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September 17 2017

September 13 2017

Concretopia by John Grindrod
"One of the back cover blurbs describes this as like eavesdropping on a conversation between Betjeman, Meades and Ballard. That’s balls, obviously; any such conversation would either rapidly detour away from architecture and end up as eg an exchange of filthy limericks, or else it would be an ill-tempered and waspish business. Whereas Grindrod is consistently genial – to the extent that early on, there are times one worries one may have fallen among Maconies. This is unfair; Grindrod may be a polite guide, but rather than reheating platitudes he’s making a firm yet never fundamentalist case for the architecture of post-war Britain. There’s a split to which the book keeps returning in the old London County Council’s architects and planners, between ‘hard’ modernism, in thrall to le Corbusier, and a ‘soft’ faction who looked more to Scandinavia. And if Meades is hard, Grindrod is definitely soft, but not soft in the head. To encapsulate the sensibility in one detail: an aside lets slip that he’s a St Etienne fan.

The story is to some extent a familiar one, but seldom in this detail or with this laudable balance. Grindrod gets into all the nitty gritty which tends to get left out when the Betjeman wing are in full flow, reminding us just how bad much of Britain’s surviving housing stock was after the War, and quite how fucked the roads were. He keeps an eye throughout on the level of rents, and the impact that had. He finds people who lived in even the most widely traduced new estates, such as those Gorbals monoliths, and loved them; even in the disastrous Ronan Point, about which who could avoid being accusatory, some residents at the time of the explosive collapse were happy to move back in once it was fixed up. But at the same time, he doesn’t try to deny that mistakes were made. Some were the unavoidable consequence of operating at the cutting edge; you’re not necessarily going to guess that the window seals fine on the first floor won’t do at all on the 31st. Others are less so: what kind of idiot builds a shopping centre in Cumbernauld, on a hill in Scotland, and leaves it open to the elements? Beyond that there’s the bigger picture, of humane and visionary architects, initially still running on the can-do energy which won the War, trying to build homes fit for heroes (a phrase puzzlingly absent from the text). But they must steer a middle path between the unduly grand schemes on one side, which place architectural purity above anything so tedious as ‘inhabitants’ or ‘actually, we’d prefer not to demolish the whole of central London’, and on the other that most mundane and pernicious foe, greed. Councils smile and nod at plans which include green space and fine amenities, then decide that actually they’d like more bums on seats well within their constituency, thanks, so down comes that wood and up goes an infill block. Croydon gets into a pissing contest with Birmingham over who has the most car-parks, for pity’s sake. Private developers want to pile it high, sell it cheap, and get around the limits placed on development (though not yet with the same dismal ease as they nowadays evade Section 106 ‘obligations' – there’s a real air-punching moment where one venal git gets told that if sticking to the rules means the development will no longer be commercial, then so be it - it’ll just have to be uncommercial). The caretakers and general TLC these buildings need start to look like easy line items to strike through when some pennies need saving. And that’s simple cheese-paring, before we get into outright corruption in some of the later chapters. Again and again, the buildings are let down; sometimes it’s in big ways (Milton Keynes’ missing monorail, or the running joke about helipads), more often the ship being spoiled for a ha’porth of tar. And of course, on one level we must be a little grateful; imagine if there had been the drive and funds to push through, say, the deranged plan to level Covent Garden. Or to back up this seventies Sunderland planner:
“All houses built before 1914 can and ought to be cleared in the next 10 years. We ought to have plastic houses that we can throw away after 20 years. Good God! We will be on the moon in 2000 and these houses were built when Charles Dickens was writing his novels.”

Still, for all that we might wish the pendulum between innovation and preservation didn’t make such erratic swings, for all that these projects were sold short and cut back and blown up, these are buildings whose firm lines I knew from the breezy illustrations in the pages of my Ladybirds and Children’s Encyclopaedia as I first learned about the world. So, like Grindrod, I see in them as much continuity as newness and strangeness; they’re part of my mental Britain just as surely as the castles and the cottages are. I bought my copy of Concretopia earlier this year, precisely because I found it for sale in one of the grand enterprises it extols, the Barbican. Just as appropriately, the book’s epilogue - a lovely closing elegy for a more optimistic time – was written there too, in 2013. The extra spoonful of sadness, of course, is that now even 2013 – Hell, even early 2016 – seems like a lost and more optimistic time. "

September 12 2017

September 11 2017

Small Island by Little Train by Chris Arnot Ade gave 3 stars to Small Island by Little Train: A Narrow-Guage Adventure (Hardcover) by Chris Arnot
bookshelves: partly-read
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.

September 10 2017

September 08 2017

September 03 2017

September 02 2017

September 01 2017

August 31 2017

August 30 2017

Small Island by Little Train by Chris Arnot Ade is on page 218 of 320 of <a href="/book/show/33814849-small-island-by-little-train">Small Island by Little Train</a>.
Ade wrote: Not a good sign when I find myself looking for any excuse to avoid reading more of a book. Finding this fairly shallow and unengaging.

August 29 2017

August 24 2017

Gorgeous early British Railways DMU
Llwyfan Cerrig station, Gwili Railway
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