Otto Saumarez Smith
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019, ISBN: 9780198836407; 208pp.; Price: £65.00
University of Leicester
Date accessed: 21 February, 2024
The planning of cities from the 1940s to the 1960s is one of the major strands of British (and indeed, international) post-war social history. Alongside welfare, affluence, deindustrialisation and decolonisation it represents one of the thematic pillars around which the history of later 20th-century Britain has come to be written. There is an established historiography of British urban planning since the 1930s, including important contributions by Gordon Cherry, Helen Meller, John Gold and others; more recently there have been attempts to tie the ‘moment’ of planning more strongly to the politics of welfare, ‘declinism’ and neo-liberal revisionism from the 1970s. Guy Ortolano’s new study of Milton Keynes, Thatcher’s Progress (2019) is a superb example of this tendency and can be seen as the intellectual correlate of Otto Saumarez Smith’s Boom Cities, part of a larger attempt to decipher the history of later 20th-century Britain through the fortunes of its towns and cities.
Boom Cities tells the story of the renewal of Britain’s city centres between the late 1950s and the mid-1960s. It is thus concentrated on the phase of radical renewal or what was referred to at the time as the ‘comprehensive redevelopment’ of central areas. The main actors in the drama are what Saumarez Smith calls ‘architect-planners’. This was a group separate from city engineers such as Herbert Manzoni at Birmingham or Stanley Wardley in Bradford, but distinct also from ‘art architects’ of the period like Alison and Peter Smithson or James Stirling whose work focused on housing complexes, schools and new university buildings. The architect-planners tended to coalesce in the course of the period into major consultancy firms, such as Llewellyn Davies, Forestier-Walker, Weeks and Bor; Shankland Cox; and Wilson and Womersley. These three groups were collectively responsible for major developments including new towns like Hook and whole areas of older towns and cities such as Bolton and Liverpool. More than this, though, Boom Cities is about the extraordinary wave of renewal plans between 1955 and 1965, the politics that drove this burst of modernist expansionism and the shopping centres, precincts and urban motorways that resulted from it. The book is also, inevitably, about the dissolution of this modernist cornucopia. For Saumarez Smith the moment of radical renewal was shortlived, lasting less than a decade and effectively over by 1965.
The study is grounded in an encyclopaedic knowledge of renewal and the plans that drove it, renewal itself being understood as a movement distinct from post-war ‘reconstruction’. Renewal itself was driven not so much by the legacy of wartime bomb-damage as by the weary persistence of dilapidated, largely Victorian city centres. Renewal was also a response to the combination of newly-acquired affluence and welfare egalitarianism believed to be transforming urban living conditions from the late 1950s. As Bill Sefton, Labour mayor of Liverpool, put it in 1965: ‘All this process of renewal and rehabilitation must take into consideration new factors such as mobility, increased leisure and greater prosperity. New standards of amenity must be accepted for all and a new environment must be created in which it will be easy to live a full, healthy and happy life.’1 Renewal seemed to promise a new world of comfort, opportunity and consumption for the great majority of city-dwellers, populations seen to have borne the brunt of the earlier effects of industrialism, economic depression and war.
Otto Saumarez Smith provides an upbeat account of radical renewal and its democratic potential that contrasts deliberately with the dystopian litany of failed dreams that has so often characterised retrospective assessments of architectural modernism. More than this, though, a principal aim and achievement of the book is to reconnect city planning with politics in a manner overlooked in previous histories. The business of planning for renewal is reconnected not just with local authorities and central government ministries, though these inevitably loom large, but also with the major political parties. Boom Cities shows that the governing Conservative party was quite as much in favour of radical renewal as Labour in the early 1960s; renewal was not a socialist project or an offshoot of Wilsonian technocracy but a genuinely national endeavour. We encounter local councillors of all stripes in places like Blackburn and Liverpool as well as national figures such as the Conservative Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples, and Richard Crossman, Labour MP for Coventry East and a future minister of education and housing. Moreover, the politics of the architect-planners themselves is discussed in detail: from the Liberal mandarin worldview of Lionel Brett (Viscount Esher), to the political leftism of Graeme Shankland and others. Saumarez Smith’s portrait of Shankland is notably sympathetic, revealing the crudity of Raphael Samuel’s description of him as ‘the butcher of Liverpool’.2 What comes through is the particular combination of modernism and preservationism that infused the political aesthetic of figures like Shankland as of other planners from the period, among them Konrad Smigielski at Leicester.
