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Britain’s Lost Cities

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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If you travel much outside London, you cannot accept seeing that Britain’s secondary cities have been pulverized into some of the ugliest in Europe. Much of the worst of the damage was done not by the Luftwaffe, but by the British themselves in their postwar reconstruction. Indeed, many postwar planners positively welcomed wartime destruction: It liberated them to proceed with schemes they might otherwise never have had the chance to try. Some of the most painful losses – like the great palaces of London’s West End and the medieval buildings of Canterbury – were inflicted in the 1930s.

Stampeded by political and aesthetic ideologies that disparaged the built legacy of the Victorians, dazzled by the perceived imperatives of the automobile, Britain’s town governments sacked their 19th century central cities. Places like Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and Manchester, cities that had once expressed their local pride in buildings meant to endure for ages, demolished to make way for roads and roundabouts, parking lots and 1970s brutalist public buildings.

In Britain’s Lost Cities, the architectural historian Gavin Stamp records what has been lost with an impressive collection of photographs and cooly poignant descriptions.

The cities Stamp reveals were not necessarily beautiful exactly. You can see why the post World War II generation might have found the destroyed buildings heavy, drab, and oppressive – especially when coated in soot from coal factories. But had they been spared, our wealthier era could have made good use of them – as it has made good use of what has been left behind in places like New York’s Soho and London’s Docklands. Cleaned, refurbished, opened, wired, they could have provided a humane and appealing environment for a modern economy in which design has become a product more valuable than most manufactured goods.

I wish NRO’s software allowed me to scan and post some of these pictures. The photos of Bradford – now possibly the worst city outside the former Soviet bloc – are especially heart-rending, but Liverpool’s come a close second for sadness.

Indeed on almost page, Britain’s Lost Cities is a very sad book. Yet there are hopeful lessons to be drawn from its pages too. Only in rare cases are the losses Stamp records so very beautiful as individual objects. Their greatest value rather lay in the cityscape they collectively composed: an urban environment that could have been renderedehumane, appealing, and attractive with an infusion of contemporary resoures. I doubt that anyone will ever again want to build in rebuild in Victorian pseudo-Romanesque. But we can rediscover the methods of Victorian city building at its best – and in a new architectural idiom recover what was so unnecessarily discarded in the years from 1930 to 1980.

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A British reader responds:

You’re right about the ugliness of many spots of our cities – though I must maintain that in several cases it is merely spots, vast scars, not wholesale annihilation of everything – but I’m slightly more hopeful about some of the wrongs being righted (e.g. see the extraordinary http://eustonarch.org/ – which hopes to rebuild that wonder using much of the original granite stone, which was merely tossed into a river. Its example is the freshly restored St Pancras station, which had also once been targeted for demolition, but – unlike Euston – was saved, even if neglected afterwards).

There are also very few Britons now who can bring themselves to think kindly of any modernist building (except, perhaps, for skyscrapers, which are relatively new and rare here). I know several recent works argue that the average Brit didn’t wish the planners to go ahead with all their nonsense after the war, and I don’t dispute that particularly; but as any trip to the Imperial War Museum in London will show you, the government spent most of WWII cheering the people up with all sorts of brochures and posters of modernist flats and school-buildings to come, all of which were obscenely ugly and progressive. Now all that has been tested to destruction. In the South East we are presently undergoing one of the largest building sprees in our history – and of the three or four hundred houses that have gone up in my three-counties area alone (the small wedge where Hampshire/Surrey/W. Sussex meet), all of them are soundly, even remarkably traditional. (And these are everything from flats to terraces to family homes).

I shouldn’t forget the architecturally fortuitous election of Mr Johnson to the mayoralty of London, either, who has already, according to the Telegraph, stopped 13 London skyscrapers from going ahead.

Not to mention the eventual ascension of Charles, of ‘monstrous carbuncle’ fame.

It will be difficult, as ever, to gainsay the architectural establishment – which remains soundly lunatic – but hither and yon are positive signs.

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