Space, power and governance in mid-twentieth century British cities

Reconstructing modernity assesses the character of approaches to rebuilding British cities during the decades after the Second World War. It explores the strategies of spatial governance that sought to restructure society and looks at the cast of characters who shaped these processes. It challenges traditional views of urban modernism as moderate and humanist, shedding new light on the importance of the immediate post-war for the trajectory of urban renewal in the twentieth century. The book shows how local corporations and town planners in Manchester and Hull attempted to create order and functionality through the remaking of their decrepit Victorian cities. It looks at the motivations of national and local governments in the post-war rebuilding process and explores why and how they attempted the schemes they did. What emerges is a picture of local corporations, planners and city engineers as radical reshapers of the urban environment, not through the production of grand examples of architectural modernism, but in mundane attempts to zone cities, produce greener housing estates, control advertising or regulate air quality. Their ambition to control and shape the space of their cities was an attempt to produce urban environments that might be both more orderly and functional, but also held the potential to shape society.

Building on the conclusions and individual agency highlighted in the last chapter, this chapter uses examples of the clashes between local government and inhabitants on the social housing estates of Manchester and Hull to show how the practices of everyday life could subvert and challenge the spatial practices of urban governance, shedding light on the lived experience and agency of the inhabitants of mid-twentieth-century social housing. Expectations about how certain spaces should function, what it was appropriate to do in them and the beneficial outcomes they were supposed to produce meant mapping certain expectations about how societies and individuals interacted onto places like parks, grass verges or community centres. Corporations’ and planners’ perceptions of how space should function is thus used here to demonstrate how spatial policies evidenced governmental anxieties over working-class association, concerns about suburban anomie and a growing disquiet about youth and delinquency.

in Reconstructing modernity
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in Reconstructing modernity

This chapter examines the origins of the post-war Plans as a means to interrogate a number of historical stereotypes about Britain after the Second World War. In 1945 Hull and Manchester, in common with many other British towns and cities, produced comprehensive, detailed redevelopment plans. These Plans were a spectacular mix of maps, representations of modern architecture and ambitious cityscapes that sit, sometimes uneasily, alongside detailed tables, text and photographs. Initially examining continuities between the inter- and post-war plans, the chapter emphasises the importance of the Plans in local governments’ attempts to express long-held desires to control and shape the city. I argue that the Plans evidence an attempt to mould the future shape and idea of the modern city through imaginative use of urban fantasy. Images of modernism, I argue, were not presented as a realisable architectural aim, but as a way of mediating between the present and an indistinct, but fundamentally better future. I suggest flawed interpretations of the visual materials contained in the Plans are responsible for an over-emphasis on the influence of radical modernism in post-war Britain.

in Reconstructing modernity

This chapter examines the strategies employed by the local governments of Manchester and Hull to govern the space of their cities in the immediate post-war period by examining policies and projects that sought to control the built environment. The techniques of spatial governance local governments deployed ranged from zoning large areas, to prohibiting certain types of business, display or activity and included control of land, buildings and even the air. The chapter argues that in the immediate post-war period local corporations attempted to expand their ability to control their cities in a holistic sense through the application and expansion of national planning legislation. Their aim was the assertion of a long-term, rational approach to the physical development of their cities, but their means were often mundane or small-scale: control of fun-fairs, the regulation of air or advertising as well as the siting of shops were all part of corporations holistic view of the functional city. These attempts were contested by the agencies of the national state, commercial elites and the inhabitants of the cities, illustrating the deeply contested character of modernity in the post-war.

in Reconstructing modernity

This chapter is concerned with the ways in which functional models of community and sociability were being framed spatially in post-war Britain, focusing on the design and provision of housing on post-war housing estates like Manchester’s famous Wythenshawe estate as well as on Hull’s less famous examples. It argues that concerns about the nature of society were bound up in the designs and promotion of new housing schemes. The study of housing and community design functions as a lens through which historiographical concerns about modernity, consumerism and town planning might be analysed. The chapter examines the design of shopping centres to shed light upon the mechanisms of sociability and interaction that were being programmed into the design of housing, concluding that a combination of consumer habits, retailer opposition and planning naivety worked to reduce the effectiveness of the plans in producing functional estates.

in Reconstructing modernity
Abstract only
in Reconstructing modernity