heard on the wire

The dream has gone, but the baby is real


They were going to build communities,
It was going to be pie in the sky,
But the piss-stench hallways and broken down lifts
Say the planners’ dream went wrong.

The Jam :: The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong

Audio MP3


That’s how Paul Weller summed up the prevailing view of post-war rebuilding in the UK. He paints a grim, picture of tower block living, laying the blame firmly at the door of the planners, the “the public school boy computers”.

A very similar story was told by a contemporay documentary, which cast the New Addington development in Croydon as the epitome of a town planning experiment that had gone horribly wrong. That documentary didn’t strike a chord with then-schoolboy and New Addington resident John Grindrod.

“If this was bad planning did that make us bad people from a bad estate?,” Grindrod wrote alost 30 years later in the introduction to Concretopia, his attempt to understand how Britain rebuilt itself after the second world war. He takes us on a journey that starts in the prefabs of Catford and the garden cities of Harlow and Welwyn, through the triumph of brutalism and some of the most startling and beautiful buildings ever erected, to the disaster of Ronan Point.

He talks to the planners and the residents and slowly draws a picture very different to that of popular lore, of that documentary and of Weller’s song. The planners generally got it right, designing cities around people and the expectations of the age; it was only when successive Conservative governments turned out the socially conscious development authorities and opened the rebuilding of bombing-devastated cities to private investors who were sometimes no more than brazenly corrupt profiteers, that the dream went wrong. The low point of this rush for housing at any price resulted in the tragedy of Ronan Point and haphazard, commercially oriented inner cities that became frightening concrete jungles.

The Specials :: Concrete Jungle

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Grindrod’s book makes a compelling case for revisiting this period in our history and for drawing conclusions that are rather different from the assumed wisdom.

The Specials were from Coventry, one of the cities Grindrod visits during his extensive travels across Britain to discover that planning and social housing has and can been a huge success. The current, severe housing shortages and the new-profiteering of buy-to-let cry out for the building of secure, managed and maintained high-rise accommodation in our cities. Instead we are told that the solution is more indentikit private housing, eating up our countryside and adding to the dual blights of traffic and pollution.

The title of this post is the title of Concretopia’s final chapter.

The architecture and planning of this period is generally seen to fall on the debit side of the argument: the corruption trials…; the demolition of Victorian “treasures” and the erection of concrete monstrosities; the perceived inhumanity of high-rise estates and streets in the sky.

Indeed it is that last criticism that Weller makes so eloquently.

Many of these criticisms are retrospective and anachronistic. In the fifties very few people would leap to the defence of a Victorian terrace or town hall, while many more were inspired by the visions of the future that architects were offering.

It’s clear to me that any postwar roll of honour should include the achievements of rebuilding. … Of course the high-rise has had its problems, but it’s easy to forget the success stories…where real communities were created, and pride taken in the shared environment.

It’s a legacy that successive governments, in thrall to the dogma of privatisation, have squandered.

And that title, it comes from a Smiths song that is as magnificent an achievement as Grindrod’s book.

The Smiths :: This Night Has Opened My Eyes

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➡ Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain

Grindrod also maintains an excellent website about the rebuilding of Britain: Dirty Modern Scoundrels.

Photo: Barbican; some rights reserved.

Twitter: John Grindrod

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