Residential Dreams

By Kenn Taylor

Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep our lost Elysium alive – rural
Middlesex again.1

So wrote John Betjeman in ‘Middlesex’, one of his poems that celebrated the suburbs north of London, suburbs which he further eulogised in his famous 1973 documentary, Metro-land.

The Metro-land he wrote of was created and branded as such by the Metropolitan Railway as it built its route out of London in the first half of the 20th century. The company famously promoted Metro-land aggressively and creatively, even having songs written that extolled the virtue of the new housing estates it built along the route of the line. A private precursor to today’s Stagecoach or FirstGroup, the Metropolitan Railway didn’t build Metro-land to inspire poets though, but to make money by selling the dream of country living to those who could afford it.

Metro-Land_(1921)

It was Metro-land I thought of as I explored the very different environment of Battersea Power Station. This monolithic exercise in brick by Giles Gilbert Scott is, after years of decay and dereliction, being turned into a new residential development with both Normal Foster and Richard Rogers working on elements of it. I was privileged to see it close up before its transformation and pleased that it would find a new use other than to decay into dust. Yet what struck me most as I wandered through, were the slogans on the brightly coloured construction hoardings around it, like those that accompany almost every major, high-density urban development these days:

A PLACE OF VISION AND MAJESTY; A THRIVING. DIVERSE AND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY; AN ICONIC RIVERFRONT ADDRESS; A CULTURAL POWERHOUSE

Just as the songs and pamphlets advertising Metro-land once promised, the hoardings around the Battersea Power Station development promote a lifestyle keenly desired by much of the aspirational middle class. It’s marketing of course and whether it’s a fridge, a car or a home, they long ago realised that if they sell you an idea, a dream and a lifestyle rather than just a product, you’re more likely to spend. What struck me in relation to housing though, was how ultimately those seeking a particular lifestyle via where they live often unthinkingly contribute to the very destruction of what it is they cherish most about it.

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In reality the creation of Metro-land saw fields torn up and replaced with row upon row of near identical housing. As Ross Clark notes:
“It was, of course, largely a con. The creation of Metro-land destroyed the very thing – open countryside – which was used to advertise it. The speculative homes thrown up around the new stations bore few resemblances to the Tudor cottages depicted in the advertising materials: most were dreary semis, constructed at great haste.”2

Rural ways of life were replaced by the thousands of commuters Betjeman references in ‘Middlesex’, leaving every morning to their work in the city via a concrete tube station and returning later to live out an image of the country idyll. For many, this is still the dream, a dream which year on year sees ever more green space turned into housing, driven by the desire of so many of us to have our own personal ‘lost Elysium’.

The tear between the respective lures of the country and the city is a long-held one. Yet in the decades since Betjeman wrote about the romance of certain suburbs, we have seen the emergence of a more contemporary dream of attaining a lifestyle via where you live. A new concept of Elysium that, just as 100 years ago, property developers are only to keen to sell to those with the means. That is the lifestyle of living in a THRIVING, DIVERSE AND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY and a CULTURAL POWERHOUSE such as is now promised at Battersea. One of the key things to open up Battersea to new residential development is its new tube station. Just as 100 years ago connectivity drives forward the residential property market, only now it is inward rather than outward expansion, driven by the growth in desire for ‘inner city living’.

This desire for a certain kind of urban living that has ‘cultural authenticity’ dates perhaps from the same 1960s when John Betjeman was writing of his distaste for the demolition of Victorian and Georgian buildings for new developments influenced by Modernism.

Many of the people who backed Betjeman’s cause were amongst the first ‘gentrifiers’. A section of society identified by sociologist Ruth Glass who coined the term in 1964. Just a couple of years in fact before Betjeman led the way in saving from demolition the Neo-Gothic Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras designed by George Gilbert Scott – father of Battersea Power Station designer, Giles. In this era Glass noted the changing demographic of the urban environment in North London not far from St Pancras: “One by one, many of the working class neighbourhoods of London have been invaded by the middle-classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences…Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly, until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”3

The suburban dream of Metro-land began to be less desirable for some by the 1960s, while the inner-city, where, in the earlier 20th century at least, people only generally lived if they could not manage to live elsewhere, began to be seen as more attractive.
The inner city did physically change around this time and became more ‘liveable’. For example, the thick pollution of central London was significantly reduced by the likes of the decline of manufacturing and the Clean Air Act.4 Yet, the kind of ‘culture’ offered by inner city living remained key to this shift.

In the essay ‘The Birth of Gentrification’, Lees, Slater and Wyly note it was the likes of Betjeman himself that began this trend:
“In both the United States and in Britain, post-war urban renewal meant the bulldozing of old neighborhoods to be replaced by modern housing and highways. As the destruction spread, so did the rebellion against it. In the beginning the protesters were mainly historians and architecture buffs, but slowly these were joined by young, middle-class families who bought and lovingly reconditioned beat-up, turn-of-the-century houses in ‘bad’ neighborhoods.”5

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As I have discussed previously here, ‘creatives’ play a key role in increasing the societal desire for such lifestyles. For years artists, critics and the like left the ‘comfortable’ suburbs in search of the ‘truth’ and the ‘real’ in the inner city, most of all what they perceived as CULTURE, especially for the mega cities of London and New York. Or rather, they headed for the ‘outer’ inner city, away from actual centres of business, tourism and authority, but not so far out as to live in the middle-class suburbs. They moved to areas by and large populated by people who could not afford to live either in the centre or the suburbs.