A second feature of the book is its geographical range. Despite its title, Boom Cities shifts our attention away from London, the big cities like Birmingham (Liverpool excepted) and new towns like Harlow and Milton Keynes, to what used to be referred to as ‘provincial England’. There is limited consideration of urban Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but in other respects the scope of the study is notably wide. It encompasses numerous medium-sized towns—Blackburn, Bolton, Hatfield, Leicester, Portsmouth and Salisbury, for example. Where a new town is discussed it is Shankland’s plan for Hook in Hampshire, not better-known examples such as Stevenage, Washington or Milton Keynes. When London is brought into view it is not the central London of Fitzrovia or Oxford Street that absorbed planners like Colin Buchanan, but suburban Wood Green, where the last gigantic shopping centre envisioned in the 1960s finally opened in 1981. In eschewing the high metropolitan view, Saumarez Smith captures the democratic impulse of the ‘architect-planners’ themselves. Partly as a result, too, the book gives an impression of the scope of radical renewal in the early 1960s, when it was estimated that some 400 urban schemes were underway nationwide, and of their multifaceted nature, leaving virtually no aspect of the urban environment untouched.
There are weaker or rather awkward elements to the book. In the introduction, for example, Saumarez Smith discusses the problematic nature of the term ‘modernism’ itself before suggesting that in the present study it be ‘downgraded as an explanatory tool’ in favour of ‘other explanatory categories.’3 In practice, however, modernism as a term and a concept is never abandoned and ‘radical renewal’ only partially displaces it as a category. More fundamentally perhaps, the explanation of the ‘retreat from modernism’ and the commitment to renewal after 1965 is not entirely convincing. How and why did the ‘boom cities’ of the 1960s (the title comes from a Daily Mirror headline of 1967) give way to the ‘inner cities’ of the 1970s, the fulcrum of all Britain’s social ills from unemployment to dereliction? The final chapter, ‘The Trajectory of Central-Area Redevelopment’ gives clues towards an answer, not just the changing tastes of architects themselves but also the loss of belief in economic growth that underpinned the whole project of city centre renewal and modernisation. But these clues do not cohere into a bigger explanation about the collapse of radical renewal or the slide towards a very different set of urban conditions in the decade that was to follow.
What Saumarez Smith does note is the striking, and to some extent ironic, continuities between urban modernism and its aftermath. For, as he points out, many of the same architect-planners active in 1960s radical renewal were also those involved in the Inner Area Studies of the later 1970s—Shankland for Lambeth, Llewellyn Davies, Forestier-Walker, Weeks and Bor at Birmingham, Wilson and Womersley in Liverpool. In effect, those who, according to critics, had been responsible for the worst excesses of modernist renewal were precisely those tasked with tackling its consequences in the form of decay, dereliction and deprivation a decade or so later. Such a viewpoint is overly crude and schematic, and not one shared by Saumarez Smith. But it is suggestive of the fact that the history that leads from the highpoint of urban modernism in the mid-1960s to the nadir of urban decline by the late 1970s was not a matter of simple disjuncture.
The heart of Boom Cities, however, lies elsewhere, in the moment of genuine hope and aspiration in rebuilding Britain’s worn-out urban centres in the period after post-war reconstruction. It is a history that is told with great panache by Otto Saumarez Smith and with an impressive command of the materials that went into the making of that history. No one knows more about the multitudinous city plans of the 1950s and 1960s, and no one writes with such verve and confidence about them than Saumarez Smith. As with many architectural historians, the author is not shy of a sweeping judgement, as in his criticism of the ‘elephantine belligerence’ of Geoffrey Copcutt’s plan for Cumbernauld.4 But aesthetic judgement is not the main purpose here. Though written with architecture at the forefront of attention, Boom Cities is much more than a book about buildings. It is instead a study about town planning, welfare and the politics of affluence, and hence central to the history of mid-20th century Britain. Boom Cities may be a slim volume but it is packed with insights which make it an essential reference point for the new urban social history that is rapidly—and excitingly—emerging.
The author writes: I am immensely grateful for everything in this review, and am particularly pleased to be bracketed alongside an emerging ‘new urban social history’ of later 20th century Britain, a phenomenon which Professor Gunn has done more than anybody to inspire and nurture.