In the past few weeks, two news stories have appeared that prove just how pertinent a book about Britain’s post-war rebuilding is in 2013. The first is the call from the Policy Exchange think tank for a garden city to be built by the next government to solve Britain’s housing crisis. The second is the forced eviction of the final resident of the Heygate estate in south London so that the area can be redeveloped into luxury flats. Garden cities are still being hailed as an urban panacea, as they have been for more than a century, while Heygate’s rise and fall reveals the shortcomings of urban planning. Neither of these stories will have come as a surprise to John Grindrod, whose book Concretopia covers their inception with great flair.
Grindrod grew up in New Addington, Croydon, “an inner-city housing estate abandoned in the countryside”. He writes about learning, while in a geography lesson, that his home was considered to be a prime example of bad planning, and yet his family had been over the moon at moving there. Running throughout the stories he has collected for his book is this disconnect between the delight of many people at the prospect of a new home, and the joy of the planners and architects tearing up the blueprints as well as the rule books in their bid to build brave new towns, and how these projects came to be viewed. “There is an accepted narrative to the way we think about our post-war architectural legacy,” Grindrod writes. “It is something akin to the plot of a superhero blockbuster: a team of supervillains – planners, architects, academics – have had their corrupt, megalomaniac way with the country for 30 years.” One of the many wonderful things about this book is how it challenges that view, despite naming and shaming the many villains who certainly did have a hand in our architecture.
Touching on both the domestic and the grand Grindrod never forgets the human details, from perfectly preserved doorbells on a post-war estate to architects’ now quaintly comical obsessions with sketching in helipads in their designs. It’s a bit of a tragedy, really, with its overarching themes of hubris and the fact that again and again over the past half century, brilliant ideas were mired in cut-price realities. If you’ve ever wondered who gave planning permission for the serried ranks of concrete blocks you pass on the way to work, read Concretopia and lay the foundations of a new way of looking at modern Britain.