It was these fringe places that were seen as the ultimate reality, the edge of capitalism, aside from the bourgeois self-satisfaction and complacency of the suburbs and the glitzy but false centre. In these locations, artists could live cheaply and relatively free, with plenty of space for venues, studios, galleries, parties, etc. Such locations became the home of a class of people who came from all over to take up what they saw as ‘authentic’ urban lifestyles. This process expanded as continued post-war industrial decline made such locations even less economically viable and desirable to many than they already where.

As young artists mature though, they usually begin to have changing priorities; they pair off, have children, and settle. Some move out to Metro-land or its equivalents, but others stay and frequently end up transforming the area around them into something quasi-suburban. This has led to a strange phenomenon, where, in many respects, the city centre fringe has in fact become the new suburbs. Locations which are then sold as the ideal spot to live for those who wish, and have the means, to buy straight in to a ‘culturally developed’ area. This was noted by Ruth Glass: “Urban, suburban and rural areas have thus become encouraged to merge into one another; and they have lost some of their differentiating features.”6

After successive waves of people seeking such a lifestyle from the 1960s onwards, year by year the urban cultural authentic dream has become more and more removed from reality. Gentrifiers made such areas more desirable and thus eventually more expensive, leading to the displacement of poorer residents. This prevented new ‘creative pioneers’ from settling and so forced them to seek new places to occupy. Focusing on London, the areas identified by Glass in the 1960s, such as Islington, were fairly quickly transformed out of the reach of new would-be urban authentics. So soon they moved onto other areas of North London, then later East London, now on even further out to the likes of Peckham and Camberwell in South London. This phenomenon was predicted by Bruce London and John Palen back in 1984: “Current urban neighbourhoods are generally sited favourably within the city, having good transport access to the central business district…The future of the renovation movement, and in fact the ultimate future of the city as a place of residential choice, will depend to the extent to which restoration and renovation become increasingly widespread.”7 And so it did.

Where the artists lead, the capitalists capitalise, selling the opportunity to live in A CULTURAL POWERHOUSE to those who can afford it, albeit perhaps one with security gates between the property and the DIVERSE COMMUNITY. The term ‘village’ is often bandied about in such developments, for those who wish to combine the security and order of a ‘village’ with just enough of an ‘urban cultural’ feel, just enough of a ‘village’ feel, just enough of an ‘urban cultural’ feel, and so and so forth, with New York’s Greenwich Village as the archetype.

Yet such areas are neither villages nor urban cultural powerhouses. These new ‘suburbs’ are literally Metroland, the city as fantasy consumer product. Gradually, the ‘authenticity’ and ‘edginess’ that generated the desire for many to live in such locations declines and, more often than not, they become home to a wealthy monoculture, living in generic apartment blocks with, if you have the means to afford it, ‘heritage features’. A carefully managed version of the city, created for those who wish to embody a particular lifestyle by those with an interest in profiting from land. The expensive done-up terraces of East London, previously occupied by the industrial working classes, are now nearly as desired in the property market as Cotswold thatched cottages were forty years ago by those seeking a country idyll in somewhere previously occupied by the rural poor.

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Indeed the strong relationship in ‘authentic culture seeking’ between the desire for a rural Elysium of a previous generation and the newer search for an urban Elysium was noted by Irving Allen in the 1980s:
“If the older generation looked to the suburbs for romantic middle-class communities that represented a new way of life, some members of the young generation may well be looking to cities for romantic middle-class communities that represent an alternative to the suburbs…it is safe to assume that many of the new settlers are seeking a selective, buffered, and entertaining encounter with the social diversity of city life. Their parents sought a selective, buffered, and entertaining encounter with small-town and ‘rural’ life.”8

This desire to attain authenticity through your residential location is always tempered by the fact that this desire is in itself pretty inauthentic. As chronicler of the gentrification of New York’s old warehouses into ‘artists’ lofts’, Sharon Zukin, pointed out, “Only people who do not know the steam and sweat of a real factory can find industrial space romantic or interesting.”9 As someone whose grandfather, an agricultural labourer, died short of his 65th birthday, the same could be said for the idea of the rural idyll.

Metro-land cut Mock Tudor furrows through rural Middlesex and sold former city dwellers the country dream to the point that what they liked about that countryside largely disappeared. So to the developers of the late 20th century sold the urban dream to those who fled the Metro-land suburbs, to the point were these new residents ended up helping to drive away what it was they perceived to be authentic about the city. Replacing it with non other than a more high-density version of suburbia, packaged, just as Metro-land was, with slogans promising a life that has already disappeared, if it ever even existed.

An interesting shift in the path of urban gentrification in recent years however is the type of property that fuels such dreams. With many of those Georgian and Victorian buildings so beloved in the 1960s now out of the reach of would-be gentrifiers, not to mention this generation rejecting as ever the fashions and social mores of the previous, a new gentrifier generation has emerged that now embraces rather than is repulsed by Modernism. To these rebellious aesthetes, the Brutalist architectural works by the likes of Erno Goldfinger and Alison and Peter Smithson, once reviled by gentrifiers for their role in the destruction of old neighbourhoods, are the new objects of residential desire. To be just as strongly defended from the ‘cretins’ who care not for the architecture of the immediate past and its association with poverty as Georgian and Victorian properties once were.

