TEMPUS FUGIT — MUST WE STILL DESPISE THE SIXTIES?
If industrial archaeologists are following the historical process they should be considering the buildings of the 1960s, now beginning to disappear. There is great interest in collecting manufactured goods from the period but only a few people take an interest in buildings and structures about 40 years old.
It is salutary to realise that the late Victorian buildings some of us saw as young children were then only as old as modernist buildings of the 1950s and early sixties are now. In recent years the Victorian age, especially the latter part, has been regarded by many industrial archaeologists, at least implicitly, as special; a time when Britain was great, and something to be looked back upon with feelings of regret that nowadays we can no longer match such excellence. How special was the 'Victorian age' and should we now consider revising our attitudes, taking into account what happened in the last century (the 20th century).
In Britain the 1950s and sixties were a notably progressive epoch when real advances in housing for ordinary people and in the standard of living generally were made. This is quite apart from the inventions and innovations which were introduced then. It was an age when there was still a traditional establishment in charge and people believed in progress and a future. Enormous changes in architecture were made between 1954 and 1964. The early 1950s were stylistically essentially the same as the pre-war period; plans made in the late 1930s were simply taken up from where they had been interrupted by war, and implemented post-war. It is very difficult to distinguish visually between pre- and post-war construction. We need a word to describe the style of architecture of this interrupted period — roughly the reign of King George VI.
The sixties, by which we mean simply 1960-69, have been about as out of favour as the later Victorian age was in the 1950s. In the 1960s numerous town centres lost many fine Victorian public buildings in the course of redevelopment. This was a tragic loss if only in terms of the high quality building materials, now no longer readily available, which were generally junked. Younger people, well say people younger than 55, judge the achievements of the sixties harshly. This is because they apply the standards of the 1990s. You need to have lived through the forties and fifties to really understand what was being reacted against in the next decade. Sixties tower blocks may be unsavoury now they are old and badly maintained but when newly built the accommodation they provided was an incredible improvement over that which many of their first inhabitants had had to endure beforehand.
The early sixties saw the growth of mass motoring, the building of the first motorways and the start of electrification of main-line railways. We were still a very considerable manufacturer of motor vehicles for export and had a viable aviation industry. It was a period of great artistic activity and achievement, much that has happened since has only been the sixties warmed up and served again and the epoch also saw great changes in fashion and taste. It was the last time Britain was really doing significant things before the dreadful downturn in the 1970s from which we have so far failed to emerge (apart perhaps from the British achievements in art and architecture of the 1990s.)
Enthusiasts for the later Victorian age might reconsider their attitudes to the diametrically opposed sixties, especially if they are concerned with conservation issues. The sixties were another great British period we should examine anew in the light of their material remains, now rapidly disappearing. Sixties buildings were unlike those of the latter 19th century not durably constructed. A building of the sixties is now generally in the same dire need of urgent restoration as one built 70 years earlier.
But are we to judge building archaeology just from the standpoint of the quality and durability of construction? Buildings of the Georgian period were by comparison with those of the Victorian age jerry built and of a relatively temporary nature. The Victorians reacted against the Georgians in much the same way the thirties and fifties reacted against Victoriana and, at least until recently, we have despised the sixties. The Victorians saw the Georgians as immoral and deceitful, their inferiority clearly illustrated by their buildings in which stucco was simply hiding shoddy workmanship. Victorian wrath and moral indignation was directed in full against Georgian London and much was destroyed. The Victorians were in no doubt about what they hated but quite what they were going to replace it by was somewhat problematical. One thing that did emerge was the concept of truth to materials (have we heard that somewhere before?) in that they would have good quality honest brickwork simply displaying itself and not hiding in shame behind stucco as Georgian bricks had.
