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50s architecture and the Arts and Crafts Movement Watch

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    I would like to debate the proposal that the William Morris Arts and Crafts Movement of the second half of the 19th century, lead both to the 1950s style of architecture in Britain and the Brutalist architecture (mostly of the 1960s).

    50s public building architecture in Britain was a peculiar, perhaps unappreciated, period really in that it was broadly modernist but in an arguably 'homelier', less rigid, way. It could even include quiet eccentricities of design and traditionalist motifs / decorations that were not technically 'modernist'.

    The pure white aesthetic of the 30s , which might have, post World War 2, been associated too heavily with Germany, did not seem as dominant and instead 50s public buildings were often grey concrete or old fashioned brick not dissimilar to some of the more traditionalist 30s buildings.

    The 50s period was really a quiet swing a little bit in the direction of William Morris type Britishness once more (after flirting with continentalism during the art nouvea and art deco periods and possibly later being a bit put off it by two world wars where America, not Europe, were our main allies).

    It was not uncommon to see green coloured roofing in the 1950s a popular colour since art nouveau's fascination with natural forms such as leaves and flowers. This contintental phenomenon was itself arguably an offshoot of the British arts and crafts movement which favoured traditional craft and medieval, romantic or folk styles. Basically a sort of urbanised taste of the past or of the country in the city. It was a contrast to the upheavals and the 'belief in progress' of the Industrial Revolution (which itself would be later paralleled in the idealised version of 'belief in progress' of 1920s/early 1930s modernism).

    Then, following the Festival of Britain in 1951, a group of British architects, including the Smithsons and Denys Lasdun and started the seeds of Brutalism, a British kind of modernism but a less 'sunnier' type of it. It started off small scale but during the 60s, its heyday, was often in stark grey concrete and popular to be used on some of the more trend setting university campuses. However , apart from allegedly bearing similarity to German bunkers used during World War 2 (a probably not entirely unintended reminder from architects to the public that going back wholesale to quaint architecture was to rewrite the past and to not embrace the future) there was often far more historical precedents for them. Some , sturdy, fortress-like and sometimes flanked by concrete fencing, seem to invite comparison to the very kind of medieval castles that may have inspired William Morris.

    So in a peculiar way some of those public buildings that the public most claim to hate are arguably typically 'English' - a man's house as his castle but on a social scale.

    The heyday of the university expansion project that saw 'plate glass' universities built was over practically after 1969 and the 70s, wracked by some economic and social problems, saw a kind of conservatism return but not really a reassuring type - instead it saw a kind of cut price modernism (as practiced by some new comprehensives then and sixth form colleges) in public buildings that was not as dramatic or interesting as Brutalism OR 50s architecture but just deeply bland. Budget cutter Thatcher didn't have much, if any, inclination to spend her way in to better standards of public buildings so it was well in to the 90s before some public buildings were given facelifts or better additions to bring them either up to date or to the standard that they had been in in the 50s or 60s.

    Sorry that this post does ramble through various things but the main point of my post is - Brutalism was actually kind of quintessentially English and we should celebrate its best examples en masse.

    I hope it's a 'cool story bro' and if you have any contributions to make please do..
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Updated: April 7, 2013
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