a warning against slicing up cities to build motor roads.

We’re going to award places that offer the most benefit to the most people, across society. Richard Rogers, whose firm has just built a new type of affordable social housing for the YMCA in Croydon, supports it.

Can the new generation of architects get their social mojo back? I sincerely hope so.

Hugh Pearman is editor of the RIBA Journal and architecture critic of The Sunday Times.

You can find out more about the MacEwen Award at RIBAJ.com.
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