The Victorians liked to think of themselves as morally very upright and in public life an ostentatious display of high moral standards was essential. However present-day historians of the Victorian age who really get under the skin of the period are often sickened by the gross hypocrisy and dreadful truth lurking beneath the respectable veneer. Human nature probably remains relatively unchanged, roughly constant at least in a statistical sense, but what one does and does not admit to in public is very much subject to fashion and the mores of the time. Confronted with the more honest Georgian period Victorian historians often find the previous age a relief, more in tune with our own times. Perhaps morally the Victorians were themselves hiding their imperfections behind a bogus respectability in much the same way that Georgians had hidden their shoddy brickwork behind stucco.
In Victorian times certain things were not talked about — at least in polite circles. Similarly we are remarkably quiet about the motor car. Published pictures and photographs generally try to omit them. Public houses are not called the motor car or the motorist yet alone the car park which in terms of ground occupied is the major constituent of many of them. Could it be that we are reluctant to include the motor car in our accepted view of the world because there are vague feelings of guilt that we use the car far too much for the good of our physical health and that of the environment? The story of people driving to the gym to take exercise is rather more than a joke. Returning to the 1960s people walked and used public transport then, far more than we do now.
With the extreme works of the modern period it was indeed unfortunate that after being tried out before the War on animals at London and Dudley Zoos, much work in this style was used to re-house the poor who were in no position to move elsewhere if the new accommodation was not to their liking. They were also that section of the population least likely to have tastes in furniture and interior decoration that would suit the style of architecture they were being put into (or be able to afford to change what they already had). At first hand we nearly all come across this implacable clash of cultures on a daily basis — and this is from the outside.
An aspect of what failed in the sixties regarding tower blocks was that some fifties idealists really were trying to give ordinary people the same kind of accommodation as the fashionable well-off, but did not appreciate that what they were providing was unsuitable for the lifestyle of those being re-housed. Now we are told that everyone is middle-class housing is likely to become more standardised.
A major problem of tower blocks has been condensation which can quite easily be combated by sufficient heating, just what the poor cannot afford. In the sixties it was confidently expected that with the widespread introduction of nuclear power (from fission and later fusion) electricity would soon become so cheap it would not need to be metered. That is it would be provided like water was, which in many cases is still unmetered today.
Quite why nuclear power has failed to materialise in the way expected is not that clear. Did it have anything to do with the fact that development was essentially in the hands of government rather than a Boulton and Watt? What if it had been in the hands of commercial entrepreneurs? While a cautious James Watt might have been sufficiently responsible, if we had had a Richard Trevithick or an I K Brunel the opposition to nuclear power stations now would probably be even stronger than it is.
We have learnt that progress is far from inevitable and that the clock can be put back. Surprisingly turkeys do vote for Christmas and one is nostalgic for the future of our youth that never happened — bearing in mind that from 1951 to 1964 Britain had a Conservative government. While there has been improvement in many things, some things were better in the 1960s than they are now — for instance the comfort of seats on trains. From our early 21st-century viewpoint what is striking about the fifties and sixties is their optimism and Utopian idealism. Contrast this with the present-day plight of schoolteachers and nurses in the South East regarding housing.
In Britain poorer people used to be housed in tower blocks in contrast to a country such as say Canada, where in cities the rich live centrally in well-maintained high-rise apartments with door porters and it is the poor who live in low-rise housing or cabins further out of town. In London and elsewhere there are now considerable signs that the surviving sixties tower blocks are making a comeback. This is particularly true in areas of high property values where for young couples the attractions of a centrally located flat of a reasonable size and affordable is becoming almost irresistible.
Currently we have the problem in industrial archaeology of many buildings and structures built less than 50 years ago being demolished at a great rate with few people showing any interest in preserving the outstanding examples, or even recording what is about to be lost. The small minority who do show an interest are most eccentric. We should not forget however, that in the early 1960s there were people who thought John Betjeman was 'a crackpot — a poet too — wanting to preserve part of a Victorian railway station' (the Euston Arch). The Prime Minister Harold Macmillan would not take him seriously and the Euston Arch was soon no more, with the London Coal Exchange following shortly afterwards — and look what that lead to.
