Parkside, Richard and Su Rogers House, Wimbledon © Tim Crocker
Words by Jeremy Tracey
Post-war architecture: A ‘subtopia’
Let’s be honest, Britain’s post-war architecture can be pretty dull. The outstanding architectural critic Ian Nairn coined the word ‘Subtopia’ to describe the bland, characterless suburban landscape that has developed over the last century. The number of dwellings in this ‘sceptered isle’ has increased from 7.7 million in 1900 to over 26 million today; at t least 75% of our built residential environment dates from the post-war period. Spend any amount of time looking at property for sale (like I do) and you can see Nairn’s point of view. Scrolling through web page after web page of 1930s semis and bland contemporary shoeboxes can eat at the soul. What keeps me clicking on the ‘next’ button is the very occasional discovery of a mid-century gem, a house or flat of such quality of design that I feel compelled to write about it and share my discovery with a wider audience.
Post-war architecture: after spirit comes integrity
Not the mean 1950s and ’60s houses of the speculative builders who turned Modernism into an excuse for removing all the character from a property. No, no. The thing I’m looking for is spirit, something that catches the zeitgeist. It might be a dynamic monopitch roof, the flow of indoor/outdoor space, or a vaulted timber boarded ceiling. Something that demonstrates the spirit of Breuer and Aalto, the spirit of post-war optimism, and the spirit engendered by the use of new materials and expressive forms. From a custom architect-designed house in the country to a terraced townhouse or a block of flats, that something that lifts the soul.
After spirit comes integrity. To the Modernists, integrity meant the honest use of materials, the absence of artifice and disregard for superficial adornment. To me, in the 21st century, it means the absence of incongruous neo-Georgian uPVC front doors, conservatories, and country cottage style kitchens.
So, when I reflect on the life and work of Ian Nairn, who died in 1983 at the age of 52, long before the Internet changed our lives, I know I’m fortunate in having a ‘next’ button to keep me on the hunt for the ‘golden thread of true quality’.
If you fancy living in your own mid century home, fantasy or reality, check out Jeremy Tracey’s website thehouseoftomorrow.co.uk for some serious inspiration.