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

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. []

Aline Chahine
Aline is an international licensed architect currently practicing in Canada, she is the reason you are reading this right now, Aline founded the platform back in 2008 shaping the very foundation of Architecture Lab, her exemplary content curation process that defines the online magazine today.
Aline Chahine
Aline Chahine
Aline is an international licensed architect currently practicing in Canada, she is the reason you are reading this right now, Aline founded the platform back in 2008 shaping the very foundation of Architecture Lab, her exemplary content curation process that defines the online magazine today. Highlights Aline founded Architecture Lab in 2008 Lead editor of dan | dailyarchnews since 2019 Founded and Creative Director of DesignRaid Licensed architect with creative sales and marketing experience Experience As full-fledged architect, Aline's background involved a great deal of research that lead to the creation of Architecture Lab as an online database of exemplary design. Her experience snowballed into founding two architecture platforms, Architecture Lab and DesignRaid. Education Aline received USEK’s Master of Architecture in 2004 and BA in English from the University of Toronto
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About Architecture Lab Architecture Lab is a MKR.S Media brand, a website devoted to extraordinary design and aesthetics aiming to promote exceptional aesthetic values and sustainable design in all it's shapes and sizes. Learn more about us and our editorial process and feel free to contact us if you would like to see something in particular on the website, our certified experts will get back to you with the most trustworthy advice as soon as possible. Read all articles by Aline | Follow her on LinkedIn

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