New buildings and urban geographies in the 1960s and 1970s

There are some great books from the 1960s and 70s about the new buildings and modern urban geographies being constructed at that time. Here are three of my favourites:
1. Tony Birks, Building the New Universities (David and Charles publishers, 1972)

A guide to Sussex, York, East Anglia, Kent, Essex, Warwick, and Lancaster universities, most of which had only finished their first stages of building at the time of publication. A fascinating insight into the ideas and ideals behind this wave of new universities, and how these ideals shaped their architecture and planning. It's also balanced in its assessment of some of the more experimental design features, especially the tendency for concrete to discolour in the British climate, and difficulties of ventilation and heating.

Choice quotations:

(on the budget freeze and cutbacks of 1968)
In a move to lower the cost of learning, or at least the unit-cost of higher education, buildings, like everything else, have to suffer. Any special pleading for architecture must take into consideration the need to resist the erosion of other benefits such as the student-staff ratio, currently 8.5:1 and the best in the world (compared with 30:1 in France and 12:1 in the United States) but likely to rise to 9:1 or more in the next few years. (p. 23)
As individuals in their university, students will make their first public speech, cast their first vote, work, make love, and all too often become lonely. The glass and concrete environment can be a protective shield, an exhilarating backcloth, or even a frightening cell. The charge that the country is building 'architects' universities' underlines the fundamental nervousness about the extent to which academics should contrive their own environment. (p. 45)
NB at the time of writing, there is a copy available in the Oxford Turl Street branch of Oxfam.

2. Charles McKean and Tom Jestico, Guide to Modern Buildings in London, 1965-75 (Warehouse publishing, 1976)

Fully illustrated guide to a range of new buildings around London, including the Barbican, Trellick Tower, and Pimlico school (now demolished). There are some interesting trails around Hampstead, South Bank, Richmond, etc, in the appendix, which I'd love to follow to see which buildings are left. The 'Heathrow Airport Trail' around the terminals and hangars might be a bit difficult these days though.

Choice quotation from the introduction:
Severe economic restraint has caused a sharp drop in the building programme, leaving thousands of London's acres unused or derelict. The energy crisis is forcing a re-appraisal of the more expensive forms of building, together with a serious investigation into the merits of 'ecological' or low-energy buildings. Despite London's expected loss of population (from almost 8 million in about 1939 to a projected 5 1/2 millions in 1991) there is still no end in sight to homelessness.
NB at the time of writing, there is another copy available of this book in Janette Ray's second-hand architecture bookshop in York.

3. James Stevens Curl, The Erosion of Oxford (Oxford Illustrated Press, 1977)

Curl's book is vicious in its criticism of the modern developments in 1960s and 70s Oxford. He seems to have a thing against modern streetlamps, and is obsessed with the new buildings going against the 'vertical' or 'horizontal' emphasis of particular streets. On some issues, however, he was right, particularly the clearance of St. Ebbes to make way for the Westgate Centre. The now foreboding multi-storey carpark and the expanse of coach park and scrubland is really a bleak noman's land. The Wharf House used to be an oasis of humanity in that area, but it is now private houses.

A classic quotation from Curl:
If Morris could only see the mess that has been made of St. Aldates; the destruction of Castle Street; the erosion of Cornmarket; the ruination of the High at its extremities; the rebuilding of George Street; the new buildings in Longwall; and the overall loss of national treasures, we can be sure that a howl of agonised rage would soon put the fear of God into the despoilers.


There is a danger of getting a smug sense of hindsight reading these books in 2011, with many of the projects described now either deemed a failure or demolished completely. The language and tone of the first two is undoubtedly optimistic and utopian: grand schemes of rebuilding and expanding after the slum clearances. The vision of the new universities, as they were then, helped shape their distinctive architecture as a break from the apparent past constraints of the Victorian and older universities. I do like 1960s architecture done well; the ambition of many of the schemes is admirable. However, they are also practical and critical of some of the new developments, identifying potential problems that did indeed come to bear, in terms of a coldness in the architecture, and lack of transport and social facilities in the urban planning.

And for a European comparison, I'm very much taken by this 1970 guide to how the Munich olympic park was progressing in time for the 1972 Olympics. Thanks to Simon Webster, who bought it in Munich a few years ago.

Architekturwettbewerbe, special issue, December 1970.


It's a *very* detailed analysis, with architectural plans and overviews of the construction of the stadia, tracks, and athletes' village.
Most of the original architecture still stands, and although it feels a little tellytubby land sometimes, it still works well and has provided a lasting legacy to the area.

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