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Lost Futures: The Disappearing Architecture of Post-War Britain - Review

For Christmas last year I was given a book called Brutal London. It is a ubiquitous publication, seemingly present in all gift shops and museum bookstores. Its presence is illustrative of a vogue for the brutal, a fascination with the grey “carbuncles” located in towns and cities across Britain. At the back of the book are paper nets which the reader can use to reconstruct, in miniature form, recognisable concrete landmarks such as Southbank’s National Theatre and the Barbican Estate. But while the book embodies the current fetish for concrete, and while my construction of these paper buildings generates new (tiny) brutal structures, we now live in a time when many of these post-war buildings face imminent destruction.

The journey from construction to demolition is charted by Owen Hopkins in Lost Futures: The Disappearing Architecture of Post-War Britain, a book which offers neither an attack or eulogy, but a balanced presentation of thirty-five post-war buildings built between 1945 and 1977 which are all now scheduled for destruction or major alteration. Hopkins presents the chronology of these buildings noting the importance of the changing social and political contexts which shaped the requirements placed on them. He covers their lifespan from the initial optimism that they induced at their conception through to their later aesthetic criticism and association with crime in the 1970s, and their place in the political ideologies of the 1990s. His brief historical survey ends in the present, addressing the state of the buildings today, over five decades after the first buildings were constructed. Hopkins suggests that, in part, the present fascination with post-war architecture can be traced to the self-fashioning of identities through social media, an example of cultivating a self-image with “countercultural tendencies” and “noncommittal alignment with leftist politics” — the buildings have become, in his words, “the currency of cool”.

Image Credit: John Bancroft for Greater London Council Department of Architects, 1970, Pimlico Secondary School, London. Demolished in 2010. (Image courtesy the Courtauld Institute of Art © Courtauld Institute of Art)

Lost Futures is illustrated with thirty-five examples of post-war architecture drawn from a variety of architectural typologies and locations across Britain. These include housing estates such as the Southgate Estate, Cheshire (James Stirling, 1977) and Queen Elizabeth Square, Glasgow (Sir Basil Spence, 1965); schools such as Pimlico Secondary School, London (John Bancroft for G.L.C Department of Architects, 1970); and public libraries such as Redcar District Library, North Yorkshire (Arhends, Burton & Koralek, 1971). These now lost buildings are illustrated with photographs from the Architectural Press’ archives, taken at the time of each buildings’ completion. Each image is captioned with a description of the ambition and eventual fate of each building, making them into a “haunting glimpse of the future that never quite happened”.

Lost Futures was published in tandem with Futures Found: The Real and Imagined Cityscapes of Post-war Britain, an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts’ architecture gallery. Described as a “counterpoint” to Lost Futures, the exhibition draws on six post-war projects chosen by guest curators and aims to challenge the perception that these buildings were failures by examining their achievements and legacies. The curators have gathered artefacts, ephemera and publications to illustrate these achievements and legacies enabled by the buildings.

Futures Found and Lost Futures serve to detail the aspirations and realities of Britain’s post-war architecture beyond its aesthetic attraction (or lack of it, depending on your view). Lost Futures historicises the buildings, accepting that they are now shifting from modernity to heritage, and successfully provides brief yet cogent accounts of how and why they came to be — and what they became.

Note: The catalogue was provided for review by Museum Bookstore. Museum Bookstore offers a huge range of exhibition catalogues, past and present. They also offer personalised shopping services for that particularly hard to find book or if you just need some inspiration for a special gift.

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