Rebuild our cities

3 April 2022

8:19 PM

3 April 2022

8:19 PM

For an ancient city with an illustrious industrial history, Derby doesn’t get much attention. But it does boast at least one famous, possibly apocryphal story, known to scholars of urbanism.

Sometime in the 80s or 90s (accounts differ), a party of visiting German VIPs was given a tour of the city’s sights: the humdrum housing schemes; the corners of concrete bleakness; the sad disjointed malls and random multi-storey car parks.

Struck near-dumb by the ugliness, the Germans apologised profusely for the damage clearly wrought on poor Derby by the Luftwaffe: wiping away a venerable city centre, leaving behind such tragic hideousness. At this point the local bigwigs laughed, perhaps awkwardly, and said ‘Oh no, Derby was barely touched in the war, we did all this to ourselves, when we redeveloped.’

I’ve been thinking of this story of late, as I’ve watched the repulsive assault on Ukraine’s ancient cities, Kharkhiv, Kyiv, Odesa. Beyond the emotions of helpless empathy and human horror, the tale of Derby’s destruction makes me wonder: how will these Ukrainian cities be rebuilt? And then I think: well, when they are rebuilt, whatever the Ukrainians do, they mustn’t do what Britain did from 1945 to 2015.

That is to say: the Ukrainians must not repeat the period when, thanks to poverty, perversity, greed, corruption, incompetence, narcissism, and outright political evil, we British managed to wreck many of the loveliest towns in Europe. Our own.

Back in 1945 Britain faced a tough architectural task: we were a nation fit to burst with cities already wrecked by war. Precisely because Britain stood firm against Hitler, Britain took the full force of Hitler’s bombers. Contrast with France, which briskly surrendered, and thus escaped with many of its cities unscathed (this is one reason French urbanism seems so enviably gracious today).

Moreover, some of Britain’s most poetic cities were attacked precisely for their architectural value. In particular, during the ‘Baedeker raids’ of April-May 1942 (named after the Baedeker guidebooks) the Luftwaffe deliberately targeted Bath, Norwich, York, Canterbury and several other historic sites, hoping to terminally torpedo British morale as the British people saw their patrimony erased by incendiary bombs.

Militarily, the raids were of little value. The Luftwaffe endured horrible losses, and British fighting spirit was undimmed, if not intensified: Britain took grievous and grandiloquent revenge by flattening multiple German cities from 1943 onwards. Architecturally, however, the Luftwaffe had some ‘success’. It is said that after one especially Hunnish raid, Hermann Goering gloated, with satisfaction, to his air-force officers: ‘Exeter was a jewel, and we have destroyed it.’

Sadly, the jewel that was Exeter remains pretty much destroyed. If he could see it today, Goering would probably still chortle over his lagerbier. What was once a magnificent cathedral city, full of subtly layered, historically intricate beauty – medieval, Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian – is now a weirdly dull splodge of dispiriting redbrick housing, unlovable shopping arcades, and surreally misjudged road-schemes that try and hurl you out of town, if not actually into the river.

Why is it so bad? Obviously, after the war, there wasn’t a lot of money, and there was a great need for new homes – as was the case right across the UK. Consequently, under Prime Ministers Churchill, Macmillan and Wilson, et al, the word went out: build as quick and as cheap as you can. Such a directive is not a recipe for raising Venice 2.0, hence the wearisome banality and soullessness of Exeter’s 1950s housing estates and shopping parades.

However, that post-war rebuilding was quite a long time ago. And Exeter has been tweaked and retweaked many times since, and it never seems to get much better: like many other city centres in Britain. No matter how many times councillors, planners, and architects do their best, our towns and cities do not seriously improve.

The question must then be raised, are they really doing their best? In some cases: No. Take Newcastle upon Tyne. In the 1960-70s, twenty years after the war, it was decided to raze great swathes of Newcastle, especially its noble Georgian housing, so as to build an insane chunk of brutalist, modernist nonsense, complete with the usual dystopian schemes: urinous walkways, whizzing urban motorways, please-rob-me-here subways, all kitted out in a spectacularly depressing form of grey concrete cleverly designed to decay at great speed in cold British rain, a form of weather not entirely unknown inNewcastle.

It could be argued that the architects responsible for this disaster (Ralph Erskine, Vernon Gracie, and others) were merely your average architects of the time – ie vain, well-meaning, doctrinaire types – the same excuse cannot be gifted to the ex-Trotskyite, hardcore Labour leader of Newcastle Council, one T Dan Smith, who demanded and then pioneered much of this catastrophic redevelopment, and then in 1974 was handed six years in prison for his appalling corruption. He definitely did his worst.

The same process has been repeated time and again in towns up and down the land (by the left and by the right, let it be said). One particularly notorious yet enlightening example is Robin Hood Gardens, a small but impressively terrible housing estate erected in Poplar, East London, in the 1970s, and designed by ‘socialist idealists’ Peter and Alison Smithson.

