Elephant And Castle shopping centre. Photo: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

The rise and fall of the high-density madmen

Post-war British architecture often gets a bad rap. But it wasn’t all concrete and cars—some, like my father Peter Self, wanted to created urban living spaces on a human scale
July 12, 2019

In 1965, Frederic Osborn responded to the Sunday Times’s characterisation of “two apparently irreconcilable groups of people who want to determine the character of our future towns and cities.” According to the newspaper these two schools were dubbed—in mutual antipathy—“water colour” and “arrogant, intellectual, theorising, high-density madmen.” Osborn, a leading light of the first Garden City group, made his remarks in a letter to the chairman of the Cumbernauld Development Corporation, that quintessential example of New Town radicalism. This article, he said, has “escalated a border incident into a nuclear war.” Osborn was percipient, for the fallout from this massively escalated conflict continues to haunt its objective correlative—namely, the British built environment.

I do need to declare an interest here. Osborn wrote the introduction to my father’s book Cities in Flood (1957), which, as its title suggests, is an account of the dangers of unrestricted urban growth. Peter Self, Professor of Public Administration at the LSE, a long-time activator in the British built environment through his involvement with the Town and Country Planning Association, was decidedly of the “water colour” persuasion. When I was a child, I’d occasionally go with him to visit “FJO” (as my old man reverently described the old man Osborn), who lived in a predictably Arts & Crafts-inflected house near to us in Hampstead Garden Suburb. When I got older, I realised that such advocates of the Garden City—and latterly New Town—ideal, were in fact involved in a bizarre sort of mise en abyme, painting themselves into their own vision by living in a small-scale enactment of their urban philosophy, which was itself surrounded by an abyssal London.

In his meticulous new book Boom Cities, Otto Saumarez Smith wishes us to understand British architect-planners’ activities in the 1960s and respect their objectives. “We need to revise our understanding of the period,” he writes, “in a way which sees it as both messier and less polarised.” Much as urbanists love the Punch-and-Judy knockabout between the Béton-brut [raw concrete] disciples of Le Corbusier and the red-brick parterre ones of Self senior and the Garden City pioneer Ebenezer Howard, Saumarez Smith contends: “the Manichean narrative of modernists versus conservationists has been damagingly limiting.”

One of the reasons for this binary perspective, he thinks, is that the large scale of social housing construction in the post-war period can be easily viewed through an ideological prism. Whether new housing estates were typified by so-called “cottage” developments—low-rise, interspersed with greenery, on a human scale; or as multi-storey point blocks, set down in acres of greensward, seems, ipso facto, to entail an ideological perspective from left or right respectively. The split in the imagination regarding post-war estates only grew more distorting after new council house building more or less ground to a halt from the mid-1970s, and then Thatcher’s “Right to Buy” policy, enacted in 1980, tilted the British economy more decisively in the rentier direction. But it’s worth remembering that both Le Corbusier and Howard aimed to achieve with their urban planning what might be termed an aufhebung—or Hegelian sublation—of the conflict between capital and labour.

Indeed, Howard was just one among many late-19th century imagineers, who conceived of utopic and bucolic towns as the solution to the oppressions of capital, as much as the urban blights with which they inevitably seemed combined. The developments envisaged in his “Garden City of Tomorrow” were self-financing municipalities, within which everything was accessible on foot, and freight moved by a circumferential rail system. In such a chilled and bosky environment, the workers would have naught to fulminate about. 

Another thing that confuses us about our recently fabricated past is our unwillingness to admit the role of Conservative politicians and distinctly capitalist-minded developers in the urban regeneration of the 1960s. The Tories built in great numbers during the Harold Macmillan years, and high standards were sacrificed in a way that resounds down to the present day, in the form of the current inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire. But if we want to finger Tory-led local authorities and governments for crimes against the environment, we have to arraign Labour politicians, local and national, in the concrete dock as well. In city and town centre redevelopments the modernising impulse was shared by a broad swath of architects, planners, critics, officials and developers regardless of ideological affiliation.

As Saumarez Smith puts it: “The years surrounding 1963 […] are a peak point in the actual physical changes to cities and of sheer bloody-minded ambition.” There can be no doubting this ambition (nor its bloody-mindedness). Let’s face it, the 1960s redevelopments were—and in many cases remain—crap. Yet Saumarez Smith takes a justified swipe at those of us who luxuriate in such cheap aspersions: “So much of the invisible everyday building that makes up a part of every British city was built in this decade, creating the cityscapes chronicled and denigrated in books such as Crap Towns and Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards. Whether or not the cityscape of the 1960s is crap, it is not boring, as it articulated British hopes and fears about the future.”

