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The fall of idealistic architecture from the 1960s and '70s


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In The Guardian, Andy Beckett reviews the new book Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecture by Douglas Murphy, which examines the ferment of utopian architectural ideas that emerged in the 1960s and '70s and how they played out (or failed to) in subsequent decades. Here’s an excerpt:

Contrary to the usual complaint about postwar architecture, that it treated “ordinary human beings [as] material to be moulded in the service of a grand vision”, as Murphy puts it, this book bravely argues that in some visionary, now-neglected, buildings the relationship between people and architecture was the other way round. Socially conscious architects, working in crowded places from Montreal to the London borough of Camden, wanted to make life more free as well as more equal – the great, forgotten goal of more thoughtful members of the postwar western left. In mass housing, Murphy shows, one apparent solution was the ziggurat: arranging flats in pyramids or irregular stacks, rather than uniform towerblocks, so that every dwelling had its own particular identity and private garden.

He visits one famous and still functional example, the halls of residence at the University of East Anglia, sloping structures sitting unexpectedly in parkland like a row of vast landed spacecraft, which were designed in the 60s by Denys Lasdun, one of many adventurous British architects in the book. Murphy finds the experience both thrilling and saddening: “The visitor is immersed in a world that now seems long gone … a bucolic late 1960s world of concrete and trees, of a future faced expectantly.”

Not many ziggurats were built, in Britain or anywhere else. They were too expensive compared with tower blocks, the reader assumes, but Murphy doesn’t say. Instead, he describes the fall of idealistic architecture from the 70s onwards in other ways. Sometimes, the buildings simply weren’t constructed or maintained well enough. On a summer evening in 1973, after two years of successful business, entertaining thousands of visitors at a time, the Summerland leisure centre caught fire. Started by a cigarette, the blaze spread up a wall that had been built of partly flammable coated steel instead of concrete to save money, moved quickly through the open-plan interior, and melted the innovative plastic panels in the roof, which dripped on to those trying to flee. Fifty people died, many because fire doors had been locked to stop visitors getting in without paying. But it was widely believed that the architecture alone was to blame.

Image: An illustration of a space colony, an idea now condemned as science fiction kitsch. Via The Guardian.