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The modernist movement: The bubble bursts (1961 - 1979)

Updated Monday 26th November 2001

The taste and mood of the nation changed as people started to feel swamped by the modernist design.

Gorbals explosion Creative commons image Icon Potatojunkie under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license
By 2007, the Gorbals project towers were already being removed from the landscape of Glasgow.

It Can Be Done, It Must Be Done

By the 1960s, Modernism had become the lingua franca of British architecture. Schools, offices, homes, and even entire towns were all being constructed using, to a greater or lesser extent, methods first advocated by Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe and other pioneers.

Despite doubts expressed by British architects like Alison and Peter Smithson and Denys Lasdun, public building continued apace. And despite the variety of Modernist buildings which came into being at this time, it was the public housing programme which would come to define Modernism, and damage almost beyond repair the reputation of Modernist architecture.

The 1956 Housing Act had meant that a premium was paid to councils for building blocks higher than five storeys: the higher the block, the greater the subsidy. In 1965, 383,000 new homes were built in Britain.

The Labour Party's 1966 general election manifesto promised; "In the next five years we shall go further. We have announced- and we intend to achieve - a target of 500,000 houses by 1969/70. After that we shall go on to higher levels still. It can be done - as other nations have shown. It must be done - for bad and inadequate housing is the greatest social evil in Britain today."

The Conservatives competed with Labour in the housing numbers game until Margaret Thatcher became leader. The rush to build high and fast led to 'system-built' blocks - prefabricated towers which could be assembled on site - sprouting up across the country.

The Eyes On The Street

In 1961, American academic Jane Jacobs published "The Death and Life of Great American Cities". Jacobs identified flaws in Modernist urban planning and called for authorities to rethink their priorities, fast.

She compared traditional neighbourhoods unfavourably with planned estates, noting that high density, mixed districts, where people were within walking distance of amenities and of each other, fostered a greater sense of community than did modern estates where land use was segregated into zones, and where space and meticulous planning had created barriers to human interaction.

Where people are close together, a sense of community and safety - 'the eyes on the street' - existed. In modern estates, a sense of anonymity and isolation prevailed.

In Britain, Pearl Jephcott's study of residents in Glasgow's Gorbals for the Rowntree Trust (1971), found that whilst many residents preferred their new accommodation to the terrible slums of the recent past, they worried about the physical state of the blocks they lived in, as well as the loneliness and isolation of high-rise living.

Ronan Point

The Ministry of Housing and Local Government tended to ignore Jacobs, and take comfort in the positive aspects of Jephcott. However, no-one could ignore what happened at Ronan Point, a recently constructed tower block in east London, on May 16th 1968. A gas explosion caused a partial collapse, killing four people.

The weakness of the system-built design meant that one side of the building fell away like a giant pack of cards. Public unease with the hundreds of similar blocks across the country spilled over into a backlash against the architectural profession and the grand designs of the Modern Movement which the public blamed, however unfairly, for Britain's flimsy tower blocks.

When Hungarian émigré Erno Goldfinger unveiled his 31-storey Brutalist monument Trellick Tower in 1972, the tide had already turned. Modernists stood accused of building not only immensely ugly buildings, but of destroying communities and even putting people's lives at risk.

The end of the long post-war boom in 1973 heralded the start of two decades of intermittent recession and rising unemployment. New social problems would fester in Modernist schemes across Britain.

The optimism of Le Corbusier, Lubetkin, and Modernism's early champions, the belief that their new architecture would contribute to a better world for all, and the optimism of the post war welfare state which had striven to make that vision real, were all swept away in a torrent of bad buildings and economic crisis.

The Modernist Dream, it seemed, was dead.

 

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