Boom Cities helps us to apprehend the mess we’re wading through, as we slog from one uglification—a boxy shopping centre, or minatory multi-storey car park—to the next, by encouraging us to see these unlovely environments as a response to two large-scale assumptions about the future. The first was that universal car ownership was an unstoppable force, hence the built environment would need to become a (re)moveable object. The second was what Saumarez Smith classes as “meliorism.” Meliorism is that comfortable midway point between pessimism and optimism, wherein its possessor conceives of her actions as capable of bringing about a better future.

Actually, I think the so-called “activators,” who went to work on British town and cityscapes during this period were rather more Polyannaish than this: as Saumarez Smith puts it, “the -foundational ideological belief behind the planning philosophy of the period,”—1959 to 1964—“was that continuous economic growth would provide the basis for uninterrupted social progress.” As Tony Blair, the begetter of another wave of supposed “redevelopment”—both compromised and defined by private-public partnership—might have put it: “Things can only get better…” That they didn’t was amply confirmed in a matter of years, as the British economy lurched into a series of exchange rate crises that betrayed an inability to pay our way in the world, and which in some sense endure, along with a lot of duff city-centre architecture, to this very day.

To call the planners’ attitude mere “meliorism” seems a little like special pleading. After all, Graeme Shankland, one of the three architect-planners whose work forms the core of this book, was a member of the British Communist Party until 1956. True, he wasn’t a tankie, but his willingness to demolish and rebuild on a Stakhanovite scale must have owed something to his belief in historical determinism.

However, solidarity among planners cut across party lines: the true enemy, as they all saw it, was the car. As Shankland put it in the 1980s: “Looking back over 20 years there is no doubt in my mind that the Buchanan report Traffic in Towns, must be seen as a watershed, and one of the key events which distinguish the planning of the 1960s from both the forties and fifties.”

Buchanan’s report was published in 1963, and proved such a popular read for a government policy document that Penguin subsequently brought out a paperback edition. To be fair to Buchanan—and the flotilla of planners who joined his motorcade—the threat unrestricted car use presented to the British built environment was a real one, and his solutions were innovative. All of them are evidenced by the plans for the redevelopment of Blackburn, Northampton, Portsmouth and Liverpool that Saumarez Smith examines in depth. As he glosses Buchanan: “The argument of Traffic in Towns was that if a large proportion of traffic was to be accommodated in large cities without destroying their amenity value, there would need to be massive physical reconstruction, and if the community was unable or unwilling to pay for this, then a restriction of traffic would be necessary.”

Or as Buchanan put it himself: “We are nourishing at immense cost a monster of great potential destructiveness, and yet we love him dearly.” Moreover, the consequences of this would be: “Either the utility of vehicles in towns will decline rapidly, or the pleasantness and safety of surroundings will deteriorate catastrophically—in all probability both will happen together.” So the built environment of Britain’s cities would have to conform to fixed assumptions about human nature and prospects, rather than being dynamically shaped by them—suggesting a different kind of ideological devilry to the Leftist dirigisme normally fingered for blame.

Why was the private car deemed such an unstoppable force at this time, such that most planners and politicians alike all became resolute petrol-heads? Buchanan, well ahead of the times, did understand that environmental factors are not mere externalities, amenable to cost-benefit analysis, but fundamental to the liveability of cities—and their credentials as urbane environments. But what neither he nor his planning acolytes could grasp, however, is that the rights of drivers were not—or at least should not have been—any more divine than those of the property owners and leaseholders who would have to be removed from town and city centres to make way for them.

It would, admittedly, have taken a very courageous British politician indeed to stand up against the private car owner in the early 1960s, not to mention the car industry, which broadly defined employed approximately 10 per cent of the workforce. But there was also the libidinal imagination encapsulated by the chassis rolling off the production line at Longbridge. The year 1963 was, after all, two years after the contraceptive pill became available on prescription in the UK. Saumarez Smith notes, apropos Buchanan-derived plans for inner-city motorways: “It was common not to appreciate the visual and environmental damage caused [by them], but rather to see raised motorways cutting around the inner area of a city as a visual asset, under which urban life could continue.” No Reality Principle—concrete or otherwise—could interpose itself between Britons and the orgasmic open road, as was noted by that great fabulist of the 1960s, JG Ballard, whose novels Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975) limned the British urban skyline as a sort of jagged polygraph revealing the ill-suppressed truth about our collective sex-and-death drive.

