I wonder what inspired Simon Jenkins, one of the few sensible architecture critics in Britain, to pen his recent lengthy essay in The Guardian, “Concrete Bungle,” subtitled “How public fury stopped the 1970s plan to turn London into a motorway.” My guess: Jenkins must have happened upon a book, I’ll Fight You For It, by Brian Anson, published in 1981 after the public rallied to save the Covent Garden district. The book is not mentioned until well along in Jenkins’s piece. So maybe that was not his inspiration. Might it be that another modernist “icon” is on the verge of demolition in London? That would be under my radar but high on Jenkins’s list of news hooks.
Jenkins’s title “Concrete Bungle” takes off on concrete jungle, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a modern city or urban area filled with large buildings and regarded especially as a harshly competitive, unwelcoming, or dangerous place.” That’s what much of London has become since 1973. Jenkins’s essay does not comment on that until near its conclusion, in reference to the city’s spate of “speculative luxury towers.” Maybe that’s what triggered him to write.
Sir Patrick Abercrombie, a leading postwar urbanist, inked his “District of London Plan” based on a 1963 report on traffic congestion. Its solution was, supposedly, “traffic separation” – or as Jenkins describes it, “[p]edestrians would be elevated on to decks above which would rise estates of towers and slabs.” The horrid Barbican, of 1965, was the first completed development in London based on such “traffic modernism,” as enthusiasts called it, and thankfully the last.
Why the last? Jenkins tracks the rise of public skepticism of the London Plan, which strikes me as rather sudden. Here is how he describes what the plan and its offshoots in other districts envisioned:
[A] London landscape entirely cleared of its existing districts, other than landmark monuments, such as the Houses of Parliament and the British Museum. The city would be one of rows of slabs and towers, similar to Corbusier’s plan [1925 Plan Voisin] for a new Paris of 60-storey towers.
Jenkins describes the most ambitious such plan, the inner-ring or Motorway Box, and the public’s reaction to it:
On one count it would demolish more houses than did the Luftwaffe, requiring the rehousing of 100,000 people. Public meetings along its route were chaotic, with officials often having to run for cover. When the roads minister, none other than a young Michael Heseltine, opened the Westway link to the box over Notting Hill in 1970, he encountered a riot of abuse from infuriated residents, who had his motorway passing just feet from their bedroom windows. [See top photo.]
The fight against London’s version of Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, which would have destroyed the Marais district of central Paris, came to a head in 1968 with the proposal to raze the Covent Garden district. Jenkins writes:
A militant community association sprang into action. Buildings were squatted, council meetings disrupted, streets occupied and councillors lobbied – or harassed. … The group was publicly supported by a then-radical Evening Standard, and by a wider awareness that a familiar London was being threatened by change more drastic than any inflicted by the blitz. … Despite continued protest through 1972, the Covent Garden plan pressed ahead. But trouble began when its custodian as GLC [Greater London Council] committee chairman, Lady Dartmouth (later Princess Diana’s stepmother, Lady Spencer), rebelled and joined the protesters. More critically, a sympathetic planning minister, Geoffrey Rippon, had his officials secretly list for preservation 250 “historic” buildings dotted across the entire plan area. When this became public, it sabotaged the entire proposal.
In the quote above, Jenkins identifies the nub of the issue in the minds of Londoners, who were justly concerned that “a familiar London was being threatened by change more drastic than any inflicted by the blitz.” Soon after the preservationist gambit described by Jenkins, the Covent Garden plan was withdrawn. Jenkins records a lengthy succession of such projects abandoned, including the Motorway Box, or put on indefinite hold, such as a plan to obliterate Whitehall and 10 Downing St. – the equivalent of the federal district in Washington, D.C. He adds:
Abercrombie was over. The GLC and the London boroughs switched the outlook of their planning policies. They actively promoted the new 1967 Civic Amenities Act, allowing for the designation of conservation areas across Britain’s inner cities. By 1975, 250 such areas of mostly Georgian and Victorian streets had been given protection, including most of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and much of inner Camden and Islington. The appearance of inner London we see today was largely determined in the immediate aftermath of 1973.
The effect of the revolution was astonishing – and to the best of my knowledge never fully acknowledged.
It is the architecture profession … that should be held responsible for what almost happened to London. We can blame elected politicians for decisions that govern our lives. But in complex decisions like this – as in matters of law, medicine or defence – they are at the mercy of professional experts. Architecture at the time had gone awry, seized by ideological gigantism, dubbed by some critics as an “edifice complex”. But I know of no effort by the profession to reflect on that period in its history, to set the record straight or show what lessons it has learned.
The rationale for the postwar reconfiguration of London and other British cities and towns was deeply flawed, and obviously so. But it was not obvious, apparently, to most “experts.” Since then, the dystopian sins of architecture have changed but have not improved, and the experts involved remain as stupendously oblivious today as in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Yet somehow, then as now, the public recognizes the truth in spite of all the propaganda of the planners. In a remark that may be extended to other targeted London districts, Jenkins declares:
What saved Covent Garden from its fate was that the potential victims had enough fire in their bellies to fight back.
Until reading Jenkins’s piece today, I was largely unaware of the extent to which plans of “modernisation” were so actively opposed by the public. It reminds me of a propaganda film on the plan to rebuild Plymouth after the war. The film, “How We Live Now,” favored the plan, but it was so clearly and obscenely ridiculous, and the public so widely skeptical, that the film’s producers had enormous trouble making the case. Their struggle to do so is hilarious. To view the film, see my post “Plymouth after World War II.”
I imagine that many such films were made to ram the London Plan and its bloody sisters down the throats of a war-weary public. The plan to rebuild Plymouth also came from Prof. Abercrombie’s playbook. The planners won in Plymouth, and that city, along with others, was largely ruined.
While older and richer in historic fabric, London boasted no more of it per square foot than American cities and towns prior to the threat posed by urban renewal. Many cities were gritty and in disrepair after decades of depression and war. Repairing and renovating them would have been the sensible urban policy. But instead, in London and in American cities and towns, citizens found they had ample reason to fear the threat posed by modernism, and on both sides of the pond the transformation of historic preservation from a niche interest to a mass movement was swift.
The unsuitability of modern design and planning to the quality of life in cities has been obvious from the start, and has been recognized as such by the public from the start. In a democracy, the public’s will must eventually manifest itself. In recent times, the focus of professional preservationists on saving old buildings has waned (partly because of their success at that task). Without preservationists as allies, opposition to insensitive development has seemed so futile that the public has tuned out on architecture.
This could change, however, as the history of success in blocking projects that degrade the quality of life in cities and towns becomes better known. As Jenkins writes, again offering advice whose importance goes well beyond a single victory in the style wars:
The way to prevent future Covent Gardens can only be to remain alert and to empower local people, not believe that some ordained future is inevitable. They can decide these things for themselves. It is the very essence of democracy.
Hope has been well nourished by Simon Jenkins’s “Concrete Bungle.”