The Making of the Modern British Home: The Suburban Semi & Family Between the Wars
Oxford University Press 270pp £65
Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain
Old Street Publishing 474pp £25
These two books, while dissimilar in most ways, are united by their interest in mass building projects that transformed the look and character of British society and have since become part of popular mythology. Peter Scott’s The Making of the Modern British examines the building of millions of suburban semi-detached houses in interwar Britain, while John Grindrod’s Concretopia explores the postwar reconstruction of Britain in the shape of new towns, motorways, high-rise blocks and shopping centres, using the modernist materials of concrete, glass and steel. Both books usefully challenge received wisdoms about these two historical moments.
One of the main insights of Scott’s book is that, contrary to popular belief, the migration to semi-detached suburbia between the wars was not confined to the middle classes. Many skilled and semi-skilled workers also bought these houses, taking advantage of liberalised mortgage terms, the de-skilling of building trades and reduced housebuilding costs which allowed speculative developers to provide homes at unprecedentedly low prices.
As one might expect of a Professor of Business History, Scott is skilled at collating and interpreting statistics about housebuilding and home ownership. But he does not overlook the human side, drawing on many first-person accounts of people who moved to the suburbs during the 1920s and 1930s, culled from archives held in places such as local records offices, the Imperial War Museum and the Museum of London.
As well as investigating the building of these houses, Scott examines the changing lifestyles produced by mass suburbanisation, such as an emphasis on smaller, more socially restrained families and on household durables, which were exhibited in the estate show houses and advertised in the brochures. Scott devotes a fascinating chapter to the subject of gardening. Since the topsoil was often buried under builder’s rubble and sub-soil excavated for the house’s foundation, new suburban homeowners had to work hard to make their gardens grow anything, which is why potatoes were a common first crop, because they broke up the soil and brought stones to the surface. One housebuilder provided privet hedges, new homeowners being issued with leaflets on how to look after them, and others held best-kept garden competitions. The building of the suburban semis is a familiar story, but Scott tells it with panache and plenty of new research and insights.
Grindrod’s Concretopia is a personal book because the author grew up in New Addington, described here as ‘an inner-city housing estate abandoned in the country outside Croydon’. Challenging the accepted narrative that postwar modernist architecture is now our most visible articulation of a failed social experiment, his book is addressed to the ‘millions of people like me in Britain, who don’t recognise the village green, country cottage or Georgian square as the epitome of our nation, but whose identities have instead been moulded by concrete monstrosities or bad planning – or rather, the postwar optimism that sought to build a better future’.
The book becomes a series of journeys to the places most transformed by postwar reconstruction, such as the new towns of Cumbernauld and Milton Keynes, the rebuilt city centres of Plymouth and Coventry, and the system-built housing estates of Sheffield, Newcastle and Glasgow. It has a chronological spine, starting with the 1940s prefabs that made up Catford’s Excalibur Estate, many built by POWs, and ending with the Barbican and the National Theatre, which Grindrod argues were ‘a last push to create exciting and experimental public spaces, before responsibility for these kinds of projects shifted decisively away form public into private hands’. The most valuable aspect of the book is Grindrod’s account of his conversations with the residents, some now in their 90s, who first encountered these spaces.
Since Grindrod’s previous book was a humorous one about television, Shouting at the Telly, I was expecting something wry or light-hearted from Concretopia, along the lines of the Crap Towns franchise. In fact, he has written a thoughtful, scholarly, generous-minded and often touching book. What emerges from it is a more complicated picture than the popular idea of our postwar concrete landscape currently allows, one that takes in the sense of optimism and public-spiritedness that greeted these public spaces when they were first created, while acknowledging that many (but by no means all) of them are now unloved and uncared for.
Grindrod’s book is a timely one, as Urban Splash’s redevelopment of Sheffield’s Park Hill flats and the decision to award Preston Bus station a Grade II listing, preventing its planned demolition by the city council, invite reappraisal of this postwar landscape. There is a quietly political tone to Concretopia, written in a contemporary climate in which, as Grindrod puts it, ‘we have moved from the postwar nationalisation of land to build everything from new towns to motorways, into an era where almost everything we think of as public space is actually private land’. Indeed, in our current era of austerity and stalled housebuilding, both these books have an elegiac quality, looking back on confident and collectively-minded projects that sought to change people’s lives for the better.