Concrete proof of Rommel's invasion

Jonathan Glancey comes to the defence of the German influence on our post-war pre-fab buildings
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The Independent Culture
Did the Second World War have an effect on British architecture? Of course it did. The combination of Heinkels and Dorniers, doodlebugs and V2s destroyed vast tracts of working-class housing as well as munitions factories, monuments and city centres. A bomb pricked the dome of St Paul's cathedral. Even Buckingham Palace received a direct hit.

Let's ask the question again. Did the Second World War have an effect on British architecture? Yes, a long-term effect that was as profound as it was provocative; beyond smashing up historic buildings (and the lives that they framed), it introduced post-war architects to the practicalities (and limitations) of prefabrication on an unprecedented scale.

It showed them, too, ways of building - one is loath to call them styles - that nevertheless had a profound influence on the civic monuments, factories and working-class housing of not just the late Forties, but of the Fifties and Sixties, too. Think of Rommel's Normandy defences or the concrete V2-silos hidden in the Eperlecques forest, and then look at the Hayward Gallery, the National Theatre, the Catholic churches of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia in Scotland and giant housing estates from London to Sheffield. Whether the effect was conscious or subliminal, countless British architects began to build in an aggressive and, at times, ugly manner. It is possible to go so far as to say there was a self-conscious cult of ugliness. Avant- garde architects were proud to be labelled Brutalists, a corollary of the Art Brut movement.

Like Rommel's Normandy defences, some of the buildings that emerged from this period were impressive and have stood the test of time. You may dislike the architectural form of the National Theatre, but you should never doubt its intelligence or integrity. You can bray for the demolition of the Hayward Gallery, but you cannot deny the raw power it emanates.

It is hard to excuse much of the local authority housing that rose in the same period in the name of prefabrication and political expediency. Much of it was designed and built in far too much of a rush. But it was childish of John Major to claim that such estates were all the work of "socialists". If he knew much about housing policy in the Fifties, he would have said that the poor, prefabricated, post-war housing that has done so much to turn the British away from modern architecture was an all-party concern. As prime minister, Harold Macmillan pulled out the stops in an attempt to build 300,000 houses a year in a bid to house and rehouse the British working class and to woo their votes. Labour and Conservative alike, ministries and local councils, were in a rush to build: in the rush, quality was, if not forgotten, often impossible to realise.

It is not difficult to understand why so many British architects became devotees of prefabrication. After all, it was new factory systems that enabled munitions factories, aircraft hangars and Spitfires to be produced in ever-increasing numbers. But, in the process, prefabricated buildings and machines became increasingly ugly. You need only look at the design and build quality of such basic war material as sub-machine guns to see how, as more guns were required at an ever lower cost, what started out as something deadly but highly wrought, ended up a brutal, and brutally crude, device that was designed to last in action for no more than a few days. What mattered in war was the function, practicality and effectiveness of a particular aircraft, gun or building. And it was precisely this spirit of brute functionality that thumped the face of British architecture from the late Forties until the end of the Sixties.

Many British architects fought in the war. For some, such as James Stirling, later to become an international star, the war meant being gunned down by a Tiger tank. Others remember the visual impact of the superbly designed and, in their own way, rather beautiful Normandy defences, which, like the Maginot Line, proved to be all but redundant when the Western Allies invaded France in 1944. Here was not just typical German thoroughness, but an approach to war architecture that reflected, and brutalised, some of the most significant currents pushing the Modern movement forwards in the Twenties and Thirties. Although this will incur the wrath of some readers, it is not difficult to see the ghost of Erich Mendelsohn's hand (yes, I know he was Jewish and an exile from Nazi Germany) in the design of Rommel's concrete fortresses.

This brutal concrete architecture was in the hands of, say, Le Corbusier, transformed into the stuff of poetry - albeit of the Ted Hughes as opposed to the Patience Strong school - in the Fifties. It is difficult, however, to make the brutal beautiful, although great architects of the past, Nicholas Hawksmoor most memorable among them, did precisely that - think of Christ Church, Spitalfields, think of the terrifying King William block he built at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, in 1702.

Nevertheless, this German assault on British architectural sensibilities was only the most strident of the ways in which our towns were rebuilt. If the D-Day Brutalists might be seen as carnivores in the zoology of post-war British architecture, those - led by Hugh Casson - who gave shape to the Festival of Britain of 1951 were herbivores. The spirit that infused the Festival of Britain and the whimsical architecture that followed in its skirts - all those New Towns - was determinedly optimistic. It was a rococo reaction to the experience of the Second World War that said: let's forget the horror, let's have some fun. What we mustn't do is wallow in the horrors and mechanics of war, as the Brutalists appeared to be doing.

There was a third architectural reaction to the War, which (stealing a line from the architect John Outram), is best described as the Wholemeal school of design: all those decent, worthy, tweedy, bricky, unassuming buildings that housed and schooled a generation of children from the early Fifties. Wholemeal because, like those crumbly biscuits, this type of architecture was ostensibly good for you.

If the Second World War brought specific strands of thought and obsessions to British architecture, it was not unique in doing so. War and new movements in architecture have gone sword-in-mailed-fist since any one nation marched into another and defeated it in battle. The Romans fell in love with Egyptian architecture and design and began decorating Rome with Egyptian monuments. The crusaders famously brought the spark that ignited Gothic architecture from Palestine to France. Vanbrugh was a soldier before he was an architect; when he designed Blenheim Palace, a nation's present to the first Duke of Marlborough for his victory over the Dutch at Blenheim, he decorated it in arms and heraldry of war.

This line of historical thinking could extend from the Assyrians to the atom bomb: architects have always been profoundly influenced by war. Perhaps the next time you take a look at prefabricated or brutal post-war British architecture you will see the influences and ravages that guided the shaping spirit of architects' imagination in a time of making haste after carnage and destruction.

It is wrong to blame any particular party or professional group for the fast and brutal architecture of the post-war years. It was a response to a real national emergency. John Major's remarks last week were not just historically inaccurate but deeply insensitive at a time when we are looking afresh at the way 50 years ago we set out to rebuild the fabric of our country. Political point-scoring is no aid to understanding.

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