As Ruth Glass noted 18th and 19th century housing once occupied by working class people becoming home to wealthy residents, so today former concrete social housing like Trellick Tower in West London and Sheffield’s Park Hill, the latter renovated by trendy property firm Urban Splash, become home to new creative pioneers keen on a new type of character property. That is of course once they have been ‘done up’, just as the former ‘slums’ were, and filled with graphic-designed Brutalist tribute mugs and, if you can afford it, original 60s brightly coloured Hygena Formica kitchen cabinets. Such fashions no doubt inspired in part by the likes of Owen Hatherley writing of the poetry of curving, rain-stained concrete car parks just as John Betjeman writing of the soot-covered Gothic Revival spires of the Midland Grand helped inspire the ‘Victoriana’ of a previous generation.

As a past generation saw new possibilities and a sense of nostalgia for the 19th century city as a reaction against collapsing Modernist ideology, so this generation is filled with nostalgia for the Modernist vision of utopia as Neo-Liberalism crumbles. Connected to this is a lament by many artists and critics for the ‘lost nobility’ of industrial communities. A community and culture increasingly of the past as the people who embodied it have often left the inner city with the decline of the industries that they once relied on, while many of those who stayed are now often being pushed out by gentrification. An idealised vision of industrial communities looms large in the work of those who, as ever, find distaste with contemporary culture and people they see as ‘corrupted’ by consumerism, having left their ‘authentic’ lives connected to industry.

Of course, it is ironic that an earlier generation of artists and critics felt that same sort of nobility and authenticity was to be found outside of the city. In the 1800s the likes of William Morris, William Wordsworth, John Ruskin and the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood promoted the authenticity of the rural over the rapidly developing and industrialising cities, even of course as they often sold their expensive works of art to wealthy industrialists. They lionised their imagined experience of ‘peasant’ life in the countryside and despaired of those who left for better pay in urban areas and became ‘corrupted’ by industrialisation. These creatives of the past promoted a romantic nostalgia for a more rural past they usually had little direct experience of just as today’s generation of artists often romanticise the industrial inner-urban era without really knowing it.

Many artists in Victorian times headed out of the cities to embody a certain type of lifestyle they held up as the ideal and thousands followed them. With the market demand that they helped to create fulfilled by developers like those behind Metro-land. To the point that ‘rural Middlesex’ literally no longer existed, the county being absorbed by Greater London in 1965. In reality, agricultural workers were often only too keen to leave the country for better pay as industry and urban life grew and, generations later, many inner-city industrial workers were only too keen to leave those Victorian dwellings, if not their neighbourhoods so much, for better housing. Thus as people try to live out their own version of a perceived past authenticity in these vacated spaces, in both cases, the original occupiers were, in general, moving on to better opportunities.

Scott Greer considered the ideology which rejects the contemporary for an imagined better past, whether urban or rural, labelling it as ‘conservative utopian’: “At one time they believed the rural life to be the only one fit for man, the city evil. Today they remain fixated on the past, but it is now the dense, polyethnic, centralized city of the railroad age.”10 As the Romantics inadvertently brought urbanism to the country and the first gentrifiers the suburbs to the city, so now the Modernist urban fringe is the new frontier. Yet this generation’s dreams will likely have as similar unintended consequences as previous ones as they look back to a supposed better past without the knowledge of what was wrong with it.

So while those with the means pursue their urban and rural residential dreams, those keen as ever to be seen to be on ‘the edge’ and reject society’s current conventions, look for new marginal spaces. The latest move it seems is to find fascination with the liminal space beyond the suburbs; the new towns, isolated estates and small, post-industrial towns that remain resolutely unfashionable and ‘off the grid’. Literally in some cases in relation to transport: Metro-land is yet to arrive there. Some of these locations, in particular some ex-seaside towns, show signs of the same gentrifying change, but many others, often a long way from work and central cities, have become the only places that retain a perceived authenticity. Witness London chronicler Iain Sinclair’s growing interest in the outer fringes of the capital documented in his book London Orbital. Especially so now that the Hackney area he lives in that had formed the basis for much of his work has long succumb to gentrification due to the likes of, well, people like Iain Sinclair moving there.

Sinclair moved to Hackney from his native Wales after study at Trinity College Dublin, Courtauld Institute and London Film School. His criticisms of the development of the Olympic Park in East London and the loss of ‘fringe space’ around the Lea Valley were dissected somewhat on Channel 4 News by Paralympian Basketball player Ade Adepitan, who grew up in Newham, having been born in Nigeria. One gentrifier’s ‘exciting edge’ is of course another resident’s reason to fear for their family and the following exchange reveals a great deal about dreams and realities in gentrification:

Ade Adepitan: “I lived on Carpenters Road, did you see all those dodgy garages, cut and shut?”
Iain Sinclair: “I loved all those dodgy garages!”
Ade Adepitan “Well I was worried about my mum walking home at night on that dark street.”11

Authenticity is always greener on the other side and the more people try to embody a particular lifestyle through property and escape what they perceive as contemporary corruption, the more they corrupt what it is they try to inhabit. As John Betjeman once wrote of the loss of rural idyll and Victorian wonders so today the press is littered with tomes on the loss of inner city culture and authenticity, almost inevitably penned by the same people who began such changes.

