A New World
Britain emerged from World War Two a different country to that which had entered the conflict six long years previously. Financially ruined, physically exhausted, and facing a massive housing crisis, the British people did not have their problems to seek in 1945. But the end of the war also engendered a tremendous sense of optimism in the country, a feeling that the need to rebuild Britain was also an opportunity to build a new nation, and to rectify the worst mistakes of the past.
For Modernist architects, this was the opportunity they had been waiting for. Whereas during the 1930s they had struggled to convince the authorities and the general public that their theories on building and town planning could solve Britain's divisive social problems, suddenly they found themselves in a nation desperately searching for ambitious solutions to chronic problems and eager to embrace modern life and modern ideas.
This enthusiasm for the future could be seen in the 1951 Festival of Britain, a populist attempt to lift the spirits of the nation in the difficult post-war years. Originally scheduled to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the Festival became instead a giant paean to a better, modern world. Only the Royal Festival Hall remains from the original site. It remains one of the most popular modernist buildings in Britain to this day and is still the centrepiece of the arts complex which has grown up along the South Bank since the Festival ended.
The Welfare State
As well as the success of the Festival, two Parliamentary Acts facilitated the post-war embrace of Modernism: the Education Act of 1944 and the New Towns Act of 1946. By the mid-1950s, 2,500 schools had been built and ten entirely new towns were either under construction or were on the drawing board.
Town planning and the requirements of constructing a large number of functional buildings in as short as period of time as possible opened the door for Modernists to begin reshaping the appearance of British towns and cities.
Two of the most prominent young architects of this era were the husband and wife team of Peter and Alison Smithson. The Smithsons were ferociously intelligent and theorised about architecture as much as they practised it.
As well as being active in avant-garde cultural groups like the Independent Group (which ushered in Pop Art), the Smithsons also fought their corner at CIAM congresses in the post-war years, eventually breaking away from this group in 1956.
The couple's reputation at this time rested largely on their Secondary School in Hunstanton, Norfolk. Heavily influenced by Mies Van Der Rohe, the school's exposed steel structure, rigid lines, and acres of glass garnered much favourable comment when it was completed in 1954.
The Secondary School's many imitators over the years have not diminished its striking appearance.
New Towns, New Country
But it was the attempt to create, by government act, entirely new communities which gave modern architects their best chance to realise their utopian vision, in which their rational, planned architecture would deliver British city dwellers from the dark failures of Victorian housing to a bright new world of clean, functional towns.
In 1955, the designation order was signed for Britain's last New Town - Cumbernauld in Lanarkshire. Cumbernauld was a utopian attempt to build a New Town that was genuinely new. Strict zoning, acres of motorway, and a town centre encased within an heroic Corbusian megastructure, ensured that the architects who worked on the town felt like genuine pioneers. At last, the opportunity to build a new country was within their grasp.