Friday, 28 January 2011


Detail of a photograph from Britain's Lost Cities.

This post has been sitting in Drafts, half-finished, for some months, occasionally pricking me with guilt. The book in question has been out for ages. The post also suffers from a focus problem; ostensibly reviewing the book, I often broaden focus to talk about the heritage brigade (Jenkins, Scruton, Charles, etc) in general, and unpicking the two strands of thought in this rambling post was too horrible to contemplate.

"Encase your legs with nylons*, / Bestride your hills with pylons / O age without a soul" wrote John Betjeman in the poem Inexpensive Progress. It continues, in a later stanza: "And if there is some scenery, / Some unpretentious greenery, / Surviving anywhere, / It does not need protecting / For soon we'll be erecting / A Power Station there." Betjeman's arch sarcasm set the tone for a whole generation of sneering critics of modernisation, sending it down a path towards a prose style now hopelessly mired in cliche and I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Betjeman pastiche (much like their preferred manner of architecture). But Betjeman's view of architecture was a lot more sophisticated than the narrowly dogmatic approach taken by, say, Simon Jenkins or the Prince of Wales. He had opinions that would make Roger Scruton's head spin - for instance writing to Denys Lasdun to praise his design for the National Theatre on the South Bank, that particular bugbear of the trads.

Gavin Stamp is similarly sophisticated. He's among the most articulate and forceful critics of modernist redevelopment and advocates of conservation and traditional "townscape"; these positions are usually expressed through his permanently disappointed "Nooks and Corners" column in Private Eye. But Britain's Lost Cities, his blistering assault on the path of 20th-century British urbanism (now in paperback), is full of nuance and surprises. Stamp's praise for Festival Hall perhaps isn't all that much of a shock; it is now hard to find critics of it. But Stamp is generous to other unlikely buildings: Basil Spence's university library in Edinburgh and John Madin's central library in Birmingham to give just two examples. And he ranges far off the usual rhetorical template, blaming the 1930s as much as the 1960s, and patricians and developers as much as modernist central planners.

Blaming for what? For the destruction of British cities, of course - 20 of them, from London to Glasgow via less familiar places as Worcester and Exeter. Lost Cities is larded with photographs of these cities in their former glory, like the graduation photographs of murder victims that are shown on the news. It's a grim read and appeals strongly to that odd pleasure: tombside melancholy. To look at photographs of places we cannot, can never, see for real is to feel a prisoner in one's time, locked in the bow of a ship while loved ones are thrown off the stern. The photograph keeps grief fresher longer than any other form of image. This is because it was (and is) a vast advance in the technology of memory - and as such it is probably the photograph, not modernism or the Blitz, that gave us the building conservation movement. Without the camera, the heritage movement would never have risen to its present ascendance, and would have remained the fringe pursuit of antiquarianism. It is the product of essentially modern information technology**.

Back to the Lost Cities. I should make it clear that I have nothing against conservation of existing buildings in principle, as a matter of economy and ecology if nothing else. But Britain's Lost Cities isn't intended as a collection of curiosities, it's polemical; it has a point to make, and the point is to horrify us at this wanton destruction (in the hands of SAVE et al, destruction is nearly always "wanton", the two words have been shacked up together since the 1970s and look inseparable now) and to warn us to change our ways, shake our heads at the follies of the past, treat the older parts of towns and cities with renewed respect and treat the no-longer-new-but-not-quite-so-old bits that replaced them with fresh contempt. Central to this heritage-militancy is a national loss of nerve about the New. In the minds of the likes of Jenkins, the New was a modernist invention, but in fact centuries of British architects and city-builders had faith in the New over the Old. The Georgians swept away medieval cities and the Victorians swept away Georgian cities, and hundreds of good and tens of thousands of indifferent buildings were destroyed and places changed their character for better and worse long before the modernists appeared on the scene. The idea - often repeated by the Prince of Wales and others - that previous generations tended their cities bonsai-like, with nailclippers and tweezers, is a myth. And because there aren't photographs of those pre-existing eras, just unfamiliar paintings and drawings, we don't grieve all that much. And Stamp, to his credit, sees this, acknowledging in his introduction that the railways (for instance) were terrifically destructive.

(In other places, he's less sensitive. The laziest and ugliest line that gets trotted out by the heritage tendency and trad architects is that planners and modern architects "did more damage than the Luftwaffe", and variants on this slur do make an appearance; beyond the conflation of well-meaning public policy with area bombing inflicted by a hostile power, this line whitewashes the desperate state that British cities were in before the war. And they get annoyed when the vernacular tastes of the Nazis are brought into the frame.)