The urban life those billboards in Battersea promise is just a much a fantasy as that sold in the songs of Metro-land nearly 100 years ago and just as alluring. One selling the dream of open air, health, greenery, space and peace, the other of connectivity, currentness, vibrancy and culture. As Tristan Hunt notes, “From the beginning, suburbia was more a state of mind than geographical location.”12 ‘Inner city living’ is just as much of an escapist fantasy as the suburbs. The difference perhaps, is that Metro-land’s housing was quite a bit more accessible than many of the inner-city flats now being sold. As Ross Clark notes, a Metro-land home could be “sold for as little as £400 each. Modern first-time buyers can only dream: that is equivalent to just £20,000 in today’s money.”13 Far less that what you’ll have to pay to live in Rogers or Foster’s CULTURAL POWERHOUSE in Battersea.

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Of course, some do protest at all of this. Foxtons, the high-end estate agent associated with gentrification, has had its branches vandalised while Country Life magazine seems keen on extolling the virtues of country life, that is as long as not too many other people have access to it and ruin it for them. Yet since Ruth Glass first noted gentrification, save for some successful islands of resistance and peaks and troughs cause by recession, the market forces of Britain continue to drag development in both directions to sell everyone who can afford it the country dream or the city dream, or, if you have enough capital, both, however diluted dreams both have become.

The more it turns the more London in particular is transformed into a total fantasy. An urban playground for those with the means, Metroland now attracts wealthy people now from as far afield as Russia, Dubai, France and Australia. Just as it span outwards to the original London ‘outer suburbs’ of St John’s Wood and Hampstead on to Ruislip Gardens, Milton Keynes and Basildon, then back inward from Islington to Camden to Shoreditch to Peckham to Barking to wherever next, maybe even out again to Birmingham if HS2 gets built. Everyone keeps on chasing, hoping that, if they try hard enough, they will get their own little residential dream, whatever happens to anyone else. And those who paint pictures of our perfect lifestyle remain only too keen to sell us the ticket to our dream and tell us, Elysium is still waiting.

An abridged version of this eassy was published on Thinking City in March 2015.

References
1. Betjeman, J., 1954. Middlesex. In: Hunt, T., 2009. The suburbs are derided by snobs, yet they offer hope for our future [Online]. London: The Guardian. Available at: <URL:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jul/19/suburbs-snobbery&gt; [Accessed 6th November 2014].
2. Clark, R., 2006. Betjeman’s metro-land revisited [Online]. London: The Daily Telegraph. Available at: <URL:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/3353156/Betjemans-metro-land-revisited.html > [Accessed 6th November 2014].
3. Glass, R., 1964. London: aspects of change. In: Lees, L. Slater, S. and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.4.
4. WIKIMEDIA FOUNDATION INC, 2014. Clear Air Act 1956 [Online]. San Francisco: WIKIMEDIA. Available at: [Accessed 6th November 2014].
5. Lees, L. Salter, S. and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.5.
6. Glass, R., 1989. Cliches of Urban Doom. In: Lees, L. Slater, S. and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.130.
7. London, B. and Palen, J. Gentrification, Displacement and Neighbourhood Revitalization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, p.11.
8. Allen, I.L., 1984. The Ideology of Dense Neighbourhood Redevelopment. In: London, B. and 9. Palen, J. Gentrification, Displacement and Neighbourhood Revitalization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, p.35.
10. Zukin, S., 1989. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. In: Lees, L., Salter, S., and Wyly, E. Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2008, p.121.
11. Greer, S., 1972. The Urbane View: Life and Politics in Metropolitan America. In: London, B., and Palen, J. Gentrification, Displacement and Neighbourhood Revitalization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, p. 28.
12. INDEPENDENT TELEVISION NEWS, 2012. What next for the Olympic Park? [Online]. London: ITN. Available at: [Accessed 4th November 2014].
13. Hunt, T., 2009. The suburbs are derided by snobs, yet they offer hope for our future [Online]. London: The Guardian. Available at: <URL:http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jul/19/suburbs-snobbery&gt; [Accessed 6th November 2014].
14. Clark, R., 2006. Betjeman’s metro-land revisited [Online]. London: The Daily Telegraph. Available at: <URL:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/3353156/Betjemans-metro-land-revisited.html > [Accessed 6th November 2014].

Liverpool Resurgent

Lewis’s department store, Modernism, destruction and restoration

By Kenn Taylor

Standing prominently on the corner of Ranelagh Street and Renshaw Street in Liverpool, the huge former Lewis’s department store is currently enveloped in plastic sheeting. Soon it will re-emerge as part of the Central Village development, but for now, what was formerly Liverpool’s grandest shop, and its unique Modernist features, remains covered up.

