Modernism in Britain: did it stand the test of time?

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Modernism in Britain: did it stand the test of time?
Balfron Tower, Poplar, London, a 27-storey brutalist tower block designed by Ernö Goldfinger.

“Living in a high-rise block does not force all its inhabitants to become criminals, but by creating anonymity, lack of surveillance and escape routes, it puts temptation in their way and makes it probable that some of the weaker brethren will succumb.”

So wrote Alice Coleman, geographer at King’s College London, in her 1985 book, Utopia on Trial. This marked the nadir of the reputation of the UK’s modern houses, built sporadically between the wars and in massive numbers in the 30 years after. Coleman and her team ran round London housing estates counting instances of graffiti, litter and pissy lifts and decided that modern housing was all wrong, urban planning was impossible and that the “natural selection” of the free market meant little homes with little gardens were a way of living that was impossible (maybe even immoral) to improve upon.

Utopia on Trial perfectly ventriloquised the attitude to housing of that era’s establishment and it remains a testament to just how far common-sense opinion had changed from the heady optimism of the 1960s. From a source of welfarist pride, hand in hand with the NHS, modernist and in particular council housing had by the 80s been stigmatised so thoroughly that it was possible for Thatcher’s government to practically end its construction altogether. As far as housing was concerned, architects were aloof, contractors were spivs, councillors were on the take and only the steady miracle of “what people really want” – meaning suburban cul-de-sacs built by developers – could rescue the industry.

But beyond all this, one startling thing remains true: the postwar period in housing was one of the very few times in history that Britain has been at the cutting edge of architecture. UK architects may not have been the initial innovators of new forms of housing, and they may not have been the most prolific, but they led the world in a number of ways. []