The city in which I was born is famous for brutalist architecture. This is largely a consequence of having the living shite bombed out of it in wartime, combined with a distinct lack of cash immediately after. Even so, there was a frenzy of tearing down fancy old buildings and replacing them with a modernist dreamland.
I can kind of see why. I get a sense of a sort of compulsive desire to be rid of the past that had bred fascists and depressions, an urge to escape into a clean science fiction future. Clean? Oh yes. My city was caked in industrial pollution, so much so that locals could tell exactly which forge system had just been fired up by the type of smog currently ruining laundry day.
Killer smogs became Clean Air Acts, and slums became clearances. You can see the almost obsessive need to scrub reality clean, to replace blackened sandstone with immaculate grey. Elsewhere, you can read about the brutalist futures that sprang up across Britain at this time, the upright mazes, what went wrong, what could have gone so very right. The networks of urban tunnels, underpasses, either busy prototype malls in the city centre or strange, silent, deserted walkways, often out on the borders of the countryside, where the new estates merged inexplicably into farmland and ancient woods.
My time was long after this rush. My strongest impression from childhood is the emptiness of it all. Silent subways, pavements that looked as though they’d never been used, stretches of urban space simultaneously pristine and chaotic. The only way I can explain that concept is to consider the space in the centre of a large roundabout; traffic rages around constantly, but in the confines of the island itself, everything’s almost totally untouched. A little time capsule of the day whichever dual carriageway it is was finished, the ribbon cut, the plans locked away, the relentless driving starting. There were so many spaces that felt like this.
And I remember elderly relatives in tower blocks, quite happy to watch the world from a huge distance. In memory, these become impossibly tall, and the plains around them become impossibly wide, empty, sunstruck. My mind must have constructed this from a single visit, yet I can still picture the structure of it all so clearly.
In my school dining room, painted black, garish perspex shutters edge the corners. Science fiction halls, clearly striving for the future. Roundels cut out of dividing sections, like eating inside a structure, lit orange, purple, black. Somewhere between this fragment and the grey towers out on that nowhere plain, I feel like there’s something worth salvaging.
We all know what happened without funding, of course. We can chart the decay, the alleged collapse of those minicultures, though I say “alleged” because I’ve met many people who deny that the situations in postwar housing such as the Kelvin estate were ever as bad as they were painted by re-developers. That perspex dining room was torn down and then its replacement torn down a few years later, just to be sure. They built a Costa on the site. Which teenage me would have much preferred and still would, if I’m being quite honest. I like the Black Forest Chocolate.
I also like the idea of science fiction houses, of this mix that I’m playing around with the imagery of. Downstairs, I have a 1951 chiming clock and a strip of neon-style LED lighting, just as those sleek grey dream towers had their little rooms full of wartime photos and horsebrasses. We can take and collage as much as we like; keep that gaze looking forward in design, carry as much of the past as looks good and still works. I won’t mourn the loss of a decrepit school just because it made me feel like I was in Doctor Who or The Tomorrow People, but I might just steal a bit of the aesthetic, in design, in art.