The store, no connection to the John Lewis Partnership, was founded in Liverpool by David Lewis in 1856 and expanded to Manchester in 1877. Lewis was known as a philanthropist and, after his death in 1885, his will paid for the David Lewis Theatre and Hostel on the edge of Toxteth in Liverpool and in Manchester, a centre for people with Epilepsy, whose successor still bears his name.

After David Lewis’s heirs, the Cohen family, took over, Lewis’s expanded rapidly, opening stores across the country in first half of the twentieth century. The Liverpool store was rebuilt and expanded in 1923 to a design by Gerald De Courcey Fraser, becoming one of the biggest in the UK. However, Lewis’s forward march was to be halted by the Second World War. On 3rd May 1941, during Liverpool’s infamous May Blitz, the store was almost entirely destroyed, part of the aerial assault that would see Liverpool become the most bombed city outside of London.

Post war, Lewis’s was keen to regain its position as the grandest store in Liverpool. De Courcey Fraser designed the replacement for his previous building, beginning in 1947. The store apparently began to trade again prior to construction being completed – there are stories of shop staff clambering over rickety scaffolding between sections in pre ‘health and safety’ days.

Only the furthest part of the building down Renshaw Street, the ‘Watson Building’, which at one point housed a car showroom, was retained from the older, more decorative 1920s building. The remainder was completely rebuilt of steel framed construction, clad in largely flat and imposing Portland stone; the Lewis’s name carved into the side and picked out in gold.

To mark the reconstruction, Lewis’s commissioned sculptor Jacob Epstein to create a new artwork for the prominent corner section of the building between Renshaw and Ranelagh Streets.  A pioneer of Modernism in sculpture, Epstein had once been a controversial figure, causing scandal in 1931 by exhibiting a statue of a pregnant woman called ‘Genesis’ in Liverpool’s Bluecoat Arts Centre. The curious, some 50,000 of them in four weeks, paid sixpence each to see it. By the 1950s though, Epstein was something of an elder statesman in the arts.

However, this didn’t mean he had lost the power to shock. On 20th November 1956, the statue commissioned by Lewis’s to symbolise “the struggle and determination of Liverpool to rehabilitate itself after the grim, destructive blitz years”. (Evening Express, 1956) and entitled ‘The Spirit of Liverpool Resurgent’ was unveiled. It was a large naked man standing up on the prow of a ship. Apparently the sudden sight of the naked statue caused some people to faint and a war of words for and against its artistic merits and morality began in the newspapers. Locally meanwhile, the statue quickly gained the nickname ‘Dickie Lewis’.

However, ‘Liverpool Resurgent’ wasn’t the only Modernist feature of the new Lewis’s and the company’s desire to embody the post war optimism. The interior of the store was filled with cutting edge design features, none more so than in its catering facilities situated on the upper floors of the huge building.

Lewis’s Liverpool store was a complex in itself, with around 1,300 staff at its height. It contained its own bank, pet store, hair salon and travel agency alongside the usual department store fare, and the scale of its catering facilities reflected this. There were several eateries, each aimed at different ‘classes’ of shopper and each containing striking Modernist features, the likes of which must have been a rare sight to the war-battered austerity Liverpool of the 1950s.

Perhaps most notable was the self-service cafeteria. This contained large tiled murals designed by Carter’s of Poole, which later became the famous Poole Pottery. The murals featured bold and abstract designs of food, crockery, cutlery and kitchen utensils. Added to this were geometric light fittings with hints of the atoms and space themes that were so popular in the 1950s, and vibrant colours throughout. These designs apparently all inspired by the restaurant at the 1951 Festival of Britain, an event which is credited by many with ushering Britain into the Modern age.

However, the cafeteria was not alone. For the middle classes there was The Mersey Room waitress service restaurant. This contained etched wooden panelling depicting the history of Liverpool created by the influential Design Research Unit, the outfit behind such design classics as the British Rail logo and a key player in the Festival of Britain. The grandest eatery of all though, was the Red Rose Restaurant, which was silver service and aimed very much at the wealthiest of Lewis’s patrons. This featured a striking bronze sculpted screen depicting the Wars of the Roses created by Mitzi Cunliffe, perhaps best known for her design for the BAFTA Award statuette.

With the opening of these eateries, Lewis’s was at its peak, in an era before internet shopping, supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks. Generations of Liverpudlians have strong memories of its huge range and good service. Perhaps most of all, many people remember the grand Christmas grotto and meeting future wives and husbands under Epstein’s ‘statue exceedingly bare’.

For employees, there are memories of a benevolent employer that provided ‘a job for life’, where whole families would work together, and that even paid for its own sports fields on the edge of town. By the 1960s Lewis’s even owned London’s Selfridges and opened a Modernist tile-fronted store on the Blackpool waterfront in its continued expansion.

By the 1970s though, the company’s fortunes began to wane. For all their investment in cutting edge design in the 1950s, Lewis’s subsequently failed to adapt to changing markets. One by one its branch stores closed and the floorspace began to be reduced at its flagship Liverpool site. When the Red Rose Restaurant was closed in 1986, its bronze screen was acquired by Cunliffe and reinstalled at her home in Seillans, France. However, the remaining Modernist features in the building were sealed up and forgotten, the disused floors being used for storage.

