I’m honoured today to feature the second post of Catherine’s Flinn’s analysis of post-war European reconstruction. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Dr Catherine Flinn is author of the book Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams, Stark Realities, published by Bloomsbury. She particularly looks at the built environment through the lens of politics and economics, as well as social and cultural influences – broadly via national controls and policies, plus locally through micro-histories. She holds multiple degrees in architecture, landscape and history.
In the first part of this two-part post, I talked about European post-war reconstruction and the contrasts between Britain and the continent, describing some examples in Poland and Germany specifically. As many people realise, in Britain very few – if any – rebuilt city centres have embodied similar ideals to the historic idioms repeated in a number of European cities. So it is reasonable to ask why. How did people in post-war Britain see their cities? That is, what priorities were important to the various actors involved in rebuilding blitzed city centres?
Plymouth after the air raids of March/April 1941
In this post I will discuss the way people thought about reconstruction in Britain – from owners to planners to local authorities – and how modernist ideas prevailed, contrasting ideologically (and often practically) with Continental examples. Post-war British versions of ideal cities were strikingly different to today’s visions of ideal cities.
Planning for Reconstruction, Architectural Press, 1944
During the Second World War, in part as a way of promoting hope and positive attitudes to the war’s end, many British cities began planning as early as 1940. (1) Cities like Coventry and Portsmouth commissioned plans for their post-war reconstruction several years before the last bombs fell. The plans made were in general strikingly modern, futuristic, and vehicle-focused. In certain cases they included the rebuilding of major monuments or churches – for example Coventry rebuilt its cathedral (albeit in a new modern version), Portsmouth partly focused on the rebuilding of its damaged Guildhall, while in London the House of Commons and Inns of Court were rebuilt – but these are all individual buildings. Strikingly, I have found no archival evidence to suggest any plans made kept original street lines or that historic appearances were ever intended to be reconstructed.
Government ministers told city officials to ‘plan boldly’ and they did. (2) In general, the plans made were often influenced by local politics: Labour-majority councils often made very modern comprehensive plans, while Conservative-led councils – unsurprisingly perhaps – advocated less sweeping change. Still, all councils were concerned with a few major issues: traffic flow, housing or slum clearance, and commercial redevelopment. City centre streets were inadequately narrow for cars and lorries, as well as increasingly overcrowded. Space was also prioritised for parking. Councils clearly found that medieval street forms were not conducive to the large vehicles of the mid-twentieth century.
Queen’s House and the Triangle Trust buildings, Hull © Catherine Flinn
Across the board, however, the strongest objections to the plans being made were rarely about loss of heritage or history. Almost all objections to post-war plans were simply property owners who did not want to move or face further major disruption to their businesses, or homes. The story in British blitzed cities was one of conflict among city officials, businesses, and residents about how to ‘improve’ the city. Further, there was often conflict between city officials and the planning ministry who – particularly after the implementation of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act – often disagreed about what should be done in each city.
There were also significant problems created by shortages of steel and labour, as well as severe restrictions on what kind of building investment was allowed in the first seven post-war years. Furthermore, since central government was barely able to assist financially with rebuilding (in fact only helping with loans in redevelopment areas), the priorities of the blitzed cities also turned to increasing rateable value.
This photograph of Portsmouth city centre (the Guildhall is centre right) was taken in 1950
Finally, when reconstruction and redevelopment did happen in Britain, it took place very slowly and in a piecemeal fashion. It was more than ten years after the major bombing raids before any real work began on city centre reconstruction in Britain – whereas in Europe, many cities had rebuilt much of their centres by 1953. (3) This was not surprising: reconstruction priorities in Britain were initially focused completely on industry (i.e. the economy) and housing. City centres were treated as an afterthought, despite wartime promises.
Beyond those larger capital investment issues, government publications also reveal a great deal about aesthetic priorities in Britain. Much was written in Whitehall around guidelines for reconstruction. The planning ministry, transportation ministry, health officials and others all highlighted a car-centred approach to planning and design. (4) It cannot be stressed enough how much vehicular flow and parking were emphasised.
Liverpool: proposed inner ring road, 1946 © Liverpool Records Office
In every discussion of reconstruction in city archives, it was assumed that street layouts would change. It was taken for granted that vehicles should take precedence and that many old street patterns would be laid out anew because people would enter city centres by car and park there. Planning ideals were far from being either environmentally or – in today’s terms – aesthetically friendly in the 1940s or 50s. To residents, businesses, and local authorities vehicle circulation was clearly of great importance. City plans often expressed the belief that the bombing had created the potential to make cities function better, even if it meant making huge infrastructure changes.