According to Saumarez Smith, planners’ attempts to square the encircling ring roads with a sense of emergent urbanity led to a rapid abandonment of the large-scale city centre demolitions. This next phase is, indeed, a messy period—and while not wishing to descend to crude dialectics, Boom Cities nonetheless shows a consequential dialogue between advocates of townscape thinking, intent on creating urbane environments; and those who, while not necessarily “high-density madmen,” nonetheless saw British city centres comfortably housing new “megastructures,” such as the combined retail, residential, parking and amenity block proposed—but only partially enacted—in Blackburn. Saumarez Smith rhapsodises: “The shopping centre had an almost constructivist, multidimensional quality, breaking up its massive scale with a picturesque massing.”

For water colourists and densifiers alike, the enemy was surely the same: the so-called “subtopia”—already emergent in Coming up for Air (1939), Orwell’s kvetch against development driven by the car—and certainly in full flood by late 1950s. Arguably, the competing drives that rend the breast of every true Briton are not sex and death, but the Wemmickian desire for a castle of one’s own, opposed by equally fervent nimbyism. Both the green belts imperfectly cinching Britain’s prolapsed conurbations and the inner-city ring roads failing to bypass their sclerotic hearts seem, to me, to spiral out from this strange psychic contra-flow.

Saumarez Smith’s is a book focused on process, and a better description of the relation between espoused ideological positions, prospective plans and actual physical enactments you couldn’t wish for. And while eschewing the tendency to site the redevelopment of British city centres in the 1960s within the parameters of the Modernist movement, Saumarez Smith instead still cleaves to a figure like Lionel Brett, the Viscount Esher. The left-liberal hereditary peer enacted a sort of one-man Butskellisation of the built environment, by proposing bold plans for Portsmouth and York that he was nonetheless happy to temper, both on the basis of the burgeoning public objections, and his own ideological journey from New Town dirigiste to sensitive seeker after that elusive “urbanity.”

Arguably, we’re seeking it still with our idiotic “knowledge quarters” and their frothy-coffee economies—a sort of spume of urbanity, left behind when commerce has been uploaded to the lowering cloud. Early on, Saumarez Smith lets slip the mephitic truth about the 1960s developments: “As built, these city-centre schemes tend to be made up of a gimcrack modernism of tacky pedestrian precincts, grim underpasses, budget megastructures and gargantuan car parks: an architecture which was the product of public-private partnership and often designed by anonymous firms.”

The italics are my own, to emphasise the mess Boom Cities mostly sidesteps. For Saumarez Smith declares the 1947 Planning Act, and the whole botched—nay, corrupt—business of financing property development in post-war Britain to be beyond his remit. But without the acknowledgement that architectural form follows finance quite as much as it does any ideas of the beautiful, or the good, it’s hard to gain much clarity regarding all that tackiness—let alone free ourselves from another invidious bout of rentier-driven speculation, and its sequel: shit buildings, and crappy redevelopments.


Of course, by the early 1970s, with the oil crisis adding to the British economy’s woes, another ideological agonist entered the concrete arena, in the form of cost-benefit analysis, arguably the vector through which neo-liberalism begins to completely engineer the spatialisation of late capitalism. As I hope Saumarez Smith is aware, Dad saw it all coming. By the mid-1970s Peter Self was penning Econocrats and the Policy Process, a blistering critique of that bogus attempt to reduce all aspects of human habitation—including car driving—to a set of metrics.

Mind you, Dad himself remained true to his own New Town credo: emigrating to the custom-built capital of Australia, Canberra, in 1982. Here he lived out his days on a fatal and tarmacked shore—when I’d visit him there, he’d gesture magniloquently at the empty boulevards and four-lane parkways, rhapsodising: “You’d never guess the population is in excess of 250,000…” To which I would jocularly respond: “Yes… perhaps ‘Canberra’ is an ancient Aboriginal word meaning… Milton Keynes.”

“Boom Cities: Architect Planners and the Politics of Radical Urban Renewal in 1960s Britain” by Otto Saumarez Smith is published by Oxford University Press, £65