A different past

Alan Clawley reflects on ever-changing architectural styles.

When historians start writing about a period in the past as something different from the immediate present and the emerging future it is a sure sign that a major cultural shift has occurred.

There is nothing new about this but I can’t recall such visceral hatred of the past as there is of the architecture of the 60s and 70s today. At the rate at which Birmingham’s 50 year-old buildings are being demolished or altered beyond recognition it will not be long before very little of that era will be left to see.

British society has arrived at a stage in its development when to a large extent all progress is marginal. When you already have something you replace it with the latest, slightly better model. What went on inside office blocks built in the 70s hasn’t changed a lot. They are now being ‘tarted up’, refurbished, re-skinned, and adapted to new technology to make them appear more fashionable and attractive to investors. The developer’s proposal for Smallbrook Queensway is the latest example. There wasn’t that much wrong with the original version in my photo.

There are writers and novelists who capture the already-passed moment when a society changes. George Eliot, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Laurie Lee and Flora Thompson write movingly of rural societies in the throes of disturbing change. There is a strong sense of loss, even nostalgia for the old ways, but also a sense that it was useless to struggle against forces beyond the control of isolated rural communities. To reject the recent past is to believe that the people who made it (the previous generation) were mistaken, or were not aware of what they were doing.

It was perhaps easy to accept change in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century when there was clear evidence that it would bring huge benefits to everyone, such as improved hygiene, clean water, freedom from disease, less exhausting work, or better housing.

Rejecting the recent past in the first decades of the 21st Century is not so straightforward. After centuries of progress brought about by the Industrial Revolution, ‘progress’ is now increasingly marginal to basic human needs. The Industrial Revolution brought us the steam-powered railway system that up to the 1950s enabled everyone to travel the length and breadth of the country at speeds of 100 miles per hour.

The basic system remains intact today and has only been improved by changing to diesel and electric traction enabling a few of us to travel on some lines at speeds of 250 miles per hour. The benefits of such progress are not felt directly by everyone. The benefit of building a new Central Library and demolishing an existing earlier version is also marginal, whereas building the first ever public library, as Carnegie did, when there had never been such a thing was a big step forward.

We have to live with our Victorian legacy – thousands of terraced houses (which are still very popular), streets, sewers, schools, reservoirs, railway bridges, museums, libraries, magistrate’s courts, prisons, and swimming baths. Some of it can’t be much improved on except at a price no-one can now afford. Birmingham’s electric tram system was dismantled in the 1950s in the name of progress. Now that it seems like a good idea again we can’t afford to build more than a few hundred metres of it.

The era of marginal progress, when we will repair maintain or or replace what we have now rather than expect to have something new that we never had before could be the big societal change that will be written about. Not only is it necessary to accept marginal progress because of growing pressure on limited natural resources it will also be good for us if we can be more content with the things we have now.