At this time of year it is traditional to recommend reading material to while away the long hours on the beach. For those of a conservative disposition and architectural bent there is Britain’s Lost Cities by Gavin Stamp, which chronicles the deliberate destruction of Britain’s great cities by the modernist movement and the planners in the decades following the Second World War.
The book is interesting for conservatives for two reasons. Firstly, conservatives should care about architecture: as the saying goes, it is the art we all must live with. The built environment moulds our thinking and our emotions, and Britain’s cultural conservatism and individualism was once visually expressed in the way its cities such as London had organically grown, melded onto the ancient Anglo-Saxon street pattern, giving a visual appeal quite unlike the great planned boulevards of the Champs Elysees and Unter Den Linden in Paris and Berlin.
It is an appreciation of this tradition, rather than a knee-jerk reactionism, that permeates this work; the author is a pains to point out that some creative destruction of cities and towns is an inevitable and natural process, but it was the rejection of the organic, conservative tradition in favour of planned socialist modernity that has left so many unappealing concrete jungles today. Who can doubt the effect those dead, brutal facades must have on those forced to live among them? It must surely be a contributory factor in the low aspiration, boorish behaviour and general ugliness of so much of our culture?
Secondly, the book is of general historical interest because there are many parallels with the problems cultural conservatives face today. Then, as now, a fashionable mania for sweeping away the old in favour of a new was very much in vogue. Then, as now, a cynical “Conservative” government was largely culpable in the vandalism.
And vandalism it certainly was. As the book chronicles in painful pictorial detail, most of the destruction of our cities was not, as may be imagined, done at the behest of the Luftwaffe, although this acted as the catalyst, giving the planners and modernists the opportunity they had long waited for. In many cases, beautiful buildings were destroyed simply because they were old, and the madness reached it’s apogee with the needless destruction of Euston station’s Doric arch in 1961. Harold Macmillan was personally lobbied on the matter, but refused. (Further proof, as if any were needed, that the Tories have never really been culturally conservative, instead being slaves to the modish fashions of the times.)
I am not sure, though, whether recommending Britain’s Lost Cities is the right thing to do to readers of TCW: not because it isn’t excellent, but because it is simply too painful to read in places for holiday literature. That said, if there is one note of encouragement in this otherwise sad tale, it is that although modernism looked insuperable at the time, a reaction against its bleakness and arrogance was eventually successful at halting the work of the wreckers. There is now even talk of rebuilding the Euston Arch. Let us draw comfort from that as we face our battles with political correctness and metropolitan liberalism today.