Elain Harwood’s monumental ‘Space, Hope and Brutalism’ honours an era of architectural optimism, finds Owen Hatherley


Owen Hatherley

James O Davies

Every enthusiast, dabbler or fan of post-war architecture in Britain already owes Elain Harwood an enormous debt. As a case worker at English Heritage, Harwood was responsible for listing dozens of post-war buildings, right down to making Park Hill Grade II*, in the face of a council that would clearly rather have knocked it down. Her 2003 volume ‘England – A Guide to Post-War Listed Buildings’ was an invaluable gazeteer, full of strange and unexpected things littered around the country that you could, for once, be sure were actually still there and fairly sure were reasonably well-treated. Her editorship of the journal 20th Century Architecture, her books on Chamberlin Powell and Bon, on England’s schools, and on the architecture of her native Nottingham have all been similarly enlightening and surprising on more specific matters. It’s arguable that nobody since Pevsner has done so much to both preserve and popularise modern architecture in this country, so it’s gratifying that ‘Space, Hope and Brutalism’, a mammoth attempt to sum up the entire period, is published at a time when this architecture has never been so respected, or so fashionable.


Top: Stockwell Garage in south London, designed by Adie, Button & Partners with Thomas Bilbow, opened in 1952 and was then Europe’s largest unsupported roof span.
Above: The Apollo Pavilion at Peterlee in County Durham, designed by Victor Passmore, 1955.

Speaking for myself, I took Harwood’s ‘England’ with me when trying to find out what survives from the post-1945 era, something for which the book’s diminutive size was particularly useful. An updated version of the volume has just been published, with new photographs by James O Davies – it’s now much fatter, which is a measure of achievement insofar as many more buildings have been listed in the 12 years since the book was first published – but it’s now more a companion piece to the even larger ‘Space, Hope and Brutalism’. In terms of its scale – around 600 large-format pages – the only comparable book is Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesisus’ ‘Tower Block’, their enormous 1994 study of the post-war high rise, and like that book, it’s destined mostly to be read in the reference sections of libraries. The approach of the two books, though, couldn’t be more different. Tower Block concentrated on one specific typology of post-war architecture, the often-demonised high-rises, whether they were designed by Wates or Goldfinger. ‘Space, Hope and Brutalism’, though appropriately sweeping and comprehensive, focus largely on what was high quality, and what was designed by architects.

The message of this book ‘is that the work of the past 60 years is as valuable as any in our heritage – more so, indeed, because it was for all of us’. It couldn’t be put better”

It’s divided into several parts on particular aspects of the era – New Towns, Housing, Private Houses, Schools, Universities, Transport, Energy, Industry and Commerce, Health, and Leisure. Harwood’s judgements are well-considered, the historical detail is abundant, and the photographs by James O Davies are remarkable in their often eerie glamour. However, if you already know the broad outline of modern architecture in Britain there will be a lot of stories you’ve heard before: the Hertfordshire schools and the Smithsons’ riposte, the LCC’s empricists vs Stalinists divide, Lubetkin’s triumphs in Finsbury and failures in Peterlee, Gibberd’s picturesque planning and tentative tower block in Harlow, Span’s luxury modernism in Blackheath, Womersley’s epic hilltop compositions in Sheffield, and almost everyone else building expensively detailed colleges in the less touristic corners of Oxford and Cambridge.

Keeling House, Claredale Street, east London, designed by Denys Lasdun and completed in 1957. In need of extensive repair by the late 1990s, the II*-listed building was sold by the local authority to a private developer and renovated by Munckenbeck and Marshall in 2001.

A lot of the interest, in that case, comes from unexpected details. On ‘Energy’, for instance, the account of Sylvia Crowe’s landscaping of the grounds of nuclear power stations is fascinating, as is the analysis of the way that post-Blitz planning shifted from beaux arts Plymouth to multi-level Coventry and beyond. The geography of post-war architecture as described here is also surprising. Harwood considers this to be a very London-centric era, much as is our own. No local authority even remotely rivalled the LCC (and later the GLC) in the scope of its architectural activity, and the cities and towns which were influential or impressive in their efforts were not those you’d expect – Sheffield, Southampton, Coventry and Loddon, Norfolk, feature here more than Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol or Leeds. That’s partly because of the bias for quality rather than quantity, so cities which embarked on huge programmes of rebuilding (like, say, Sunderland, or Portsmouth) get less of a mention if they opted for systems rather than architects.

Detail of Frederick Gibberd’s Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

None of this is a problem, given that the book’s aim is clearly to be the definitive work on the subject, but if you’re already familiar with most of the stories, it’s Harwood’s accounts of what was successful and what wasn’t, and even more so, what survives and what doesn’t (and why) that makes the book worth your while. Housing, for all the depredations of Right to Buy, survives far better than the buildings of the NHS and the comprehensive schools, both of which were decimated by New Labour and PFI, a development she notes with the quietly furious aside that Blair “assumed that old buildings could not deliver a decent education – never an argument made in the private sector”. The already few NHS hospitals of architectural interest, like Powell and Moya’s general hospital in Swindon, have disappeared after 40 years, to be replaced with the sub-architectural expression of accounting boondoggles.

The best surviving typology of all, it seems from Harwood’s account, is the private houses that architects built for the wealthy or for themselves, which appear in Davies’ photographs as luminous, secluded time machines. These appeared in her ‘England’ with the note “access: none”, which makes their extensive coverage here particularly intriguing for the majority of us who will never, ever get inside them. But their prominence is perhaps a measure of political failure. “The message of this book”, Harwood writes, “is that the work of the past 60 years is as valuable as any in our heritage – more so, indeed, because it was for all of us”. It couldn’t be put better.

‘Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945-1975’
Yale University Press, 512pp, £50