Last edited 29 May 2020

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Post-war rebuilding

Design for a post war roundabout in Birmingham.jpg
An unknown roundabout in Birmingham (Image: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery).

The second world war had a dramatic impact on many British cities. Seventy years on, decisions on redevelopment or conservation are being made about what replaced the bomb damage.

Contents

Introduction

Many British towns and cities suffered some degree of damage from bombs, V-weapons or even cross-Channel gunfire. Repairing this damage led to large-scale rebuilding, some of which was radical in form and appearance, although much was also a response to the need to rebuild areas of slum housing. Seventy years on, decisions on redevelopment or conservation are being made. These are no longer new buildings and areas: they may now have their own historic value.

There is still a public feeling that British towns and cities suffered badly from wartime bombing. More than 47,000 houses were destroyed in London, and between 2,000 and 5,000 in several other cities. Over 22,000 tons of bombs fell on London; around a tenth of that on Liverpool/ Birkenhead and Birmingham. Forty-one places, of which 18 were London boroughs, had more than 1,000 houses totally destroyed, leading to the figure of 24 blitzed towns overall. [1]

Reconstruction plans across the UK generally reached far in time and space, covering much more than the war-damaged sectors; the blurring of the line between blitz and blight was pervasive and, half a century later, is difficult to disentangle. The Town and Country Planning Act 1944, often called the ‘Blitz and Blight Act’ deliberately drew these two issues together, after pressure from Birmingham’s city surveyor, Herbert Manzoni, and others, who feared that new planning powers would otherwise not enable them to solve the range of problems which extended far beyond the damage itself.

Thus many of the general ideas underlying the reconstruction plans, and the specific proposals contained within them, date back to before 1940: the reconstruction was not a ‘new paradigm’. Yet the blitz provided the ‘opportunity’ to realise some of these older ideas for redeveloping the British inner cities, and put in place the framework for the more substantial transformations that occurred during subsequent decades. The scale of the ‘declaratory areas’ officially accepted for redevelopment were, in most cases, more extensive than the areas of actual damage, although usually less than the cities requested: 415 acres in Plymouth, 274 in Coventry, 246 in Hull, for example.

The plans

Between 1940 and 1952 some 250 ‘plans’ are known, although these include multiple plans for some places, unofficial and official plans, and range from sketches to fully detailed, multi-decade plans. Many undamaged places were jumping on the bandwagon of re-planning. Many of the plans prepared before the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 were highly illustrated and quite specific in their physical planning proposals – but lacked implementation powers. After 1947, the situation was reversed. Thus the ‘reconstruction plans’ were often visually appealing and effective at communicating ideas of the future city: the post-1947 development plans were not.

This was a time when the planner was widely acknowledged as the expert. On the County of London Plan, for example, ‘the assumption of the rightness of the power to carry out these proposals in the common good is never questioned’. [2] Although many of the plan proposals were widely promulgated, in publications and exhibitions, this was top-down information rather than consultation: there was little evidence that public responses influenced plan-making or implementation. But even the radical plans often received considerable support: on Coventry’s proposals the exhibition visitor’s book records many more positive then critical comments and ‘a Coventry such as you suggest would be worth living in’ is typical. [3]

On the other hand, plans had to be approved by the new Planning Ministry, and much evidence remains of highly critical and personal comments between civil servants and local councils and their planning consultants. Even the country’s best-known and most influential consultant was criticised: ‘Generally, it seems to me a tragedy both for Hull, Sir Patrick Abercrombie and planning generally that he ever went near the place, and the sooner Hull gets away from his wilder ideas and faces up to the practical job of re-planning… in a sound, decent, ordinary way the better’. [4]

Perhaps the plans should not be read too literally. ‘The plans for post-war London were always necessarily pragmatic and patchwork, both in their original intellectual conception and in their implementation, constrained by the material fabric of the existing built environment, and by social and financial realities.’ [5] The plans were always aspirational, part of an agenda of placemaking and place-promotion at a time when the urban hierarchy, and social and economic structures, were changing rapidly.

Many of the plans vanished without trace. Who now remembers Walsall’s 1943 plan? [6] Even the Hull plan by Edwin Lutyens and Abercrombie was poorly received locally, and surprisingly little remains in the local archive (where some indexed items are now unlocatable). But some did have enduring influence, for example in new roads and alignments, while Thomas Sharp’s plan for Chichester and Stanley Adshead’s for York are still mentioned locally. The new visions for Plymouth and Coventry, despite the implementation being to modified versions of the original plans, remain (to use an overworked word) icons of the vision for reconstructed Britain.

The visions

The influence of the artistic approach of architects is evident in the use in many plans of formal, axial, even symmetrical beaux-arts-inspired layouts. Many of the plan authors were, of course, trained in this idiom, especially at the universities of Liverpool and London, and principally by Patrick Abercrombie. Yet the dominance of this approach in the 1940s waned in subsequent years as modernist urbanism came to dominate. The Plymouth and Coventry plans typify these differences: Coventry had deliberately appointed Donald Gibson as a young, radical city architect, and many of his new staff were left-wing, if not communist, while Abercrombie – ‘the Professor’ – was an archetypal establishment figure.

In both design traditions, although the ideas were not necessarily new, the scale of their implementation was: generating radical change in urban form and radically new plan types. Several factors, especially funding and landownership, led to the retention of many parts of existing, traditional, street and block patterns, limiting the radical nature of most plans. Even where the general patterns were retained, seemingly modest alterations – such as the widening and straightening of streets – implied the removal of many of the buildings that survived actual bombing, and changed the nature of the urban form. An especially dramatic and increasingly common introduction was the large-scale imposition of ring roads, reflecting the emerging domination of planning by traffic solutions.

