Plymouth after World War II

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Narrator of documentary confronts citizens over plan for Plymouth.

Mark Motte, author with Francis Leazes of Providence: The Renaissance City, urged me to view an old documentary on video called “How We Live Now,” filmed in 1946, about the effort to rebuild Plymouth, the most heavily bombed city per capita in Britain, after the war. It is a great example of propaganda. I include some screen shots above and below.

It is a fascinating romp through a postwar of pessimism-tinged optimism. The argument for a new beginning for Plymouth via a big government plan conceived by Sir Patrick Abercrombie. Is pushed by a narrator who, in the film, portrays a writer seeking answers. All the answers seem to sound really great, but the public is not so easily convinced. This comes out in the film. It is an hour but very much worth watching – very amusing in how it seeks to rope in the average family, and very frank in how the average family has the narrator grinding his teeth.

Here are some lines from the film. Expert planners, led by Abercrombie, are brought in to “fix” Plymouth, and one of them plays a film of the plan for the public. It describes the need for better roads and more integration with outlying areas (to preserve them). Then the presentation of the plan gets down to the nitty-gritty, what it will look like.

“Nor is there any need for petrol stations to become eyesores,” says the expert as a rendering of a sleek modernist gas station appears on-screen.

“In the home, we don’t try to eat in the bathroom or sleep in the kitchen. All we’ve tried to do is to plan a city as we might try to plan an idea home.” Here the expert seems to be setting up the single-use zoning that became the bane of cities in the postwar era, pre-ordaining the constant need to drive in order to do anything.

The expert’s pitch reaches a crescendo with this: “Right down the centre, we’ve allowed for one monumental feature – a vista.” (Swelling instrumental music as images unfold, grander and grander!) Sketch after sketch of what Plymouth could look like rolls onto the screen, each featuring sleek (its designers would say) blotches of God’s wrath on cities.

Then the expert intones: “The key bit is that you, the citizens, must own the land. Mr. Baker, Mr. Watson and I propose the vista as as victory memorial for those who lost their lives in the Blitz. The symbol of a standard of living with spaciousness and beauty for all!”

The presentation ends to applause, but in the audience is the family that is the focus of the documentary’s effort to reach down to the little guy.

“This sounds all right, but who’s going to pay for it?” says the father. “We paid for the war,” says the daughter. “We paid for the war and we’ll pay for this.” replies the father. “But it’s worth it, Daddy!” she rejoins. “If we get it,” adds the mother.

Shortly after this, the narrator is walking down the street and sees the daughter, named Alice, with her boyfriend, a sailor. He catches up with them, intending to deploy his strategy for getting average people to talk about the plan. He invites them into the Museum of Natural History that they happen to be in front of in downtown Plymouth, and where the city happens to have a model of the plan on display for the public to see.

“They seemed quite eager to go into the museum,” says the narrator. “I doubt they’d ever been here before. Alice seemed to know all about the plan but she’d never seen the model.”

They step into the model room. The camera pans the model, ending with a focus on the girl’s face. The music gulps, reflecting her skepticism.

“I don’t think there’s anything in it,” Alice says.

“But aren’t you interested in your own city?” replies the narrator. (Huh?!)

“Yes. But not this.”

“They’ll never do it,” says the sailor.

“But what makes you say that?” replies the narrator.

“They’re not sufficiently go-ahead,” says the sailor. “Now if this were America it would be different.”

“Don’t you understand? ‘They’ means ‘you.’ If you want it enough you’ll get it.”

“I don’t know if I want it or not,” says Alice. “I don’t think it matters much.”

“Now that we’re here,” says the sailor, “let’s go and look at the fossils.”

The narrator grumbles to himself: “Not interested. They just don’t understand. That’s how ideas are killed. So much easier to kill an idea than look into it.”

In the next scene the city council debates legislation to support the plan but a councilor proposes an amendment to slow things down and consider a more modest plan.

“In the interests of the ratepayers,” he states, “in whose minds there is uneasiness at the great size of the plan, and the fear that they would have to carry an intolerable burden, with heavy rates. In the plan, imagination has been allowed to run riot. I am informed that to acquire the land for the city centre will cost 20 million pounds. On top of that there is this gross extravagance, this boulevard from the North Road Station to the Hoe [the waterfront area].

Another councilor replies: “I view the amendment offered by Mr. Taylor, my Lord, with grave misgivings. For whom does Councilor Taylor think he is speaking? Where there is no vision, the people perish. And I cannot help thinking that Councilor Taylor is speaking for the people with no vision. His illustration of the traveler coming to Plymouth and unable to drive his car through the picturesque highway that has been the dream of Plymouth citizens for years. To what does it amount? If he goes on foot it is the shortest route to the city centre. If he goes by car, he can but add two minutes to his journey. The argument is a ridiculous one. The opportunity of raising the city, magnificent in proportions, and affording glorious opportunity for all its citizens, is an ideal for which we should happily aim.”

(You add to your journey by taking a car instead of going on foot? That is to the plan’s advantage?)

Soon there is footage of Michael Foot, the perennial Labour P.M. wannabe, here quite young, arguing for the plan. The name of his opponent, Leslie Hore-Belisha, appears in a shot of the ballot for the upcoming parliamentary election as a sometime Churchill ally during the war. He is often cited in the great biography by William Manchester.)

The narrator takes a stroll to think things through and, regarding the new homes that he passes that look like Philip Johnson’s Glass House, he says, “And the new houses looked horribly reminiscent of barracks.”

Then he sees a parade with young people calling for their elders to do something: “Youth. I’d forgotten the impatience of youth. Will they help bring the plan to fruit?”

Here is the documentary’s final lines spoken by the narrator:

“In a country where every shade of opinion is allowed, almost anything is possible. Cities of tomorrow: What will they be? Who can tell? For there story is still being written by the citizens of today.”

As I say, watch the film. It’s a trip and a half. Of course, I think the doubtful citizens were smarter than the experts, and what happened to Plymouth – which we now know – bears me out.

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About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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