Britain’s postwar landscape is illuminated through the stories of the people who planned, built and lived in it, finds Steve Parnell
Concretopia is one man’s journey to understand the world in which he grew up: the New Addington estate of Croydon in the 1970s. This journey takes him on an extensive romp around the architecture of postwar Britain, outlining a brief history of past futures. The places he records on the way form an architectural history from 1944 to 1980.
This is currently a fashionable era and you will have previously encountered many of John Grindrod’s subjects, as the buildings of the period reach the end of their lives and battles are fought over whether and how they should be preserved, adapted or demolished. These battles are not purely architectural, but often political, due to the contrast in ideologies between the time in which they were conceived and now.
The historical narrative describes the creation of the welfare state and the publicly owned buildings that were required to serve it – a newly reconstructed world both socially and architecturally. After a generation, the left-of-centre consensus started gradually to be replaced by the right of-centre political climate we find ourselves in today, where architecture and the society it represents is privately owned. Concretopia ends at the inflection point in this narrative, when Grindrod is growing up in south London.
While Grindrod is sympathetic to this narrative, he isn’t driven by it. The book offers no biting, politically charged criticism of the current state of British architecture, like Owen Hatherley’s A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. Nor does it offer the class critique of Lynsey Hanley’s Estates. Grindrod is neither nostalgic nor judgmental but instead highlights the optimistic dreams and ambitions of the time, capturing a sense of what it was like to attempt the construction of a new world.
He achieves this through the stories of the projects and the people involved from their conception: the architects, planners, workers and, when it comes to housing, the inhabitants. Grindrod is as interested in the people as the buildings, and this distinguishes the book from conventional architectural histories. It is as closely related to the social historians David Kynaston and Tony Parker as it is to John Gold or Nick Bullock, describing architecture within a social and cultural context. This approach adds warmth and personality and makes the 450 pages inviting rather than intimidating. It also means that it will appeal as much to the architecturally uninitiated as to architects and, as such, it’s an accessible introduction to the key events and buildings of the period for any student.
Grindrod’s visits take in the prefabs of the Excalibur Estate in Catford, the new towns of Harlow, Cwmbran and Milton Keynes, the Royal Festival Hall and the South Bank, Hunstanton and Hertfordshire schools, the modernist centres of Coventry, Cumbernauld and Plymouth, CLASP and SPAN, Sheffield’s streets in the sky and tower blocks in Glasgow and east London, cul-de-sacs in New Ash Green, Centrepoint, the Post Office Tower, Arndale Centres, Ronan Point, T Dan Smith and John Poulson, the Barbican, the Bull Ring, the Tricorn, Trinity Square and Elephant and Castle.
The big names are here alongside people you’ve never heard of, but it’s the latter whose words enliven the pages alongside Grindrod’s amused commentary; they come alive, having been “cryogenically frozen … and defrosted for the occasion”. There are some omissions, of course – the Byker Wall, for example, would have made a rich counterpoint to the Barbican – but no book can be exhaustive.
Concretopia is less a critical analysis than a comprehensive orientation to the period, the people, and the events around which the buildings were conceived and constructed. In the final pages, Grindrod reflects on his journey and comes to understand the estate where he grew up as “a have-a-go attempt at whatever was fashionable to fill in the gaps”. Ultimately that’s why I find this book, and the architectural history of this period in general, so endearing.
Concretopia by John Grindod, Old Street Publishing, £25