Anticipations of Utopia: discovering an architecture for post-war Britain
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Latusek, Matthew Alexander
This thesis responds to a growing appreciation for the richness and ambiguity of mid-century architectural culture in Britain. Initially focussing on the enthusiasm for a science-based approach among architects and town planners, the thesis identifies – in the diverse debates of the Second World War and immediate post-war years – an architecture that achieves significantly more than an abstract, inhuman, or totalising utopianism. Instead, it will expose affinities between the enthusiastic pursuit of objective solutions in architecture and planning and the drastically compromised realities, both of the historic city in ruins, and of certain episodes in the history of architecture that enjoyed popularity after the war. The first chapter introduces the problem of utopianism, a concept that has often accompanied critical studies of modern architecture. An appraisal of the utopian tradition highlights the frequent vagueness and ahistoricism of the term, leaving room for an appreciation of utopian speculation as dynamically historical, with the potential to decisively enact change. The second chapter identifies these characteristics in the mid-century enthusiasm for scientific planning, an approach that used quantifiable methods of research in order to legitimise an emerging town planning profession, which had gained added impetus from the transformative social impact of the Second World War. Underpinned by the civic and regional survey, this approach advanced the potential of technocratic management to ‘solve’ the problems of social organisation and physical planning. However, an analysis of specific attempts to speculatively develop the necessary planning machinery indicates a far richer range of concerns. The third chapter shows that the experience of wartime bombing dramatically changed the aspect of Britain’s towns and cities, with the resulting ruins presenting a visceral challenge to the idealising promise of science. But this seeming conflict obscures the relationship between ruination and reconstruction. For the anxiety and exhilaration of destruction was, in fact, embedded in the practice of rebuilding, both in the memories of the builders and of the public at large. Furthermore, an examination of contemporary architectural writing on the subject of wartime ruins displays an attempt to aestheticise and appropriate the ruin’s effects, while simultaneously maintaining an outward attitude of detachment. The final chapter develops this discussion, moving from the ruins of the historic city to investigate the mid-century adoption of architectural history as a justification for design. It will show that while scientific research seemed to promise objective solutions, the study of history received a similar authority after the war. Consequently, the historian could assume a status analogous to that of the planning expert: a fact evidenced by the activities of Rudolf Wittkower and Nikolaus Pevsner. Just as the utopian potential of science was conditioned by its contingency, this chapter will demonstrate that the appeal to history would also inevitably be limited to partial solutions.