Actions have consequences
Jeremy Melvin, 14 September 2021
A first and very enjoyable trip to the theatre since lockdown the other night – to our local theatre The Gatehouse in Highgate - to see ‘A Modest Little Man’, writes Jeremy Melvin. It provided an opportunity to reflect on the architectural consequences of Mr Attlee, the modest little man of the title who, as Winston Churchill famously responded, had ‘much to be modest about’.
These consequences were not modest. Indeed in many instances they are still with us here in the UK, shaping planning, regulation and the mythologies which bind architects together. To some extent they are responsible for architecture’s present woes, in respect of fees, voicelessness and marginalisation.
Playwright (and Attlee biographer) Francis Beckett does indeed depict Attlee as modest. Even the king (George VI) during the audience to appoint Attlee as prime minister can hardly get a word out of him, the most revealing being that he does not want a government driver, as his wife Violet, fortified by the odd boiled sweet he pops into her mouth, can do the job perfectly well and it allows them time together. ‘Clem, eh?’, the king says in frustration after the Attlees have left; ‘Clam would be more appropriate’.
But the royal misgivings are nothing compared to those of Attlee’s ministerial colleagues. His deputy Herbert Morrison (best remembered now as the grandfather of Peter Mandelson but a real power as deputy prime minister, Home Secretary and minister in charge of the Festival of Britain) even tries to dissuade Attlee from going to Buckingham Palace before the new parliamentary Labour Party, massively swollen by the 1945 General Election, have met to decide who should be leader. ‘Have you heard anything I said?’ Morrison and the other two ministers addressed, Hugh Dalton and Nye Bevan, continually conclude their beratings of ‘that little mouse’ (as they characterise Attlee) after getting at most a grunt of acknowledgement. ‘Clear as a bell’ Attlee replies before ignoring their views.
All this made for an enjoyable and psychologically convincing evening. As a playwright trying to contain the event to about 90 minutes, Beckett is perfectly entitled to limit the cast of characters and to focus on how Attlee – far brighter and more radical than his colleagues realised – manipulated them into taking on tasks they had not expected but for which, in some cases at least, they were well suited. He, an Oxford-educated barrister and son of a successful solicitor, had to deal on one hand with similarly public school and Oxbridge alumni, including old Etonian earls, as well of those of genuinely working class backgrounds who educated themselves like Morrison, Bevan and Ernest Bevin, who became foreign secretary.
Morrison, hoping to gain party support to replace Attlee, instead has to settle for running the nationalisation programme – as well as being deputy prime minister. Dalton had expected to be foreign secretary but on the king’s recommendation – at least in the play – becomes chancellor of the exchequer. He was, after all, a trained economist, and son of a chaplain to Queen Victoria who tutored George V and his brother. Hugh, according to rumour, never quite got over hearing the old Queen’s description of him as ‘Canon Dalton’s horrid little boy’.
Bevan didn’t anticipate any job at all in the new cabinet, but ended up as health secretary and minister for housing, perhaps because Attlee considered him the only person both radical and determined enough to get the NHS off the ground. His dual role recalls the close association between planning and health that had evolved over the previous century. Planning policy was one of Mr Attlee’s principal architectural consequences.
If Beckett forgivably ignores these architectural consequences, they were nonetheless broad, deep and in some cases long-lasting. Their traces, I suggest, are one of the main extant legacies of that government.
Many of them hinge around the formidably complicated issue of planning. The landmark in this is the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act, steered through parliament by Lewis Silkin, but drawing heavily on work by Patrick Abercrombie and William Holford. It introduced a uniform planning framework and powers across the whole country, replacing a diverse patchwork of national, and variable local regulations. It still forms the core of planning regulation today.
Among its numerous consequences, both intended and unintended, was the now much derided policy of zoning. Supposedly comparable activities would be grouped together so, especially in the case of industry, they did not sully more wholesome locations for housing or education. But commerce was also derided and so had to be conducted in restricted areas.’There will always be a place for private enterprise,’ Attlee tells the US Congress in an attempt to maintain their support. Yes, one might be tempted to reply, metaphorically somewhere between the rail yard and the sewage farm. It took Richard Rogers half a century later to convince policy-makers of the benefits of mixing commerce, leisure, culture and housing, so completely did this belief take hold in the policy-forming apparatus.
The effects of zoning still scar our towns and cities, but were and remain most apparent in the New Towns, another consequence of the Act. Planned as it were in vitro, these settlements could perfectly embody the urban visions of the utopians, Fabian socialists and other members of the disparate band who made up the government and its advisors.
But where did those visions come from? I would suggest three discernible roots. First, the understandable horror at what the industrial city had become by about 1900, unhealthy, inequitable and with benefits of large cities for education and leisure severely limited for many citizens. That segues into the second root, which is various proposals for a new type of urbanism, starting with the garden cities – a huge influence on the new towns – and continued into the CIAM view of cities expressed in the chilling urban visions of Le Corbusier and codified in the Charter of Athens.