In 2008 photographer Stephen King entered the lift of the slowly dying department store and was greeted by the attendant (yes, in Lewis’s they still had lift attendants). They sparked up a conversation and King was told about the abandoned upper floors still containing their original 1950s interiors. King made it his mission to explore and photograph them, his project culminating in a book and exhibition entitled ‘Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story’.

As fate would have it, the opening of the exhibition in 2010 coincided with the final closure of Lewis’s after 150 years and the show became a focal point for former staff and customers to reminisce about what had been the greatest store in Liverpool, if not the UK. Luckily, during one of Lewis’s pervious crises in 2007, the building had been Grade II listed, meaning its historic features were protected.

The Lewis’s building is now being incorporated by developers Merepark into a huge scheme called Central Village, opening in 2013. This will see the creation of shops, offices, hotels, eateries and a cinema, as well as a rebuilt Central Station. The overall façade of the building is being retained, including the Epstein statue, and, though internally it will be largely unrecognisable as the old Lewis’s, its remaining Modernist features will be restored. Most prominently, the former cafeteria with its tiled murals and geometric lights will become the Breakfast Bar of the Adagio hotel, while the panelling from The Mersey Room will be refitted to one of the hotel’s corridors.

It’s ironic perhaps that it was the decline of both Lewis’s and the Liverpool economy that saw these features preserved. Elsewhere, the building would have long been completely stripped for a new use before listing would have even been considered. Lewis’s is sorely missed, but at least elements of its proud history are being retained in a development that symbolises Liverpool, if not resurgent, then at least looking again to the future.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to everyone who worked on ‘Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story’, especially Stephen King for the use of his images, and Merepark for the information on the current development.

This is an extended version of a piece that appeared in The Modernist magazine in December 2012. 

Stephen King Photography – Lewis’s Fifth Floor.

Railways, Red Barrel and Robin Hood

Interrogating the Modernist revival 

By Kenn Taylor

With the recent campaigns to save Preston’s Bus Station, Birmingham’s Central Library and Portsmouth’s Tricorn Shopping Centre. Not to mention the emergence of Manchester’s The Modernist magazine, books like Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism and critic Jonathan Glancey’s numerous broadsheet eulogies, it seems that we are now going through a period of revisionism in relationship to the Modernist architecture of the 1960s and 70s. That which was reviled by so many for so long is now being venerated.

It many respects this is inevitable. In the cycles of something changing from ‘old fashioned’ to ‘classic’ in the public consciousness, 30 or 40 years usually about does it. It’s also about time. This period of architecture produced many fine buildings of international importance in Britain’s towns and cities, and too many of these have already been lost to indifference. We must protect the best examples of buildings from whatever era from the mere whims of fashion. How much great Art Deco architecture was destroyed, like the Firestone factory in West London, before we realised its value?

Yet, despite the need to acknowledge the importance and value of such buildings, I don’t think we can truly celebrate the best architecture and design of the post-war Modern era without simultaneously acknowledging the failures.

This was starkly highlighted to me when I visited an exhibition held at the Liverpool School of Art in 2011 – Design Research Unit 1942-72. You may never have heard of the Design Research Unit (DRU) but you will know its work. Their 1965 British Rail logo is still used on every station in Britain, now no longer the brand of the long defunct British Railways Board, instead a generic symbol for railways, and probably DRU’s most prominent legacy.

Their other work was as many and varied as it was influential, as the exhibition displayed. Ranging from the interior of the P&O ocean liner Oriana and sections of the 1951 Festival of Britain, to the ICI logo and the 1968 City of Westminster street signs, which have become as an integral part of London’s streetscape as red buses and black taxis.

The DRU was formed in 1943 by the poet and art critic Herbert Read, architect Misha Black and the graphic designer Milner Gray. It was arguably the first multidisciplinary design agency in the UK, working across architecture, products and graphic design. The DRU was a product of the Modernist belief in the power of the new and optimism for the possibilities of the post-war era. Founded to help build a new Britain after the horrors of war and depression, when everyone, designers included, was desperate to break with the past.

For me though, the most telling part of the exhibition was that which looked at Milner Gray’s work for London’s Watney Mann brewery in the 1950s and 60s. Watneys commissioned DRU to provide a coherent look for its huge range of premises. In response, Gray developed a new identity with five different types of lettering and decoration to be used, depending on the architectural style of each public house. Watneys new signage used a ‘slab serif’ font made in pressure-formed plastic, a style which soon became a high-street craze.

Yet, despite its pioneering nature, to me the Watneys project highlights the negative aspect of not only DRU’s work, but the wider failures of Modernist design. After it, many other breweries adopted similar makeover schemes in a period which saw many pubs have their individual characteristics, developed over decades, ripped out in favour of a plasticised standardisation. Designs imposed from on high that reflected little of the culture or history of where they were being dropped in. Looking only modern and fresh for a brief time, before ageing poorly due to changes in fashion and the low quality of the materials they were made of.

Watneys thrusting attitude towards modernisation even spread to their beer, with the revulsion against the mass-produced blandness of its Red Barrel ‘modern’ keg beer helping to spark the foundation of the Campaign for Real Ale and its fight for traditional, quality, regional brews.

