Why attitudes to modernist architecture are changing
EARLY in the past week, one of the London-based newspapers published a sadly-predictable piece, headlined Residents Baffled by ‘Banana Flats’ Listing, questioning the decision by Historic Environment Scotland to grant category A protection to a landmark 1960 crescent of flats, properly called Cables Wynd House, in Leith.
The white concrete building, which has more than 200 flats, is mentioned by Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting, and a close reading of the actual article reveals that some of the residents are rather more proud than baffled that their homes have been deemed an architectural asset.
Rather more informative on the built heritage of Post-War Britain is a book, published today by the Royal Academy of Arts, entitled Lost Futures and written by Owen Hopkins, whose thoughts on Charles Rennie Mackintosh in his 2016 book, Mavericks, we carried a version of in The Herald Arts last year.
As a guide to what 21st century people think about modernist architecture, Hopkins is also a more reliable guide.
He writes: “The popularity that Brutalism in particular, and post-war architecture more broadly, currently enjoys is an extraordinary reversal from even a decade ago. In an online world where what we share on social media becomes part of our idealised self-image, retweeting a photo of a post-war housing block is a way of aligning oneself with a kind of counter-cultural trendiness that plays on post-war architecture’s former pariah status.”
There is much more of this sort of excellent analysis – both of the post-war building boom (Tory Housing Minister Harold MacMillan’s 1953 record of 300,000 new homes still stands) and the fate of the buildings since – in Hopkins’s long introductory essay, but the bulk of the book features 35 buildings put up in Britain between 1945 and 1979, photographed when new but now demolished, heavily altered or facing demolition. His words on each of those are equally fascinating, and four of them are (or were) in Scotland.
Of those, the only survivor is St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross, now being made, as a preserved ruin, into a new arts complex by the NVA organisation.
The others are Cockenzie Power Station, a missing presence on the Forth Estuary since 2015, and two housing developments in Glasgow. The Red Road flats in Springburn, the tallest residential buildings in Europe when they were completed in 1969, are, of course, an example of the change of attitude of the public to structures that were acknowledged to be no longer fit for purpose: it is still unacceptable to blow them up as an entertaining opening gambit at the Commonwealth Games.
Basil Spence’s Queen Elizabeth Square in the Gorbals came down in 1993, but were built in 1965 as a direct consequence of Glasgow Corporation’s 1945 Bruce Report, written by city engineer Robert Bruce.
Glasgow may have embraced modernism by driving the M8 through Charing Cross, but Bruce’s proposals were even more radical and, says Hopkins, would have left the city without Central Station and – incredibly – Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art.
As far as I am aware, I am no more related to that Robert Bruce than the more famous Bannockburn one, but I cannot help having a sneaking admiration for his bold chutzpah, even if I would have lain down in front of the bulldozers with everyone else.