Entirely surrounded by a jailing high wall, resembling a garment factory for trafficked workers somewhere in Bangladesh, expressly equipped with a new quasi-Neolithic tumulus in its central greenery (thus ensuring the local kids had nowhere sensible to play), the building’s sole purpose seemed to be its radical ugliness, to which ‘Peter and Alison Smithson’ could point and say ‘isn’t that daring!’ as they headed off, very fast, for an agreeable lunch in Soho with someone from BBC Arts. On the same day that Robin Hood Gardens was officially opened, by the already-bewildered council, it is claimed that one of the first inhabitants urinated in a lift.

The example of the now-thankfully-levelled Robin Hood Gardens is interesting because it shows famous, award-winning architects genuinely doing the ‘best they could’, without corruption. There is no T Dan Smith to blame here. And it turns out the architects and planners, even when trying their best, just weren’t very good. And when I say ‘not very good’ I mean they were often daft, misguided, inept, ludicrous, self-pitying ideologues – and they actively damaged human lives. In addition, they were utterly incapable of building anything as beautiful as the pre war centres of Exeter, or Coventry, or Newcastle – or countless other conurbations ruined by German bombs, ambitious councils or imbecile planners.

What’s worse, British architects remain depressingly impotent. Most of them still can’t match the achievements of their Victorian, Georgian, and Tudor forebears who threw up those gorgeous, gently complex town centres beloved by Baedeker and targeted by Goering. And of course many of the ‘architects’ of previous eras were humble artisans with no training at all. They somehow sensed what buildings would look good, and feel good, and they built them – and, Lo, they were good.

For proof of our eerie yet abiding inability to improve on the past, look no further than Birmingham Central Library. Once a dignified piece of Victorian neo-classicism, with a soaring clerestory of an interior, this great piece of nineteenth century urbanism was pointlessly demolished and calamitously reconfigured as an upside-down Brutalist ziggurat in the 1970s (the kind of building which says: I’m a ‘bold uncompromising building’, which generally means you won’t be able to find your way into the building).

A few decades later, despite a piercing outcry from the building’s myriad admirers – two people from Georgian Islington – this architectural wart was finally smoked by the urban dermatologists, and was, miraculously, replaced by something arguably worse: a stack of apparently magnetic blocks covered with enormous shower curtain rings, seemingly designed by Saddam Hussein’s younger son on a ketamine high.

It’s a sorry state of affairs, as too many Brits can attest, from Cumbernauld to Croydon. However, I am here to bring good news. It need not be this way, and to see an alternative, we only have to look across the Channel to the people that first demolished our cities. The Germans.

Over the last 10-20 years the Germans have been quietly rebuilding an entire medieval quarter of Frankfurt, the Altstadt (which was destroyed by the RAF). And they have rebuilt it right down to the last finial, gable and cheerfully yellow Apotheke.

The original proposal for this faithful restoration was, predictably, opposed by many vested interests. Architects accused the Frankfurt planners of vulgar pastiche, Disneyland architecture, toytown fakery. An interesting political divide also developed: left-wing German politicians were largely opposed, claiming that the plans were tinged with revivalist German nationalism, some said the restorations were faintly redolent of Nazism. There were bitter battles on Frankfurt Town Council. In the end the ‘right’ won the contest.

And so ‘New Old Frankfurt’ was built. A complete medieval quarter diligently reimagined. It is now hugely popular, and it wins awards, and tourists eagerly seek it out. Is it fake? Yes. Is it pastiche? Yes. But then: virtually all architecture is fake, pastiche or mimetic, to some extent. Basic Greek pillars – foundational elements of western architecture – were originally perceived as ‘trees made of stone’. The stone acanthus leaves on Corinthian columns are, well, fake acanthus leaves. The flowing

Decorated tracery in the windows of our most beloved English cathedrals are carved to resemble the curving lines of flowers, and vines, and so on. All architecture resembles something, why can’t modern architecture simply resemble much nicer buildings from the past?

This then, is the answer to Britain’s perennial problem of Ugly Town Centres. Let us do what the Germans have done in Frankfurt: let us rebuild them exactly as they were at the peak of their beauty – probably some time around 1900. Architects will howl, as their dreams of personal glory are robbed; let them howl, they have had 70 years to do better and they have failed. Politicians will rant about conservatism, nativism, Toryism and whatever, but let them rant: they demolished half of beautiful Georgian Newcastle.

If we need a place to begin, we could do worse than Derby. On social media, in the last few weeks, old pictures of Derby have been re-emerging, grainy but poignant photos of its lost beauty, its sweet gentle density, with some astonished left-wing commenters saying ‘my God, it used to look like Vicenza’ – these same people are surprised when they are accused of being ‘right-wing’ for wanting to rebuild it.

It is time to ignore the losers, whiners, and destroyers. Replace every stone precisely as it was. Let Derby be the Vicenza of the North, once again. That would be the greatest levelling up of all.

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