Mid-Century Britain by Elain Harwood; Sandfuture by Justin Beal review – re-evaluating postwar architecture

By Rowan Moore
The World Trade Center in 1982: ‘its most disliked features came more from the arrogance of his clients than from [architect] Minoru Yamasaki’
The World Trade Center in 1982: ‘its most disliked features came more from the arrogance of his clients than from [architect] Minoru Yamasaki’. Photograph: steinphoto/Getty Images

“Modern architecture died,” the critic Charles Jencks wrote, “in St Louis, Missouri on 15 July 1972 at 3.32pm (or thereabouts).” This was when, he said, some slab blocks of the city’s Pruitt-Igoe housing scheme were dynamited, it having been decided that their problems of vandalism and building maintenance were too intractable to be fixed any other way. The fault, in Jencks’s view, lay in the modernist design of these white, cuboid structures: they were too anonymous, abstract and unfamiliar to feel like home or community for the people who lived there.

The reality was more complex. It had much to do with the often racist social and housing policies to which Pruitt-Igoe’s largely black population were subjected. But, as it proved easier to blame the architects than confront such issues, Jencks’s formulation – that modern architecture destroys lives – became the convenient and conventional wisdom of the 1970s and 1980s, both in the US and in Britain. It gained strength from the fact that many modern architects did indeed make stupid and damaging decisions.

Jencks, though, got a few things wrong – the date and time of the photograph of the demolition that accompanied his text, for a start. Nor did modern architecture die. Several architects you might call “modern” have, since 1972, built significant and popular structures across the world.

There has also been a slow realisation that some buildings of the middle of the 20th century were actually quite good. Now two radically different books perform a similar task – re-evaluating postwar architecture and de-escalating the hysteria that tends to surround it. Both also explore themes of gentleness and humanity in apocalyptic times.

Mid-Century Britain is a survey by Elain Harwood, who, as an expert for Historic England, has done more than anyone to enhance understanding of the period. Her book covers an idiosyncratic range of dates – 1938 to 1963, the Munich crisis to the discovery (pace Philip Larkin) of sexual intercourse – but it makes sense.

She wants to draw attention to a time when it was felt that the best response to Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism was to deck buildings with frilly concrete vaults, checkerboard patterns, splashes of colour, occasional heraldic emblems and bunting (while also dealing with the rationing of building materials).

‘Soaring concrete roof’: Pannier Market in Plymouth
‘Soaring concrete roof’: Pannier Market in Plymouth. Photograph: Elain Harwood

This was an often whimsical version of the modern, exemplified by the buildings for the Festival of Britain in 1951, sometimes called “new humanism” or “new empiricism”, in which the assertive forms and theories of Le Corbusier were tempered by the traditions of the English picturesque.

This approach was too tepid for the next generation, who developed the more muscular architecture of new brutalism in response, but it produced civilised and thoughtful works such as the cottage-like Norfolk housing of Tayler and Green, the soaring concrete roof of the Pannier Market in Plymouth, and the dignified public spirit of the Royal Festival Hall. Harwood’s book calmly and informatively draws attention to these and other architectural pleasures.

Sandfuture is by an artist, Justin Beal. He interweaves the life story of Minoru Yamasaki, architect of both Pruitt-Igoe and the twin towers of the World Trade Center, with his own personal and sometimes minor experiences, as he lives through New York City’s post-millennial catastrophes, the destruction of the towers on 9/11 and the flooding that came with Hurricane Sandy in 2012. He also chronicles the effects of influxes of wealth on his girlfriend’s business as a gallery owner and on the Manhattan skyline.

Yamasaki, as Beal points out, was an architect whose most famous works – the housing and the towers – were both destroyed on national television. He was also the victim of a devastating critical volte-face, when the architecture critic of the New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable, went from extravagant praise to equally extravagant condemnation. (Critics, apt to deliver shallow-rooted hyperbole, don’t come well out of Sandfuture.)

Beal is more sympathetic, describing the Japanese-American architect’s battles with prejudice, pointing out the qualities of the many fine buildings he created across America, and bringing alive the ironies and tragedies of his career. Yamasaki was keenly aware of the need for a humane version of the modern, yet he ended up designing towers that, even before they were destroyed by terrorist violence, represented to many the overweening power of capitalism. Beal brings nuance and complexity to the story: how, for example, the World Trade Center’s most disliked features came more from the arrogance of his clients than from Yamasaki.

Sandfuture’s cover shows two handsome 1970s bodies sand-bathing in front of the two towers, lying like the last people on Earth on the then empty landfill that lay between the World Trade Center and the Hudson River. It captures the book’s themes of coupledom and capital, and of intimacy and apocalypse. It also reveals what turns out to be Beal’s biggest preoccupation – the ancient idea, expressed by ancient Roman and renaissance theorists, that buildings and human bodies should have similarities of proportion and structure, that they are made alike and suffer alike. His book is an unusual collage of narratives, but it provides rare insight into the making and experience of architecture.

Mid-Century Britain: Modern Architecture 1938-1963 by Elain Harwood is published by Pavilion Books (£25) on 14 October. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Sandfuture by Justin Beal is published by MIT Press on 12 October (£19.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


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