The third root is another segue, but the most diffuse and complicated. This is the way the architectural and planning community (Abercrombie and Holford in particular) were able to inculcate the idea that physical planning, for which modernists had argued strongly in the 1930s without gaining much traction, was a version of economic planning, which had slowly been gaining ground in policy formation since the Macmillan Commission of the early 1930s and whose leading intellectual force was the apostle of economic planning, JM Keynes. Such was the prestige of economic planning resulting from its role in winning World War II, that physical planning could arise in its slipstream and bask in its reflected glory.
While the strictly architectural endeavours of Parker and Unwin at Letchworth have almost nothing in common with those of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, the essence of the garden city movement, as Mark Swenarton and others have shown, was highly influential on modernist thinking. So your average English Fabian of the mid 20th century, still reading Ruskin and steeped in the home-made lemonade, cycling and hand-woven knickerbockers of the first garden cities, could relate to the updated vision based on modernism, especially as they had been amply prepared for its apparent embrace of technology (and so ‘progress’) by the plethora of statistics and progressive tracts published by Penguin and Victor Gollancz.
Architectural modernism, at least as it was slowly introduced into the UK from the early 1930s, was presented as an indissoluble union between progress and technology. Technology had first introduced the means for a fairer society in the 19th century, but laissez-faire capitalism had perverted it and directed its fruits to the ruling class. It took the settlement offered by various forms of socialism to realise its public benefit.
Chief among these aims was the need to control land use, without which modernism could not flower and would be limited to producing one-off homes (to paraphrase FRS Yorke’s apologia for his subject matter in The Modern House). There were indeed attempts to overhaul physical planning legislation in the 1930s, but they gave scope to individual local authorities to devise their own systems. This fragmentation was a bugbear to the MARS Group of mainly young modernists, who in their exhibition of 1938 wanted, inter alia, to show the benefits of comprehensive spatial planning. Where public policy on this matter ran into a dead-end, they showed undue confidence in the standard, CIAM-esque, Charter of Athens type of urban planning which they absorbed more or less uncritically.
Meanwhile economic planning was making progress, largely through the efforts of Keynes, including (but not limited to) his contribution to the Macmillan Commission. That body was set up to consider how to ameliorate the consequences of the Great Depression, which had affected certain areas of the country far more than others. It was followed by the more important Barlow Commission, which was established in 1937 and reported in the inauspicious circumstances of May 1940. This second commission was explicitly established to consider physical planning as a function of economic planning, especially in respect of how to re-align centres of employment with those of population. Unusually, perhaps because government had other things on its mind when it reported, the minority report of the commission was adopted rather than the conclusions backed by the majority.
The minority report, largely the work of Patrick Abercrombie, argued for the establishment of a specialist Ministry of Town & Country Planning. That happened in 1942. Now all this may seem a long way removed from the Labour Government of 1945 or Mr Attlee in particular, and without having researched this in detail it is impossible to be definitive. However, Attlee was, from 1940, deputy prime minister, as leader of the opposition in the wartime coalition, and as such had a very free hand with domestic policy while his boss, Winston Churchill, focused on foreign policy and the war effort.
Indeed, when he became prime minister, Churchill had hoped Neville Chamberlain would oversee domestic policy though he was already gravely ill and died a few months later. So Attlee, fortified by the raft of socialist domestic thinking of the 1930s, inherited the role of domestic policy supremo almost by chance. And that chance he and his colleague seized. Many of the departments dealing with domestic policy had Labour ministers, which both helps to explain why Labour was better able to articulate a post-war vision in its 1945 election manifesto than the Conservatives, and inaugurated a kind of Gramscian long march of such policies through government and the civil service.
Several other wartime developments contributed to this combination of accident, assumption, unintended consequence and pious hope that underpinned the remarkably unplanned beliefs that fed planning policy. One was the successful culmination of the decades-long campaign to introduce registration for architects in the late 1930s. That meant that architects were clearly identifiable which made it far easier for their skills to be dovetailed with the war effort. FRS Yorke, for example, was advised shortly after the war broke out by the War Office that working as an architect would make a better contribution to the war effort than reviving his Territorial Army commission.
Yorke’s wartime experience typifies that of architects in general. He started by working for Holford on housing for munitions workers. Once it became clear that the allies were going to win but that some social and economic adjustment would be needed, he contributed to the housing programme, part of whose purpose was to allow industries that had grown during the war to adapt to peace – itself another product of economic planning. His own contribution was the more or less impractical steel-framed Braithwaite House, of which a pair were built and damaged by a flying bomb. It did not go into production, but it gave Yorke an opportunity to revise principles of domestic planning with which he had been toying before the war and stood him in good stead after it.