Visitors from abroad can be shocked by a sight of St Pancras railway station — a great inspiring engineering structure hidden behind a ridiculous mock-medieval façade. Exploring the interior of the hotel one has some sympathy for those who had to work in there during the 1950s. By that time the frankly gaudy decoration would have become discoloured by years of gas lighting and coal smoke, and false ceilings and painting white or cream to hide the hideously unfashionable were essential to create a bearable working environment.
While the demolition of the London Coal Exchange was indeed a disgrace the removal of Philip Hardwick's Doric arch from Euston is difficult to condemn outright. Would we really want it there now? Euston station simply could not function in the way it does with the arch on its original site. It is a pity however that the Arch was not relocated in a manner similar to that of Temple Bar and a site on a hilltop overlooking the London & Birmingham Railway would surely have been appropriate.
A more recent loss was the Firestone building in West London demolished over August Bank Holiday weekend in 1980 and here the façade could easily have been reused for what is there now. While most must go (or be moved), perhaps even including the Euston Arch, attempts to reuse the best must always be vigorously encouraged. The problem now is that public sympathy for the buildings of 40 years ago is almost zero. Only a tiny handful of enthusiasts, generally regarded as a lunatic fringe, campaign for listing and as we have seen lately requests for listing can often be refused.
Architects are irrational creatures — artists rather than engineers and the most eminent often reach extremes which can be unfortunate for later generations. Those that come afterwards may 'have to live with it' (literally) for a century and a half, and more. We have only to think of the vitriolic condemnation Ruskin poured out over railway bridges or the frankly ridiculous Gothic excesses of Pugin to realise that modernists such as Enrnö Goldfinger and Owen Luder (twice President of RIBA), while extremists, were probably no more extreme than say Pugin or Sir George Gilbert Scott.
In the 1950s children were taken to the south side of the Euston Road for a kind of 'moral lesson'. They were shown King's Cross and St Pancras railway stations with the exclamation — 'weren't the Victorians vulgar!' (meaning the later Victorians and their gothic hotel contrasting with the clean lines of King's Cross). This story may be somewhat mythological but it does illustrate the change in taste which had taken place by the early seventies.
Perhaps unconsciously, the most eminent architects often build monuments to themselves, eg Sir Christopher Wren. They can produce extreme works and while one or two examples here and there may be admirable, we would not like large numbers of them. A single iconic Lloyds building is all right but we would perhaps not want fifty similar buildings in London.
Fashion is a very useful marketing device encouraging consumers to discard what is perfectly fit for its function but old fashioned in favour of something newly produced. This used to be pronounced in the field of women's clothing but is applied almost universally. It applies to taste and architecture — gothic follows classicism and then we have 'Queen Anne' — later, Modernism rejects the tastes of a previous century for something at the opposite pole.
Bauhaus modernism is in some senses Newtonian — in reaction against the trend of scientific thinking between the Wars. We are reminded of the play In Good King Charles's Golden Days (1939), by George Bernard Shaw, where Isaac Newton is in violent disagreement with the artist Godfrey Kneller over straight lines. Compare this situation with the Gothic revival, reacting against the Newtonian spirit of that age.
In crude terms, one way to produce a fashionable item is simply to reverse all the extremes of the current fashion. Straight lines are replaced by curves or vice versa — decoration is made excessive and the reaction against this demands that buildings must be devoid of decoration. This can be economically useful. Classical buildings really need rectangular sites — 'Queen Anne' say, being quirky, can be designed to fit the awkward sites which had previously been difficult to utilise. We see a neo-Gothic example of this in Alfred Waterhouse's Manchester Town Hall.
For industrial archaeology the situation is clear. We must be objective rather than subjective and concentrate on the historical process — it is not a case of whether we like or dislike something but whether it happened.
In any case things mellow with time and tastes change. Slough is now a pleasant place despite John Betjeman's infamous poem of 1937 — 'Come, friendly bombs, and ...'.
We are all basically conservative and the shock of the new takes some getting over. Wounds heal more slowly as we get older. There are still many people surviving who loathe Centre Point (1971) which to a good number of us is now one of the more acceptable modern buildings in London — at least from a distance. We are also beginning to forget that it remained empty for so long. Some buildings however were thought to be unfortunate by architects, almost as soon as they were built. Take for example the County Hall Extension or Island Block by the GLC Architects Department, built in 1974 on what is now a traffic island southwest of Waterloo Station. Currently this is in a sorry state and is likely to be demolished.