Even looking at the simple brilliance of DRU’s British Rail logo, the over-arching brand identity they developed for the railway often took no account of the great diversity of historic architecture that it was being pasted on. It also reflected the wider ‘modernisation’ of Britain’s railways that saw the destruction in the 1960s of many historic stations, including London Euston, which was replaced with the Modernist mediocrity that greets me on every trip to the capital. Euston’s uninspiring shopping arcade descending into dank concrete platforms stands in negative contrast to the still stunning Victorian glass barrel roofs of Liverpool Lime Street which I meet at the other end of the line.

As well as being its strength, Modernist architecture and design’s ubiquity, utopianism, universalism and uniformity were also its undoing. In trying to re-make everything and escape the horrors of recent history, it destroyed not only what was bad of the past, but what was good as well. With a missionary zeal that also saw a huge chunk of Britain’s Victorian and Georgian architecture demolished, one of the reasons that 60s Modernism is still so despised by so many today.

Many of the arguments around supporting such Modernist architecture seem to hang on the idealism and optimism that surrounded such buildings. In contrast to the cynical vapidness and blandness of so much contemporary ‘lassiez-faire’ architecture that is in many cases replacing Brutalist post-war structures.

Yet such bland homogenisation is just as resplendent in much of the worst of mediocre Modernism as it is in any contemporary neo-liberal urban development. Neither does such thinking acknowledge the dark arrogance that underpinned the philosophies of Modernist design; that educated elites could engineer the world into a utopia through planning and design. The idea that an internationalist aesthetic could be imposed on a specific culture and that it would ‘improve’ the people living amongst it.

Interestingly, this resurgence in the support for Modernist architecture is almost the same as in the 1960s, when civic worthies first really began to fight to save Georgian and Victorian heritage from redevelopment. This was inevitably led by middle class outsiders, whilst many living in such areas were glad to see the back of such buildings, even if they disliked being moved from old neighbourhoods to new estates. So now, while many are now striving to protect Modernist buildings, they are rarely are the ones who have to shop in Portsmouth, get a bus in Preston or borrow a library book in Birmingham. It is precisely this placing of aesthetics and ideas over people and function that caused so much Modernist architecture to fail.

I saw this illustrated glaringly in a Guardian article by curator and writer Stephen Bayley, about the attempt to preserve from demolition the Brutalist concrete housing complex, Robin Hood Gardens, in a deprived part of East London: “the unintelligent housing policies of Tower Hamlets populated Robin Hood Gardens with the tenants least likely to be able to make sensible use of the accommodation. We have to whisper it, but the Unité d’Habitation [Famous Modernist housing block in Marseilles] works because it is populated by teachers, psychologists, doctors, graphic designers, not by single mothers struggling with buggies.” This is a striking example of an aesthete criticising a deprived population for not being appreciative of what they have been ‘given’. Whilst forgetting the very reason such buildings were constructed was to improve living conditions for poor families, something which they have so often resolutely failed to do.

Meanwhile, fellow Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins pointed out that nearly 80% of Robin Hood’s residents wanted the estate demolished and rebuilt so they could stay in the neighbourhood and, even more tellingly, that no one on the preservation campaign actually lives there. Its brash, Brutalist structures may look impressive, yet apparently remain not great to live in.

We should acknowledge the positives of the Modern era. It pioneered techniques and materials we now take for granted and saw many important buildings and designs produced in what was a high point of British construction and production. Yet we cannot view it through rose-tinted spectacles.

The people behind such designs may have truly believed they were making places better for ordinary people, but their bold visions were in many ways also arrogant, and have so often failed. You cannot celebrate the visual power and utopianism of post-war Modernist design without acknowledging how quickly all that decayed and how much that negatively affected many people’s lives. Just as preservationists of the Victorian era who emphasise its pioneering, graceful designs should also acknowledge the poverty, repression and exploitation that marked that era also.

Looking back at that Design Research Unit exhibition, its final section was about how the DRU’s headquarters, a standard-looking brick office building in London’s Aybrook Street, were given a radical, brightly coloured, rooftop extension by the then young architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers in 1972. Piano and Rogers of course went on to design the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, one of the most influential buildings of the late 20th century and a pioneer of Post-Modern architecture.

Today, that dramatic extension of Aybrook Street has been re-covered in something bland and grey, more in keeping with the style of the older building, its Modernist zeal hidden as if in embarrassment. This is a shame, we should not just cover up or destroy this era of architecture, if it is still of use, but when we look at it, not only remember the power and vision of its designs, but also the danger, as ever, of rapid, destructive change, of putting ideas above people, or of believing in grand solutions, imposed from on high, to any problem. We should preserve these buildings to remind us of our past, not just the good, but the bad as well.

This piece appeared on cities@manchester, a blog of the University of Manchester, in May 2012.

The Memory of a Hope

The boom and bust of Council housing and the Modernist ideal

By Kenn Taylor

“Ideology collapses and vanishes, utopianism atrophies, but something great is left behind: the memory of a hope”. Henri Lefebvre.

As a child, on every walk to and from my Primary School, I would pass a large plaque that fascinated me:

 The Woodchurch Estate

On completion will contain the houses and other buildings necessary to the fully developed life of a community of some 10,000 persons. The land was formerly part of the Royden Estate and was purchased by the Birkenhead Corporation in 1926. Building operations were inaugurated in 1946.

