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Concretopia: a Journey around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain By John Grindrod - book review: 'A brave new look at postwar British building'

 

In the three postwar decades that took Britain into the 1960s, this country risked bold architectural and civic experiments to remake towns and cities fractured by bombing and shortages.

John Grindrod's 440-page paean to postwar British place-making gives us deft conflations of hard facts and the softer facets of humanity in an eminently readable tour of the key buildings, towns, and cities that fostered architectural modernity, in settings from Croydon to Cumbernauld. We learn how these mises en scène were created, and how lives were lived in brave new worlds of prefabrication, high-rises, and concretised civic centres. Grindrod leads us around some of the greatest British architectural-cum-social experiments; we eavesdrop on conversations with people who experienced them; and we absorb detailed information about the issues and tensions behind competing visions of the future.

Grindrod is economically witty, and his one-liners are resonant: "High tech [architecture] was glossy, flawless and expensive looking: shiny disco glitterballs to Brutalism's down and dirty Marshall stacks." One 1960s New Town is "a Blade Runner cityscape peopled by characters from a Gary Larson cartoon." Grindrod delivers many of his considerations of redevelopments in pairs: the most engrossing is his layering of major changes to the savagely bombed Coventry and Plymouth.

This formula brings together, often to great and vivid effect, the worlds of architecture, officialdom and ordinary life. We take coffee with John Honer, one of the architects involved in designing the Barbican, and we flinch at this architect-as-God nonsense from Cumbernauld's designer, Geoffrey Copcutt: "And all the while, like a jeweller fashioning precious metal, I hammered the cross-sections and shaped landscape to forge an urban morphology."

Two important points recur, convincingly, throughout Grindrod's narrative. The first is that most of Concretopia's buildings and places were thoroughly loved by their inhabitants, but progressively compromised by government spending cuts, the onset of sink-estate strategies, and a pathological dim-wittedness about the effects of crudely applied road systems on daily life. This often turned even the most brilliant attempts at modern place-making into new forms of urban bleakness.

The other point is that, in extremis, most British people are able to accommodate significant change to the way they live.

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