So far this article has been almost entirely about architecture. There must be plenty of engineering interest in the 1960s but apart perhaps from Sir Owen Williams and Frank Newby few engineers of the period are well known in industrial archaeological circles. Putting this right should provide a rich field of work for some of us in the near future.
One observes that younger people, those for whom the 1950s are well before their time, find it very difficult to visualise that period. It is for them a very long time ago and we see this when young museum assistants write captions for photographs — there is a general tendency to pre-date images from this decade. Misunderstanding the fifties can even extend to imagining British teenagers with their own new motor cars as normal. In those days the owner of a factory was fortunate if he had a new car and most fathers went to work on a bicycle. This was an age when houses in London still had gas lighting.
Many older people really hate almost all the buildings put up during the period they have lived through, which at first thought might be considered surprising — almost like hating oneself — but it is widespread. Are the popular misrepresentation of the Vicwardian past as a golden age and the associated Heritage Industry founded on this myth partly responsible for this? The current dislike of the buildings and structures of the last fifty years, especially prevalent in industrial archaeological circles, can be likened to that of artistically inclined mid-Victorians for whom a bogus mythical medieval past was far preferable to the immense technological achievements of their own time. This seems to be a peculiarly English trait, as is the disdain for engineers.
We are now very much in the post-industrial age and popular lectures on 'industrial' subjects more and more tend to concentrate on the craft industries to the exclusion of heavy industry, most of the 19th and all the 20th century. Even if the speaker has spent a lifetime in a particular industry or occupation there now appears to be a reluctance to reminisce about real events and experiences of the past 60 years — thus adding to the general ignorance of things 40 or so years ago.
A few younger people however are taking up the challenge of finding out what was happening shortly before they were born. The exploration of such a time can be particularly rewarding — discovering what one missed by being born just too late. Quite how much this process of discovery involves people who lived through the time in question is not that clear. Oral history is in any case rather suspect. With so many television programmes misrepresenting the recent past it is all too easy for an older raconteur, flattered by an eager young audience, to rationally reconstruct when memory fails, and immersed in present-day values tidy-up imperfect memories of adolescence to suit what is perceived as the expectations of his or her listeners. Most of us will have had experiences of this kind from within our own families.
At present reliable material from 40 years ago is not easily available and the period's archives have perhaps not survived as well as those of the late 19th century. A good deal may be awaiting cataloguing. It was the age of the Biro pen with blue smudgy ink rather than careful handwriting on high quality long-lasting paper. Typewritten material was common 40 years ago but often only flimsy carbon copies survive. Are many people interested in the archaeology of the office before the coming of desktop computers?
Thirty years ago many industrial archaeologists visited warehouses before they were demolished but do they now visit multi-storey car parks? Both are storage systems with a not dissimilar aesthetic. From a civil engineering viewpoint motorways are not that different from railways but we can be sure that motorway enthusiasts are far outnumbered by railway enthusiasts, and almost certainly even by that smaller number interested in railway civil engineering and construction.
Industrial archaeologists should be thinking of extending their interests forward to 1970, now 35 years past, and telling those born 40 or less years ago what we old timers remember of the fifties and sixties. Conceivably it might just encourage what could become the next generation of industrial archaeologists (no doubt using a very different name for their activity) to investigate seriously subjects that are unlikely to occur to them without their imagination first being stirred by tales of what Britain was like 40 years ago, before the first man walked on the moon. Many of us were not then interested in industrial archaeology or related topics but may well have some useful comments to contribute regarding epoch-making new developments such as changes in railway traction, the redevelopment of Birmingham's Bull Ring, building the Post Office Tower in London with its revolving restaurant at the top, the first supermarkets or the introduction of electric typewriters to the office. Perhaps an explanation of how carbon paper was used might also be of value.
R J M Carr
© GLIAS, 2006