That plaque, on the first house built on the estate, I have no doubt helped spark what would become my fascination for history, a desire to know just why things were the way they were. Its hope, for a new community started a year after the end of World War II, also resonated with me.

Older, and my curiosity having pushed me towards an understanding of Modernism and social housing, I came to realise how standing on the edge of the valley where I grew up, between Arrowe Park and Bidston Hill in Birkenhead, it was possible to look upon the rise and fall of Modernist social housing.

The Woodchurch estate began construction immediately after WWII, a shortage of wood meaning metal windows and concrete ceilings where the norm. Despite this, they were pretty decent houses, built in a self-consciously cottagey style. The shops even had windows with ‘bullseye’ glass panels that suggested a vintage far earlier than the 1950s. They represented the optimism of decent, sound homes for everyone after the horrors of two world wars and the shocks of revolution, totalitarian dictatorships and the Great Depression. The same world shifting factors that, combined with technological advance, helped lead many artists and intellectuals to wish to break away from the past and create what we now understand as Modernism.

Estates like Woodchurch has their roots in the model industrial villages such as Port Sunlight, down the road from Birkenhead, developed by William Hesketh Lever for his soap factory workers, and the ‘Garden City’ movement that inspired Letchworth and Welwyn the south of England. Places that gave ordinary people far better living conditions than were the norm in Britain after the Industrial Revolution. In the post-war era, such estates were constructed en-masse to replace the vast amount of housing stock destroyed by the Blitz and cope with the rapidly rising population. The plan was to finally take working people out of the city centre slums that dogged Britain’s urban areas.

Banked by plenty of grass, with shops, schools, a park and a leisure centre, Woodchurch was a pretty decent place to grow up. The dramatic Modernism of my childhood church, St Michael and All Angels, a still-today stunning pyramid of aluminium, concrete and pine, seemed to represent the high point of the estate and the new ideals of the era; of light and space and new materials that would lead to a better society.

But if you look across to where the Woodchurch developed as time wore on into the 1950s and 60s, you can see where the dream began to fade as the idea of the ‘new village’ was lost and replaced with something much more stark. Instead of the earlier cottage-type houses, they now built maisonettes and tower blocks. Influenced by the visionary designs proposed by Le Corbusier and others, these structures were seen as the physical embodiment of the new society being fashioned after the war. Their new materials and designs were also easier and cheaper to construct than the earlier houses, making them popular with local authorities with tight budgets and growing populations. The neighbouring, later estate, Ford, now renamed Beechwood, was built at the zenith of such ideas.

Largely denied the facilities of Woodchurch, Ford/Beechwood’s green spaces were fewer and there were even more concrete towers and flats. The houses themselves were both structurally and aesthetically poorer. Modernist certainly, but built quickly and cheaply and with none of the heart or soul that went into St Michael’s Church. The estate was also more isolated its crime and social problems inevitably much worse. A 1984 World in Action documentary ‘On the Scrapheap’ highlighted its decaying fabric only a few years after construction. The Modernist dream of a better world through design had collapsed.

Thus in this largely unremarkable corner of North West England it is possible to look at the gradation between the start of the boom and then the end of the dream of post-war Council estates. What we must remember though, is that Modernism’s failure was not the root of its intentions; that of a better world for all, but that it ran away with itself. The human concern that had led to the development of such estates was lost in a zeal for new ideas, grand plans and overarching solutions. With supposed utopias developed by elites dropped straight from drawing boards onto fields often miles from everything their residents knew, and needed.

It wasn’t just the fault of architects and planners as some would have it, or even those often equally well-meaning local authorities who adopted their ideas, but that in the sheer mass scale of post-war rebuilding, the spirit of their intentions was lost. With the desperate speed in construction and limited budgets, the facilities, transport links and industry that had been vital to the success of the ‘factory villages’ and  ‘garden cities’ that such estates had been influenced by were lacking, often resulting in just banks of isolated, poorly-built housing. And, with the post-war boom waning and government policy turning away from social housing as a right for all, these issues were further compounded by lack of support and economic malaise.

Modernist social housing was the product of a hope for a better world. That hope was lost amongst the absolute self-belief in the righteousness of these new ideas and indifference to the needs and wants of people. The notion that just in building new housing to new designs in new locations, it was possible to remake society was both arrogant and naïve. Communities, human beings, are far more complex than that, and in their desire to “Make it new!” as Modernist poet Ezra Pound demanded, they forgot who they were meant to be building that world for. Both Woodchurch and Beechwood have now seen most of their later tower blocks and flats removed, but that first house, with its hopeful plaque, remains.

What we should take from this is that good intentions can be easily be lost in the fervour of a new idea. If any plans become too big, too inhuman, they risk forgetting why they began in the first place. We may like to revel in new ideas, new designs, new perspectives, but they should never be taken as gospel, for one day they too will be rejected. There is no endpoint.

Whilst acknowledging their failures, we must remember were such Council estates came from, the idea that ordinary people deserve a decent place to live. There may be no utopia possible, but there is always hope for a better world, even in the darkest of times, and it is perhaps in this that we find the real beauty when we look back on Modernism and social housing.

This piece appeared in Issue 17 of The Shrieking Violet in February 2012.