Will this war never end?

Words:
Hugh Pearman

It’s 1943 and Hugh Pearman finds an the on-the-ropes profession in his continuing exploration of the RIBAJ archive in celebration of its 125th year

Wartime economies meant that the RIBA Journal moved from fortnightly to the monthly frequency it has had ever since. The issues, along with the paper they were printed on, became thin. The profession was impoverished. By the summer of 1943, the Institute was agonising about a still-distant postwar profession in a discussion paper presented by Michael Waterhouse, its honorary secretary – and third in his famous architectural family dynasty after Alfred and Paul.

Waterhouse, who wielded capital letters like weapons, noted that architecture had been harder hit by wartime stringencies than any other profession: ‘Far harder than Medicine – the Law – Accountancy – harder even than Surveyors or Engineers. Very early in this period all civil building was banned. There was no knowing where our daily bread – still less tomorrow’s bread – was to come from.’ War work was mostly not architecture, he pointed out. ‘I am tempted to define it as a combination of Organisation and Improvisation.’

After the Blitz the 1943 County of London Plan envisaged a new East End.
After the Blitz the 1943 County of London Plan envisaged a new East End.

For him, the prime need was to get back to the real stuff. ‘We must set a standard of the best to which others will be compelled to conform by the force of public opinion,’ he urged optimistically. And to prove that nothing changes, he warned against architects sniping at each other in the press – especially private practitioners taking a pop at their public sector colleagues. ‘So long as our aims and standards are the same we are all Architects together in spirit and practice.’

People would react against bureaucracy, he said, but postwar reconstruction could not be ad hoc. ‘Let us only hope… that the history of the rebuilding of an unplanned London after the Great Fire does not repeat itself too exactly.’

How timely, since in July and August 1943 the RIBAJ went to town on the London County Council’s County of London Plan by ­Abercrombie and Forshaw, published in a lavish and well-designed book at a time of austerity – and which was a popular success. The Plan might seem radical by today’s standards but the Journal noted the authors’ insistence that razing London and starting again was not the answer, and that an organic approach of grafting new growth on the old stock, as they put it, was the way forward. Though it depended on where: in the blitzed East End, for instance, the RIBAJ published the Plan’s design for a total clearance and rebuilding of nearly 1,000 acres of Shoreditch and Bethnal Green.

The RIBAJ’s reviewer WR Davidge was in no doubt about the virtues of the Plan. ‘For the first time in its long centuries of history London is at last planning-minded… congratulations are due to the London County Council on the really magnificent gesture they have made.’ The Plan was ‘human and sympathetic in its inspiration, careful and methodical in its analysis of the innumerable interests involved, businesslike and practical in its suggestions, and at the same time magnificent and energising in the ideals which it sets forth.’

So an on-the-ropes profession, starved of rewarding work by the exigencies of war, had seen a future in which it would play a key role. An end to the work famine was in sight. You can hardly blame them for going a little over the top in their enthusiasm for centrally planned rebuilding. Some of which we’ll take a look at in our next RIBAJ125 issue.