After Modernism: The Politics of Urban Renewal Since the 1970s

Speakers: Otto Saumarez Smith, Adam Page, Simon Gunn

Chair: Erika Hanna

The transformation of Britain’s cities after 1945 was one of the key sites where the majority of the population came into contact with the social visions for the future promulgated by political elites. The collapse of this project from the late 1960s is essential to understanding ‘cultures of democracy’ not least because it was linked with an active rejection of a model in which the ‘expert’ planner interpreted the needs of society and especially those of the urban working class. The buildings of the 1960s came to serve as a proxy for the whole gamut of post-war meliorist, state-led, top-down progressivism. Especially crucial was the fact that by the 1970s modernist solutions no longer seemed adequate in responding to two issues that were increasingly urgent: how to give cities a new role in the face of deindustrialization, and how to help those in inner city areas left behind in the general trend towards greater affluence, especially in new immigrant communities. Whether this rejection led to a culture more responsive to democratic participation, or whether it left a vacuum that was filled by market-led approaches, is one of the questions the panel seeks to address.

Through this discussion we wish to assert the importance of a focus on the urban and the built environment to any project of ‘rethinking’ modern British history and the forms which democracy may have taken. The transformation of the built environment is a focus missing from the working paper, but is one which is indispensable to comprehending the profound material and political changes that overtook much of British society in the twentieth century.

Paper 1 Abstract: Unequal City: The Emergence of the ‘Inner City’ in British Politics

Otto Saumarez Smith, Lincoln College, Oxford

In the 1970s the concept of the ‘inner city’ became a spatially materialised locus for all that was perceived to have gone wrong with Britain’s state and society in the post-war period; it was the physical location where many emerging anxieties that seemed so intractable in the period – about physical, social and economic decline, as well as issues ranging from race, to the persistence of poverty, to deindustrialisation – appeared most manifest.

This paper focuses on one aspect of central government’s approach to the problem, the Department of the Environment’s commissioning of the three Inner Area Studies for Birmingham, Lambeth and Liverpool – which paved the way for Peter Shore’s 1977 White Paper on the Inner Cities.

The studies were commissioned from three architect-planner consultancies, each of which had been central proponents of the Modernist approaches to redevelopment in the 1960s: Llewellyn-Davies, Weeks, Forestier-Walker and Bor; Wilson and Womersley; and Shankland Cox. If this continuity in personnel suggests a continuity in approach with an earlier period, this is belied by the contents of the reports, which foreground the failures of the post-war period and disavow Modernist approaches – as the Lambeth study argued, ‘the traditional remedies were no longer adequate.’ The reports attempt to reappraise the relationship between planners and planned, between state and society. They focus on those who had not just been left behind by the meliorist project of social democratic Britain, but whose position was understood to have been exacerbated by the physical aspect of this project. Though much of their rhetoric is underlined by a deep pessimism, in retrospect they also represent a brief moment of possibility; where the failures of the post-war period could be appraised and perhaps tackled, but before new neo-liberal approaches gained ascendancy.

Paper 2 Abstract: Rejecting the Future: the Campaign to Demolish Divis Flats, Belfast

Adam Page (Sheffield)

Between 1966 and 1972 a landmark housing scheme, the Divis Flats complex, was built in Belfast’s Lower Falls, near the intersection with the loyalist Shankill. The Le Corbusier-inspired design was imagined as a modern technological solution to the area’s slum housing. While still under construction in 1969, however, it became a flashpoint and symbol of the developing Troubles, and ten years after it was completed, it was named the worst estate of its kind in Europe. The architectural image of high-rise living and cities in the sky came into conflict with the everyday lives of residents. Design features implemented to facilitate a sense of community actually contributed to alienation, illness, depression and danger as the complex was transformed into ‘Fort Divis’. In response, residents formed the Divis Demolition Committee and protested against their living conditions, attacking the architecture itself by destroying vacant flats from the inside-out. By 1994 embattled officials had relented and all the blocks had been demolished with the 20-storey tower the only element that remains.

This paper begins to ask to what extent failing built environments contributed to a broader loss of faith in the future in postwar Britain, but also provoked new forms of opposition and protest in urban contexts. The campaign to demolish Divis was a rejection of the official techno-rational vision of the future and the political and planning processes which mirrored the architect’s top-down approach. It was a version of democratic participation born in desperate conditions and a society steeped in violence, which provocatively exposed the gulf between residents and officials and the limitations of more orthodox politics. The Divis example indicates the importance of contestations over urban futures in postwar politics and suggests that Northern Ireland should not be entirely separate from postwar British histories.

Paper 3 Abstract: The Collapse of the Motor City Ideal in 1970s Birmingham

Simon Gunn (Centre for Urban History, Leicester)

On 8 April 1971 the Queen opened Birmingham’s Inner Ring Road by driving its full three and three-quarter miles length around the city’s gleaming new centre. Over fifty years in the making, the Inner Ring was celebrated as one of Britain’s great civil engineering achievements. It made Birmingham the emblem of an almost ‘transatlantic modernity’ in the words of the city’s official historians and Britain’s premier motor city, home to British Leyland and a city recreated to meet the needs of the new ‘car-owning democracy’. In a matter of years, though, the motor city ideal was dead. In 1972 the recently opened Gravelly Hill interchange – the notorious Spaghetti Junction – became the focus of a national debate about motor pollution caused by noise and car emissions, including, most dangerously, lead pollution. And in May 1977 the SundayTimes ran an extensive article on an engineer’s report that the Inner Ring Road was crumbling due to faulty construction, which allowed rainwater to penetrate surfaces, concrete to crack and supporting beams to rust. Without expensive repairs its flyovers and underpasses were in danger of collapse.

This paper explores the politics of automobility in 1970s Birmingham and the disillusion with modernist planning that it embodied. Pollution, corruption and the disintegration of urban motorways were the most highly publicised aspects, but the political reaction was also marked by widescale protests against new suburban roads and dangerous road lay-outs by residents’ associations and women’s groups. Birmingham’s status as a motor city was undermined, I shall argue, by a micro-politics of local democracy which increasingly dovetailed after the oil crisis of 1973 with an international politics which brought mass automobility and the whole project of Britain’s urban modernism into question.


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