But what makes the losses of the 20th century too much for Stamp to bear is the guiding idea that what replaced the eradicated buildings was inferior. Not always - I've already cited where Stamp finds room in his heart for the modernists. But throughout the book the basic assumption that the replacement townscape was inferior is so deeply ingrained that it literally goes without saying. Stamp is a hugely valuable historian and critic, and a good writer, but Britain's Lost Cities sadly falls into line with a general effort to comprehensively malign post-War urban planning. This is to forget the nightmarish challenge that Britain's cities faced in the 20th century: the urgent need to modernise housing, offices, factories, hospitals, schools, everything in fact that the pre-War laissez-faire Big Society had neglected for decades. The militant heritage tendency has made a concerted effort to make modernisation a dirty word (a work that the Blair government colluded in, by applying it to neoliberal "reform" of public services). Since the 1940s some terrible mistakes have been made in British towns and cities, particularly in the name of traffic planning, but it seems at times as if the heritage tendency wants all British post-War planning, whether well-intentioned or dim-witted, to look like a kind of baffling tantrum. Its concerns, the social woes it sought to correct (with much success - the dramatic improvement in public health after the War is down to the council house as well as the NHS), the crises is sought to forestall - these are all to be forgotten. The supposed guardians of the British past really want a dramatic fit of amnesia.

And what are we conserving? The built stock of British cities cannot be completely separated from its use. In those marvellous pictures in Britian's Lost Cities, we see town-centre foundries, Don Cossack Temperance Hotels, socialist debating halls, small factories, family grocers. The visual apparatus, signs and ads, of those places makes for much of what is charming and lively about the street scene. Bringing back those buildings would not bring back those uses. The places that have been "saved" by the heritage movement - Covent Garden and Spitalfields, for instance - have been lost in other ways, taken over by chains and corporations and reduced to prissy, security-patrolled shopping plazas. Why do we no longer have microindustry, small independent shops, public-subscription reading rooms and debating halls? How can we foster those things, and should we? These are vital economic and social questions, and the heritage industry has no answer to them; it is only concerned with artificially preserving remains. And what should we do about server farms and distribution sheds? Pre-1939 townscape could not just carry on; even Pevsner saw that, pointing to the Alton Estate as the way of the future in his recently published "lost" book on visual planning. The idea, peddled by Leon Krier in particular, that modernist planning was a sudden disastrous abandonment of a secure evolutionary path is absurd. The severity of the modernisation programmes of the 1950s to 1970s was largely the result of the fact that they had been held back for decades by the forces of stasis masquerading as "gentle evolution".

So a polemical fixation on heritage alone does not help us understand and nurture the cityscape. Take, for instance, painted advertisements. Painted advertisements and signage on buildings is a crucial element of the lost streetscapes that Stamp mourns. There are repeated calls from the heritage movement to take more care to preserve those examples of painted advertisement that survive. But the reason these paintings are so old, and dwindling, is that advertising and signage were targeted by planners and conservationists in previous decades. If we changed planning law, we could probably restart the production of painted advertisements and incite a festive riot of new neon while we're at it. The ads would be for Toshiba and Viagra rather than Marconi and Beechams pills, for the unignorable economic and social reasons that I mentioned earlier, but they would be painted and perhaps subject to Royal Fine Arts Commission approval. That way, the dwindling supply of older adverts would be less of a pressing concern.

What I'm saying is this: The best way to ensure a steady supply of the Past is to continue to manufacture the Present and the Future. The wholesale rejection of the New has completely failed, giving us only amnesia and routine philistinism. In distrusting development we have, as a country, not stopped development but ceded our ability to shape it and even plan it. In the same month that Stamp accused me of "card-carrying neophilia", my then-boss, former Icon editor Justin McGuirk, was called a neophile by Roger Scruton - and Scruton, like Stamp, believed he was pointing out a character flaw rather than drawing attention to an admirable trait, a telling fact in itself. Commenting on the coincidence on Icon's Scene page, we wrote: "[We] wonderered how [we] could be neophiliacs when so many of the new buildings [we] see are crap." The most vital question in British urban policy is how to build, and what to build; get that right and the question of heritage will be far less important, because it will no longer be a question of preserving a dwindling supply of good buildings, the supply will be kept healthy. The heritage movement has performed many good deeds, preserving some superb buildings that might have been unnecessarily destroyed. But its only contribution to a broader debate about what cities should look like is to foster the attitude that if it's Old, it's Good, if it looks Old, it's Good, and if it has to be New, then it has to look Old. That is a dead end; it is aesthetic decadence, and the stance of a deeply unhealthy, perhaps dying, culture.

Stamp's book is a visual treat and a treasury of interest, though, and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

* Betjeman has a curious kink about female beauty aids, and an even stranger suspicion of life becoming easier. From the famous Slough: "In labour-saving homes, with care / Their wives frizz out peroxide hair / And dry it in synthetic air / And paint their nails."

** SAVE Britain's Heritage grew out of an exhibition of photography.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Great post, Will. Whereas heritage skeptics such as yourself may be lazily dismissed as neophiliacs, as a (shudder) 'heritage professional' myself I tire of an internal culture and external view that characterises our stance as Conservation At All Costs. I'm an architectural historian because of my abiding interest in architecture, not because I seek to deify every last nuance of what previous centuries stood for in social and cultural terms.

This is not to deny that I believe that *some* pieces of townscape are worth protecting alongside individual structures, but I see for myself the deadening hand of overprotection and over-analysis derived from a unimaginative genuflection to the superiority of The Past.

I have a whole Marxist analysis that seeks to explain this trend, but it's not really for here, is it?