Space does not permit anything more than this brief indication of the association between spatial and economic planning. It is more or less unarguable, though, that it could not have happened without the need for government to plan and control building production because of the war. While economic planning was gaining credibility before 1939, the same cannot be said for spatial planning, except within the architecture and planning communities – and not even universally within them. But the utopian visions that modernism appeared to offer made it attractive to those thinking about what might happen after the war, and the contribution of architects to the wartime building programmes gave some credence to the idea that those visions could be grafted onto the planned post war economy and society.
This is one identifiable architectural consequence of Mr Attlee and others flow from it. The supposed kudos of being a registered profession and the technical skill it implied allowed architects more or less gradually to annex power for delivering social programmes that needed buildings, such as schools, homes and hospitals, as well as taking the lead in various new towns.
But another set of architectural consequences flowed from economic reality rather than economic planning. At the end of World War II, Britain faced an existential crisis of balance of payments and debt. It was totally dependent on renewing wartime loans from the US, which Congress had authorized only for the duration of the war, ie until Japan surrendered. It was generally accepted that paying them back immediately was impractical, but coming to a settlement was urgent, especially as Truman’s administration was not populated, like FDR’s, by ‘nice boys from Yale’, many of whom traced their ancestry back to 17th century puritanical scions of minor English gentry. They might even have spent a postgraduate year at Oxford or Cambridge, and their heiress cousins had already staged transatlantic financial rescues (of impecunious aristocrats). Instead, Truman’s administration consisted of hard-nosed, unsentimental mid-westerners who took congressional edicts more seriously than FDR ever did.
So poor old JM Keynes was again despatched to work his magical persuasion with the US Treasury and law-makers. During the autumn of 1945 he had to send stern messages to Attlee asking him to button up his ministers bragging about the new Jerusalem Britain was about to create. US law-makers would not authorize their voters’ tax dollars to be spent on such purposes, Keynes warned. Eventually Keynes worked just about the minimum magic necessary for survival but not really enough for a new Beersheba, let alone Jerusalem. Attlee and his ministers were determined to press ahead anyway. The consequence was that the entire Welfare State was not just built on the cheap, but had parsimony baked into its DNA.
There were specific architectural consequences. Programmes such as the Hertfordshire Schools were conceived to expend the least material and labour for maximum effect. The results were not just striking but drank deeply from another well of modernist mythology, minimalism, or existenz minimum, as it was rarely termed in late 1940s Britain. The point here is not to do down the achievements of that remarkable building programme, but to suggest that the close affinity between architecture, planning and policy formation – which came about in the crucible of war – meant that the specifically architectural ‘virtue’ of minimalism could cross over to become a justification for public parsimony. The success of the Hertfordshire schools strengthened rather than challenged this sleight of hand.
Another of Mr Attlee’s architectural consequences was unrealistically low budgets for public buildings, and the circular argument that the belief in architectural minimalism justifies them. Not surprisingly, given the ultimately misguided belief in architects’ technical mastery, maintenance was ignored completely, making the problem worse and massively increasing remedial costs when the inadequacies could no longer be ignored.
It is only necessary to look at how other Western European nations built their welfare states, generally a few years behind Britain once their economies, fortified by Marshall Aid (which Britain received but arguably squandered), had begun to recover. That meant they largely avoided the curse of minimal budgets and the self-referential dependence on architectural minimalism to justify them. So the British blight is specific to our country and not the product of unavoidable global conditions or some sort of zeitgeist.
So we can summarise the architectural consequences of Mr Attlee thus: a naïve belief in technology as an engine of social progress, which (coupled with a technocratic view of economic management) could deliver a New Jerusalem, despite straightened economic circumstances that privileged certain ultimately atavistic and hubristic architectural beliefs, such as technical prowess and registration (rather than, say, a professional ethos), as guarantors of architecture’s public benefit.
That much of this turned out to be nonsense goes without saying. That too many architects still believe that Attlee’s government and the settlement it sought is the apogee of their profession is apocryphal. But the failure such beliefs represent to engage with social, political and economic change helps to explain why architects are marginalized in their industry, voiceless in society, and in many cases economically challenged. Their foundational beliefs as architects are rooted in the very particular circumstances of the post-war period, as were the policies of that government. Neither have stood the test of time. Architects have followed the low road of nurses and teachers, rather than that pursued by lawyers and accountants in financial reward, and doctors in public recognition – despite having at least arguably, more to offer to both private and public sectors.
In an essay written in 1984, ‘Why is the Labour Party in a mess?’, the great social historian Gareth Stedman Jones points out that the party’s warring factions could agree on one point: the post-war Labour government represented a golden age. But by the time of writing, any proper assessment of it was clouded by nostalgia. Little seems to have changed since. Like the Labour Party, the architectural profession is still scarred by nostalgia for an era when fees were a fixed percentage of construction cost, architects ruled the roost and most were employed, directly or indirectly, by the state. All this can be traced back in part to the policies of Attlee’s government and their consequences for the profession.
So there you have it. The modest little man depicted by Francis Beckett, may indeed have had much to be modest about. But also, in hindsight, a great deal to be ashamed of too.