Rationing – particularly of steel – impacted speed, cost, and appearance. Additionally, shortages often forced the use of other materials such as reinforced concrete. In fact, the planning ministry actively encouraged the use of reinforced concrete over structural steel. (5) Oddly, there was a marked lack of discussion of the issues of materials shortages, or even innovations, in the architectural press. (6) And there was not just an effort to save steel, enforced by the shortages and rationing, but also a rising enthusiasm for new technologies. (8) Building styles in city centre reconstruction were influenced both by this increasing interest in technology and the growth in popularity (from before the war) of modernist architecture. (7)
The new Broadgate, Coventry, as envisaged by City Architect Donald Gibson in 1941.
The Precinct, Coventry, undated postcard
Modern styles mainly developed in Europe, spreading to Britain in the 1930s. After the war these newer styles continued to flourish within the architectural profession, though this time in their own particularly British form. (8) In urban areas this modernism was composed of straight lines: a box-like style with a smooth facade, though often embellished with sparse neo-classical details. The taste for modernism was enthusiastically adopted by local authorities who controlled much of the appearance of new buildings as well. Archival records such as city council minutes and municipal journals for local authorities show an over-riding sense of an embrace of modernity and a wish to be seen as a forward-thinking, rather than stuck in the past. (9)
Another key factor at play were those paying for the buildings: property developers. Developers were increasingly the primary builders in blitzed cities, and their motives were often driven more by profit than aesthetic concerns. Owner-occupiers generally showed careful concern about their building’s appearance but developers were far more interested in lettable space. And city officials usually had complementary motives, given their desire to make up huge losses in rateable income caused by the wartime damage. (10)
Finally, on the issue of saving historic places: while there were certainly complaints about pulling down individual historic buildings, none of the archival material yields any discussion of rebuilding any streetscapes or historic districts as they had been.
One rare example was in Exeter where a Ministry of Works representative noted that the area around Dix’s Fields was listed as Grade II and should be preserved, even where only facades remained. But the City of Exeter acquired these properties after a legal battle and tore them down. (11) In some cases – as in Liverpool for example – some firms rebuilt nearly the same design as existed on their pre-war sites, but in all cases substantial portions of the buildings remained, and the decision not to demolish and build new was also due to the slowness of approvals and the fact that steel allocations for ‘repair’ were easier to procure.
This lack of concern for historic value does not reflect the intense pressure for preservation which came in more than ten years after reconstruction hit its peak. (16) There were notable campaigners for historic preservation, such as John Betjeman, but until the later 1960s such discussion was confined to the sidelines. Unusually, while perhaps German and Polish officials foresaw the potential for tourism in ‘historic’ towns, local authorities and city councils in Britain did not seem to see any importance in this prospective value.
From Thomas Sharp, Exeter Phoenix. A Plan for Rebuilding (Exeter, 1946)
Princesshay, Exeter, 1955
And while we see that some European examples of ‘historic’ reconstruction came much later than the 1950s, in places like Germany there was an emphasis put on domestic tourism from just after the war. (12) In British blitzed cities – with some exceptions such as Bath, Canterbury and York, where most historic buildings had survived the ‘Baedeker’ raids – the lack of attention to character and particularly potential tourism meant a great revenue loss to the redeveloped cities when ‘heritage’ took off in the 1970s. How Britain saw itself in the late 1940s and 1950s, and how it would see itself ten or twenty years on, were very different phenomena indeed. (13)
A rhetoric of blame has persisted since the 1980s in Britain when discussing post-war reconstruction. Many have insisted that the responsibility for the results lies exclusively with planners and architects. (14) But as Sunand Prasad, a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), has said: (15)
[There was] certainly a deal of naïve utopianism in the planning and architecture of the post-war decades, and maybe that period can be described as a gigantic and failed experiment … But it’s not idealism – laudable or foolish or otherwise – that shapes modern cities, it’s their political economy.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that for all the good intentions our confidence in professional knowledge was much greater than our real understanding of how it would all work… In the second half of the 20th century, we thought we were replacing trial and error with science.
Donald Gibson, ‘City Architect ”Ultimate Plan’ for the city centre, drawn by Percy Johnson-Marshall. Buildings retained are shown black and new buildings to be built in phases shown red (and cross-hatched), brown and grey. © Percy Johnson-Marshall collection; Edinburgh University
If only this awareness of context could replace the criticism of the purely visual. Numerous factors had profound effects on post-war developments. All of the plans and many of the buildings could be considered experimental. There was no knowledge of whether a plan such as Abercrombie’s Plymouth or Hull would work successfully, even if implemented. In fact, in Plymouth the separation of uses advocated by the plan proved to be unsuccessful in large part, creating spaces that were too segregated. (16) And in Coventry: (17)
[the] scheme seems to have failed simultaneously in several ways: it was grounded on assumptions about the city’s growth and the social behavior of its residents that were not reliable, it buried a past that still had psychological value to local communities, and it imposed a highly integrated urban aesthetic that owed more to fashion than to pragmatism.
