Simply put, in the 20th century Britain’s leaders embarked on a campaign of cultural vandalism unrivaled in our history.
In the post-war era, there was an increasing sense among a war and world weary populace and those who held the reins that flowers ought not to blossom quite so much, and gardens that needed tending, ought to be ripped up entirely and replaced wholesale by something more utilitarian. There was a sense of revulsion for past endevours, a self hatred for culture and the infrastructure and for the architecture of the old world order, the ‘ancien regime’.
Pre-war planning and Edwardian ideals were deemed stuffy and and rigid. Decaying, dirty, scarred, and grimy edifices, once proud and assured, were now uninspiring and unfit for purpose. From an era of global might, largely uninterrupted progress of industry, and of pre-eminence in all things had well and truly come to an end. Not only had many lives been lost in the fires of change, but a surety of National self too. It had been a few decades coming for sure, but finally in the throes of the ashes of the Second World War the guillotine had dropped.
The urban realm was targeted and up next for the firing line. Looking back it really did seem that a collective madness had gripped the country; with only the few sane like John Betjeman fighting the corner for the great architecture of our past.
In came the the ready the waiting ‘utopian’ planners, like Le Corbusier, Ebeneezer Howard, and Abercrombie. Though they had been waiting in the wings since a few decades earlier, their chance had finally come. The Blitz and a new prevailing wind of change had provided a blank canvas for their ‘masterpieces’.
Urban Metropolises had to be cut back they declared! People needed to be ‘decanted’ from the inner-city ‘slums’, to overly planned ‘sausage factory’, carbon copy council estates. The middle classes were decanted to the golden suburbs of course.
The automobile had to be crowned king, and as part of this new great new reign city centres were strangled by greater roads, elevated roadways, and concrete flyovers.
In the middle of this was the great and vibrant city of Birmingham. A great concrete collar was clamped on it’s neck and the result was a suffocation of expansion and natural progress. A tiny commercial zone remained inside, and expansion was effectively halted and therefore impossible to achieve. Outside the commercial ‘island’ ugly, grey, and poorly realised buildings were erected; blighting the skyline and spreading perturbations among the remaining environment. Outlying victoriana lay derelict in many places, in favour of Brave New World of communal living (nothing inherently wrong in this in itself) and private transport.
Birmingham is far from alone in all this, but I highlight becoming as it is a good ‘textbook’ example. Birmingham is a model for the destruction of greater civic buildings, once proud streetscapes, and the throttling of commercial and residential regions within an agglomeration. What was curious was that even with great restrictions on developments, the established architecture was far from safe.
Great railway stations were destroyed in Birmingham. One of these being New Street Station, another was Snowhill Station.
These were the cathedrals of the industrial age and contributed massively to the civic pride of a city. They were replaced of course with more utilitarian, sanitary (despite the urine stains later) and deeply brutal monstrosities. In many ways the brave new world had lost it’s bravery and succumbed to philistinism.
It wasn’t just Birmingham of course. Architectural historian Gavin Stamp in his book, Lost Victorian Britain: How the Twentieth Century Destroyed the Nineteenth Century’s Architectural Masterpieces said of Liverpool;
It’s difficult not to conclude that, in its relentless post-war economic decline, Liverpool became consumed by a hatred of its own past.
Thankfully many of the wrongs in our urban realms have been undone. Sadly however we will never regain the grandeur and humanity of what was lost. The terrible destruction meted out to Britain’s urban realm during the post-war twentieth century, both by the Luftwaffe and the post war planners collectively, was, and is shocking. The loss not only of great civic buildings, but grand streetscapes, intimate alleyways, and beautiful terraces, is harrowing upon reflection and study.
They are vanished forever, and both with people’s short memories, and with the generations that replaced them, they will mostly remain that way forever. Wanton destruction has occurred but what use is mourning?
I believe the heartbreaking legacy haunts us today, and it is a lesson that perhaps although partly learned, still must be reinforced in our consciousnesses. The evocation of Britain’s Georgian and Victorian heritage is perhaps a little rose-tinted, but almost nobody can deny the importance of preserving that heritage. The more I delved into the destructive plans of the planners and their enablers in power the more I felt a mounting fury inside. This realisation came as I matured over a decade ago and came to live in the City of Birmingham during a period of great redevelopment (still ongoing). I wanted to know what the catalyst for this change was. What were the buildings being replaced? As I realised they were not pre-war I came to wonder why they had replaced the buildings before. I had assumed as many do now that bomb damage has caused it. There was much bomb damage but the truth was even worse than I had feared; much of the destruction I concluded sadly had been self-inflicted.
Many walking the streets in their daily lives may be doing so in streets and realms totally changed beyond recognition in only half a century, and those people will not be aware or able to envisage the torture of the realm they inhabit now.