The footprints of new buildings were significantly larger than those they replaced, and their land coverage was lower. These buildings were often narrow and linear, resulting in a plan form that was new in Britain at that time: the ‘perimeter block’. The uses of the interiors of these new blocks were usually not specified. Many of these spaces came to function as vast parking reserves, often remaining so today.

The style of the new buildings was generally plain and modest, representing a recognisable idiom that has come to be referred to as ‘1950s architecture’. Within the reconstruction period, it is possible to identify a gradual shift from a stripped-down classicism to a moderate modernism, and ultimately to a brutalist modernism in the final rebuilding projects. Developments that deliberately followed vernacular and traditional forms were surprisingly rare and small in scale (for example those following set-back road alignments in Georgian Chichester). In contrast to some European locations, replication of destroyed buildings is very rare in the UK. There are occasional examples in Georgian Bath, Leamington Spa and London, but the influence of SPAB’s (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) criticisms of this approach dominated. [7]

In parallel to this progression in architectural styles was a growing introduction of new types of buildings and urban elements. Some, such as the flatted factories and mechanised parking structures, were not widely adopted. Some were designedly temporary, such as Birmingham’s prefabricated steel car park and flyovers, although the latter persisted into the 1980s. Others, like the enclosed shopping centre, the parking garage, the subway (pedestrian underpass system), and the grade-separated street crossings, became standard elements in British cities in later years; but it was in the reconstruction period that they were introduced into common usage. Despite these and other innovations in town planning in this era, the overall appearance and silhouette of the re-planned town was little different from its predecessor – especially when compared to the transformations brought about during the next era of large-scale redevelopment, after the hiatus of the 1970s economic crisis.

The future of the reconstruction era

Despite the relatively small impact of the reconstruction on cities overall, the redeveloped areas themselves often contained large-scale developments, sometimes megastructures such as shopping centres (Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre, Birmingham’s Bull Ring), and often used new architectural styles, forms and materials. Some were labelled ‘brutalist’. Because of this novelty few were popular with the public, at least initially. Decades later their redevelopment rarely generated widespread public criticism, notwithstanding often vociferous campaigns by architecturally educated and aware individuals and groups. Jonathan Meades, for example, said of the Tricorn Centre that ‘You don’t go knocking down Stonehenge or Lincoln Cathedral. I think buildings like the Tricorn were as good as that. They were great monuments of an age.’ [8] Birmingham has lost the 1960s Bull Ring Centre and 1970s Central Library, and even its inner ring road has been ‘downgraded’, being seen as a ‘concrete collar’ stifling expansion of the city core. Over half of Birmingham’s more than 460 tower blocks have also gone.

Nevertheless there are moves to reassess the products of this period. There have been some successes in terms of listing, although some resistance to designating as conservation areas the iconic reconstruction landscapes such as central Coventry and Plymouth. Coventry’s new cathedral and the bombed shell of its predecessor are part of one conservation area, and part of the Precinct shopping centre is listed, but the ‘landscape of reconstruction’ as a whole is not protected. Although originally disliked, Birmingham’s Rotunda was listed when threatened with redevelopment; it has survived a radical refurbishment that stripped the building to its concrete skeleton, but its podium has been skewered by a support for the replacement (2003) Bullring shopping centre. Other reconstruction buildings in Birmingham and elsewhere are being stripped and re-clad. Although this often changes their external appearance, the original form and massing, the essential contributions to the reconstruction landscape, are usually retained.

Many people find change threatening, and Peter Smith suggested that ‘familiarity breeds contentment’. [9] The once-unfamiliar reconstruction landscape is now familiar, ordinary and everyday. The majority of our urban population has grown up with it and remembers nothing else. The threat is of redevelopment to meet current economic, functional and sustainability needs, although this is part of a natural cycle of urban change. It is time to look afresh at the post-war urban landscape, to review its significance in parts and as a whole, and to consider how that can be effectively communicated to future generations. New technologies will surely play a part in this. Old concepts of ‘designating’ and ‘protecting’ may be of less relevance.

References

  • [1] Details of damage are in National Archives files such as HLG 71/2222, HLG 71/34, CAB 87/11
  • [2] Higgott, A (2007) Mediating Modernism: architectural cultures in Britain, Routledge
  • [3] The comment book is in the Johnson-Marshall archive, Edinburgh University library
  • [4] Note by H Gatliff, Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Town and Country Planning, 14/2/1946; in HLG 79/226
  • [5] Mort, F (2004) ‘Fantasies of Metropolitan life: planning London in the 1940s’, Journal of British Studies 43
  • [6] Larkham, PJ (2003) ‘Walsall: the origin, promotion and disappearance of a wartime “reconstruction” plan’, Planning History 25(2)
  • [7] Larkham, PJ and Adams, D (2018) ‘Originality and authenticity in the post-war reconstruction of Britain’, in Bold, J, Larkham, PJ and Pickard, R (eds) Authentic Reconstruction: authenticity, architecture and the built heritage, Bloomsbury
  • [8] Quoted in Kidd, J (2014) The Independent, 22 February
  • [9] Smith, PF (1974) ‘Familiarity breeds contentment’, The Planner 60(9)

This article originally appeared as 'Bombing and rebuilding' in IHBC's Context 160 (Page 23), published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in July 2019. It was written by Peter Larkham, professor of planning at Birmingham City University.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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