Blaming the planners and architects does not take into account the myriad of issues faced between drawing board and completion, much less the whims of clients and local authorities. And there was a strong belief in 1940s and 50s Britain that planners were experts and this technocratic knowledge was somehow ‘right’. More importantly, critics fail to acknowledge the key role that the post-war political economy played in the results of city centre reconstruction.
Cover illustration for W Dobson Chapman, Towards a New Macclesfield: A Suggestion for a New Town Centre (1944)
Some suggestions as to the bigger differences to Europe might include the contrasting experiences of war reflecting on decisions in rebuilding. Or perhaps economic pressures contributed to choices made. Consider too that Poland was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. The loss of a sense of self and of culture among the Polish people was infinitely worse than most other parts of Europe. Poles might have seen rebuilding in a historic idiom to be a way of recreating memories, giving them back a sense of place obliterated during the war. And with Germany it may well be about an initial turn to modernism as a way to escape past sins and yet the further from the war the more we see a desire to rebuild historically and reclaim what might be thought of as a heritage buried or missing.
It might be considered ironic that – as noted in last week’s post – Poland and Czechoslovakia were visited by Lewis Silkin, the UK’s post-war planning minister, who went with a team to look at European reconstruction. In his report back to the cabinet Silkin stated:
On the whole, we are far in advance of Poland in town and country planning, and the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, is much more revolutionary in its method of dealing with land problems than anything that has happened in Poland. Polish planners definitely recognise our superiority and look to us to give them a lead.
Were his comments stemming from a sense of British (post-Empire?) superiority, or perhaps more simply an over-riding ideology among planning professionals that modern was somehow ‘better’? Today cities such as Plymouth, Portsmouth or Southampton are less tourist-friendly than Gdansk, most likely due to the ‘feel’ of these cities. (18)
Fougasse cartoon, Punch, 11 August 1943
Officials in European cities were not free of the conflict of issues similar to those in Britain’s cities – no city reached 100 percent consensus on an approach to reconstruction. But generally rebuilding in many continental European cities seems to have benefited from less internal conflict and a greater consensus on historicism. Ironically, Britain revels in its history and the heritage industry thrives still today. But it was late in coming. Protection of monuments and buildings has been ongoing, but it is the protection of the feel of a place that is perhaps lacking. Today, British planning has an inclusive sense of history that is often taken for granted, but very little of this was present when it came time to plan for blitz reconstruction. So while the ‘peculiarity’ of British reconstruction was perhaps in not saving more historic buildings or streetscapes, such plans were not considered peculiar at the time but truly forward-looking and excitingly modern.
(1) Some, such as Coventry, had started before the war. See P. Larkham and K. Lilley, Planning the ‘City of Tomorrow’: British Reconstruction Planning, 1939-1952: an annotated bibliography (Pickering, 2001)
(2) J. Reith, then Minister for Works and Buildings, House of Lords Debates ‘Post-War Reconstruction’, HL Deb 17 Jul 41 vol 119 cc844-80 (879).
(3) See my book or article: C. Flinn Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities (Bloomsbury, 2019); ‘”The City of Our Dreams”? The Political and Economic Realities of Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities, 1945–54’, Twentieth Century British History, (2012) 23 (2): 221-245. doi: 10.1093/tcbh/hwr009.
(4) Ministry of Town and Country Planning, The Redevelopment of Central Areas (London, 1947). Cmd. 9559 Report of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for the Period 1950/51 to 1954 (London, 1955). Also see J. Punter, ‘A History of Aesthetic Control: Part 1, 1909-1953: The Control of the External Appearance of Development in England and Wales’, The Town Planning Review,57, 4, (1986): 351-81; J. Punter, ‘Design’ in J.B. Cullingworth, British Planning: 50 Years of Urban and Regional Planning (London, 1999). Also, the slightly later publication by the MHLG, Town Centres: Approach to Renewal (London, 1962).
