Icons & Eyesores -
A new look at 60s architecture
Sixties' architecture draws strong passions in many people. For some there is the urge to preserve something of one of the most creative periods in British history, for others there is the urge to destroy it. Of the "Dirty Dozen" most hated buildings on Channel 4's Demolition programme, the majority were from the sixties. Ugly, outdated and old-fashioned are some of the more polite words used to describe sixties' buildings.
However, ugliness, as well as beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder, so too can outdatedness. This extract is from a newspaper report about plans to redevelop Abingdon Town Centre.
"Abingdon is fortunate - much luckier than Oxford, for instance - to have a large central site which can be redeveloped without destroying any valuable buildings...The Corn Exchange, an ugly (that word again) and inconvenient red brick Victorian building, will be no great loss. "
The Corn Exchange was demolished, without tears, along with a rather grand Victorian hotel. This article is from 1964. In the sixties anything Victorian was "ugly". It could be demolished without consideration. Yet at the same time, there was a growing appreciation for the Victorian - just think of the cover of the Sergeant Pepper Album. Victorian artefacts were rapidly moving from junk to antique and a small, but growing, band of enthusiasts were trying to save Victorian buildings.
A few years ago anything from the thirties was considered "no great loss". The most famous example being the Firestone Factory. This was a beautiful Art Deco building, considered by many to be better than the Hoover Building. Yet it was in the way of a developer's plans and was bulldozed. The loss of this building led to the formation of the Twentieth Century Society. Many battles were ahead, not least an attempt to stop BT from removing every red telephone box in the country. Thanks to the work of the Twentieth Century Society many fine buildings from the first half of the last century were listed and saved from the bulldozers, but many more were destroyed.
Those most often in the firing line were new building types - lidos and cinemas. They were often on prime land - built to show the town or city concerned at its best, in the eighties they were just in the way. Weston-super-Mare destroyed a wonderful diving platform to transform the town's lido into a tasteless children's paddling pool, yet the local newspaper cheered the demolition all the way and derided campaigners, trying to save the structure, as lunatics.
Art Deco and pre-war architecture found an unlikely hero in the guise of a fictional detective. The ITV series, "Agatha Christie's Poirot" showed the thirties as modern and forward looking. The clean white lines of thirties' modernism were made popular. Film locations included the Midland Hotel at Morecambe and the Burgh Island Hotel in Devon. Interest in Art Deco multiplied. I would not say that all thirties buildings are safe, but at least public opinion is now on their side.
Now the sixties is ripe for destruction and the public is baying for everything from that decade to be wiped out. Do we really want to destroy all permanent reminders of the decade that gave us the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Mini and the E-type Jaguar?
Once again, it is new building types that are most at risk. In the sixties they were shopping centres, office blocks, multi-storey car parks, university buildings and high rise housing. Some have already been listed. Some listing decisions have been brave - Park Hill Flats in Sheffield, and Trellick Tower in London, for example. Tastes are also changing. The sixties is being rediscovered. The music never really went away and the cars are being preserved. Sixties interior design is sparking off a new fashion in home interiors - retro.
Yet we still have a problem with the buildings - why? I think on the one hand there is the Ronan Point disaster and the general failure of high rise housing to solve the problems of the Victorian slums it replaced. On the other there is politics. Sixties' architecture is identified with idealism, an attempt to create a utopia which failed. However, for the majority of sixties' buildings, the motives were mainly commercial - the same as in any period in our history. The much maligned Tricorn Centre, for example, was a commercial development to provide a new shopping centre for Portsmouth. It was not a socialist project, but purely a business development.
If we put politics aside, many buildings from the sixties evoke style and sophistication. It was the era of James Bond, of the space race and of the birth of supersonic travel. Sixties' architecture, for me, is all about cool modernism, sophistication and style. Save it now, otherwise it will soon be too late.
More on 60s Architecture:
"This Was Tomorrow"
The this was tomorrow exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2004 linked sixties architecture and photography.
For more on "This was Tomorrow" visit www.culturewars.org.uk/2004-02/sixties.htm
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