Cities are defined by a range of stimuli that affect the planning, growth and resilience of their urban fabric; this range of stimuli are determined by social, cultural and economic factors. London is a historic city in every respect but yet much of its geographical footprint, fabric and population are only a century old. Glancing over the history of the city, the main source of impetus that made London what it is today is the war and the population boom that followed post-war.
The aerial bombs of the Blitz reduced the city into rubble, everything from the docks to industrial districts, from residential to commercial districts, were disrupted. Around 120,000 houses were destroyed and about two million were damaged.
This massive scale of destruction meant that the city was in desperate need of reconstruction. A different perspective was to see the horrors of the Blitz as an opportunity to rebuild.
Question of identity
It was evident from the beginning of the war that reconstruction would involve much more than merely rebuilding what existed before, it was time for a radical change. It was indeed breaking down a vast system and building a much more noble world where one can find not just security and justice but also beauty and bliss.
Although the aim was to rebuild, planning for the future was undeniably associated with the desire for continuity with the past, a yearning for familiarity amongst the chaos. This sense of continuity helped to distinguish as to what had to be preserved and what had to be rebuilt. It was also a question of identity as the cultural and physical heritage of the city was threatened by war.
This new sense of identity that found a common ground between the preservation of the past and rebuilding for the future was celebrated in the writings of John Betjeman, paintings of Paul Nash and John Piper, photographs of Bill Brandt and in the music of Benjamin Britten. These Avant-Garde savants contributed to preserving the local culture through the medium of art.
Thus, there was a need to find concrete expression in the documentation of physical heritage so that rebuilding after the war would not be conflicted with the preservation of the past. The relation between preservation and reconstruction was also highlighted in the provisions of the first legislation of post-war rebuilding, the Town and country planning act of 1944, which enforced statutory protection on grade-listed buildings.
A past of socio-economic disparity
Even before the war, the poorer parts of London, especially the East end were marred by overcrowded slums, poverty, lack of sanitation and access to health-care, criminality, unsafe and poor working conditions. This resulted in ill-health and impairment amongst the population. Therefore, addressing these inequalities in the reconstruction was as much of a priority as the restoration of historically significant buildings and preservation of cultural artefacts.
Public health was taken into account, special attention was paid to ensure the provision of sanitation, recreational spaces, free education and the formation of the National health service (NHS). Issues regarding mass unemployment and poverty also influenced the reconstruction post-war.
County of London Plan
The plan to rebuild London was proposed even before the war ended, in 1943, by Patrick Abercrombie, the proposal sought a balance between housing, industrial development and open spaces. The wartime government proposals on social insurance and state education as well as planning were widely promoted, the plan was cited as “an agenda of popular radicalism” and “a new brave vision”.
This was done both as an attempt at official propaganda as well as a response to democratic pressure towards a radical change. Wartime planning also contributed to participatory democracy as around ten thousand copies of the county of London plan were made public and sold. These publications disseminated the vision for London which was followed by a showcase exhibition in the County hall, where the plan was officially launched.
In this way, visual media and modern resources played a major role in educating public opinion into seeing the urban environment and the aspiring vision behind it.
The County of London plan also included an indication of a ‘Green Belt’, where a strip of land encircling London, would be used for parks, recreation grounds and farmlands. This part was also subject to strict regulations concerning the construction of new buildings.
The war had left a devastating impact on the housing sector, thousands of homes were destroyed and damaged, rendering a significant portion of the society homeless. Given the scarcity of resources and severe housing crisis, initial government policies involved prioritizing repair of existing housing stock before building new houses.
By the end of 1946, much of the housing repair work was completed but it wasn’t enough, the housing crisis continued. In a struggle to find shelter, people started living in rural homes with no piped water or in over-crowded urban housing. Victorian and Edward houses in the city were divided into singular rented rooms with one set of sink and toilet being shared amongst numerous families.
Prefabs were introduced to overcome the immediate post-war housing shortages. These were prefabricated aluminium bungalows made in factories, with a built-in bathroom, kitchen, fireplace and storage. The two-bedroom detached properties were called “People’s palaces”. However, increased production costs and the government’s desire to build permanent homes led to the creation of fewer than 160,000 units. Instead, the government introduced the New towns Act of 1946 that gave rise to eight new satellite towns outside the metropolis.
Another solution to London’s growing population, housing shortage due to the war and removing slums, was high-density high-rise housing. Over half a million new flats were built majorly in tower blocks by the 1960s owing to advanced technology and the easy availability of steel and concrete.
The Barbican estate: A symbol of modern London rising from its ashes
In the centre of the capital, exterminated in just one night of the Blitz, arose an opportunity to revitalize the city at the brink of modernism. The Barbican estate was built as a physical manifestation of how London could revive its glory even after years of horror and destruction of the old city. Comprising residential towers, office blocks, an art centre, a complex of theatres, cultural facilities, and gardens, the Barbican is a utopian dream.
Within a few years after the end of the war, the cultural landscape of the city began to change with mass migration from different parts of the world. As compared to the pre-war growth, the post-war reconstruction created urban spaces beyond the reach of the old city, and immigration was welcomed and seen as an opportunity to recover.
Building the Post-war World: Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Britain, By Nicholas Bullock
Mort, F. (2004). Fantasies of Metropolitan Life: Planning London in the 1940s. Journal of British Studies, 43(1), 120-151. doi:10.1086/378377