(5) See E Marples in HC Deb 10 April 1952 vol 498 cc2987-3003, ‘Blitzed Areas (Reconstruction)’, col 3003. This was reiterated in a letter to officials of blitzed cities: ‘wherever possible reinforced concrete or load-bearing walls should be used in preference to steel frames’. Liverpool Record Office: PWRSC Min Book, letter MHLG to Town Clerk, 24 Nov 52, para 6. (Clearly a form letter sent to all blitzed cities.) The largest single item in the investment programme for the Ministry of Works in 1949-52 was the cement industry at £10.5 million, see TNA: CAB 134/449 [IPC (WP) (48) 220] 21 Dec 48, item 3.
(6) One rare example is the transcript of an RIBA meeting of the ‘Architectural Science Board’ in 1947, published in its journal soon afterwards: G. Grenfell Baines, ‘Substitute Materials and Their Influence on Design.’ RIBA Journal (1948), 108-113. Also see, ‘Changes In Materials And Construction Methods’, W. A. Allen, which describes some of the reasons for development of prefabrication and usage of concrete and other materials in the postwar period, in The Times, 3 Jul 61, p xv.
(7) See Nick Hayes, ‘Prefabricating stories: innovation in systems technology after the Second World War’ History of Technology v25 (2004) , 7-28, who discusses the significance of the period’s reliance on the ‘authority’ of science and technology, 24.
(8) W. Whyte, ‘The Englishness of English Architecture: Modernism and the Making of a National International Style, 1927–1957’, Journal of British Studies 48:2 (2009) 441-65; E. Darling, Re-Forming Britain: Narratives of Modernity before Reconstruction (London, 2007).
(9) See Flinn, Rebuilding Britain’s Blitzed Cities, Ch 6.
(10) The well-known architect and planner Professor William Holford spoke in 1966 of the lack of ‘individual achievement and distinction’ in the architecture of post-war reconstruction. Noting that he thought the importance of the property developer had been underestimated. He felt that in post-war speculative office blocks design was only incidental to the procedure of getting funding, consents and approvals and licenses. University of Liverpool Archives (ULA): D147/LA7/9/1, Papers of William Graham, Baron Holford of Kemp Town. Guildhall seminars notes, 7 Jun 66.
(11) TNA: HLG 79/171 memo (no author, no date but ca 1951). In many cities there were certainly a few buildings that were repaired and almost rebuilt where enough of the original remained to do so, but this was rare in the cities attempting to implement new plans.
The cartoon image to the left is by F Beamiss and was published in Express & Echo, 1959
(12) A. Confino, Chapter 14 ‘Dissonance Normality and the Historical Method: Why Did Some Germans Think of Tourism after May 8, 1945?’ in R. Bessel and D. Schumann, Life after Death: Approaches to a Cultural and Social History during the 1940s and 1950s (Cambridge, 2003), 323-347. Also see J. Hagen, ‘Rebuilding the Middle Ages after the Second World War: The Cultural Politics of Reconstruction in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany’, Journal of Historical Geography, 31:1 (2005), 94-112, and A. Confino, ‘Traveling as a Culture of Remembrance: Traces of National Socialism in West Germany, 1945-1960’, History & Memory 12:2 (2000), 92-121.
(13) See for example, Something Done: British Achievement 1945-47, by the Office of Information (London, 1947).
(14) For example, a famous quote from Margaret Thatcher: ‘All too often, the planners cut the heart out of our cities. They swept aside the familiar city centres that had grown up over the centuries’. M. Thatcher, Conservative Party Conference speech, 9 October 1987 in R. Harris (ed.), The Collected Speeches of Margaret Thatcher (London, 1997), 286-7.
(15) Sunand Prasad, ‘The Past Sure is Tense’ 18 Octobe 2010, BBC Radio 3 ‘The Essay’ series.
(16) J. Gould, ‘Architecture and the Plan for Plymouth: The Legacy of a British City.’ Architectural Review 221 (2007): 78-83. ‘The insistence of single use within the shopping centre was and is damaging and it is extraordinary that this theoretical idea that has so much influence on a city’s character persisted for so long.’
(17) J. Calame, ‘Post-war Reconstruction: Concerns, Models and Approaches’ (2005). Roger Williams University, The Center for Macro Projects and Diplomacy, Macro Center Working Papers. Paper 20. Volume 6, Spring 2005: Post-Conflict Reconstruction: Reconnecting Sites Nations Cultures, p 22-24.
(18) The National Archives: CAB 129/22 [CP (47) 343, 31 December 1947, ‘Impressions of a Recent Visit to Poland and Czechoslovakia’.
Visualisation of the shopping centre of Chipping Ongar New Town as proposed in Patrick Abercrombie, Greater London Plan (1944). Ongar wasn’t built; in 1947 Harlow New Town was designated as a near alternative.