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Radical 1960s architecture and planning still echo in our cities

Ewan Harrison

A nuanced look at what the architects and planners of the 60s were trying to achieve and how that still influences our environment

‘How many times in the last 10 years has one seen the same drawing: that spacious sun-baked piazza, the motor-cars tucked vaguely away somewhere, those fine flourishing trees, those outdoor restaurants, the whole thronged with Precinct People, a race of tall, long-headed men. Municipal Masai, who lounge about every architect’s drawing in a languor presumably induced by the commodiousness of their surroundings. I wonder how many local councils have been gulled into demolishing their town centres by such drawing board dreams.’ 

Alan Bennett’s weary 1967 comment, quoted by Otto Saumarez Smith in his thoughtful and nuanced new book Boom Cities: Architect-Planners and the Politics of Radical Urban Renewal in 1960s Britain, gives an indication of the breadth of plans for major interventions in 1960s British towns and cities. As Saumarez Smith notes, plans for the wholesale redevelopment of urban central areas were pursued across the nation, from sleepy cathedral cities to the ‘decaying towns of the industrial revolution’. 

Never built apart from the tower – Graeme Shankland’s 1958 plan to rebuild central Liverpool.
Never built apart from the tower – Graeme Shankland’s 1958 plan to rebuild central Liverpool. Credit: RIBA Collections

These tended to follow a set pattern, as Bennett’s comment suggests: a new city centre road layout alongside some combination of new shopping facilities, commercial office development and public housing, with new landscaped pedestrian areas. The built remnants of these plans are such a familiar part of our urban environments as to be almost invisible; we so frequently negotiate the shopping centres, precincts, multi-storey car parks and ramped ring roads bequeathed to us by postwar planners that we often fail to notice them. Saumarez Smith, however, has turned a forensic eye on these plans and, crucially, the political forces and contemporary fears and aspirations that shaped them. 

He sets out to contextualise 1960s urban renewal through an examination of the careers of several leading postwar architect planners and key plans of the period. His aim is to study these major urban interventions as ‘inescapable historical facts, with complex and various repercussions, which need to be historicised to be understood.’ He makes no particular claims for the heri­tage significance of the resulting built environments. In fact, for an architectural historian interested in the postwar period, he is singularly clear eyed about the ones that failed. Instead he seeks to place them in their intellectual, social and political contexts, and synthesises an astonishing diversity of source material to do so. 

These 1960s plans tended to follow a set pattern and their built remnants are such a familiar part of our urban environments as to be almost invisible.

One of those that got built – BDP’s 1969 Blackburn central area redevelopment.
One of those that got built – BDP’s 1969 Blackburn central area redevelopment. Credit: RIBA Collections

In the historical imagination these 1960s plans have tended to be lumped in with early postwar programmes of bomb damage replacement and slum clearance, but Saumarez Smith demonstrates that they are really something quite different, shaped by forces particular to their time. Chief among these was a belief in sustained economic growth and rising affluence. He shows that the growth in car ownership was a central concern for postwar planners, who feared that urban centres would be rendered uninhabitable by traffic. It is clear that the heavy interventions in the built form of British cities in this period were developed to serve car-owning, consumer-citizens with both increasing leisure time and increasing disposable incomes. Paradoxically, however, Saumarez Smith also shows that these plans were occasionally developed to counter quite a different set of issues. He has a particular focus on England’s North West, where the need for massive urban change was felt to be acute. His assessment of the 1962 plans for the redevelopment of Blackburn, for example, situate it in a context of local deindustrialisation, decline and rising unemployment: Blackburn’s major urban interventions were conceived of as a visible panacea to these ills. It can be no surprise that a new shopping centre and a rationalised road layout failed to counter those local structural trends. 

The notion of the postwar planner as "more damaging than the Luftwaffe" to Britain’s historic cities is shown to be an inaccurate cliché.

Saumarez Smith frequently invokes the figure of the private developer. Developers were central to enacting these schemes for urban renewal, which were often built through partnerships of local authorities and development companies. The private developer is often absent from postwar architectural history: Saumarez Smith’s attention to the role of private capital in shaping the postwar city is a welcome counter to many of the standard accounts, which tend to focus on the architectural expression of the welfare state to the exclusion of more commercial and profit driven forms of architecture.

A major underlying theme of this book is the intertwining of boldly modernist urban renewal proposals with the concerns of the nascent conservation movement. This is neatly encapsulated in his examination of the careers of the architect planners Lionel Brett, a former president of the RIBA, and Graeme Shankland. Shankland, in particular, personifies the complex interrelationships between modernist planning solutions and a concern for historic conservation. Nicknamed the ‘Butcher of Liverpool’ for his plan which advocated a system of urban motorways across the city, he was also a founding member of the Victorian Society and a devotee of William Morris. These complexities are replicated across Saumarez Smith’s book: he shows that the modernist architectural establishment was keenly aware of the value of historic buildings and sought to develop planning and architectural solutions that included key monuments. The notion of the postwar planner as ‘more damaging than the Luftwaffe’ to the fabric of Britain’s historic cities is, Saumarez Smith shows, an inaccurate cliché. 

Boom Cities is liberally illustrated with striking perspectives taken from these plans. On first glance these appear to conjure a vanished world, one in which planners were free to remake the city as they saw fit. However, Saumarez Smith demonstrates that the urban plans of the 1960s were shaped by forces that are still central to contemporary practice: the need to use urban renewal to reduce inequalities and yet serve an affluent citizenry; the requirement to balance the needs of a local community against the developer’s profit motive; and the desire to insert new forms into the historic cityscape thoughtfully. The resonances with contemporary practice are clear throughout this book: Boom Cities is therefore essential reading not just for historians of 20th century architecture and urbanism, but also for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the development of the contemporary planning profession. 

Boom Cities: Architect Planners and the Politics of Radical Urban Renewal in 1960s Britain by Otto Saumarez Smith, Oxford University Press, £65

Otto Saumarez Smith, author of boom cities, discusses the warnings and lessons of 1963; a transformative year where architecture was at its peak as part of Year Zero series at Sir John Soane’s Museum