I have always been a fan of post-war architecture, and its attempts at doing things differently. I admit this is partly due to being a child of the 1970s. I grew up surrounded by these kinds of buildings in Birmingham - many of which are no longer there (most notably Birmingham's Bull Ring).

However, looking at things objectively, as maligned as a lot of it is, I admire those who pushed it forwards, even though much of it ultimately failed in its goals.

The whole idea was to build a brave new world, and to try and wipe away memories of a Britain ravaged by war and bombings. What better way than to create buildings that looked like nothing that had come before? Concrete allowed for huge structures - towering monuments to the future. New shopping centres and social housing projects were designed to encourage community relationships and revitalise the economy.


[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="580" caption="Birmingham Central Library, photo by Martin Hartland"]Birmingham Central Library, photo by Martin Hartland[/caption]

Look at Birmingham's Central Library. I don't care what Prince Charles thinks of it - there's a strength and power to its form that puts learning at the centre of the city. I haven't been inside it since the late '90s, but it's equally interesting inside, where you can look down from upper floors to those below. I do hope they've changed the yellowy lighting since then, though!


[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="580" caption="Park Hill in Sheffield, photo by Paolo Margari"]Park Hill in Sheffield, photo by Paolo Margari[/caption]

The Park Hill development in Sheffield is staggering. Built between 1957 and 1961, it is the largest listed building in Europe. The original concept was to create 'streets in the sky' - a noble and exciting sentiment indeed! It's currently undergoing renovation.

Of course, it is easy for me to praise something like Park Hill - I've never had to live there. As a project, it inevitably failed, and the council more recently found difficulty finding tenants, due the crime rate and poor state of repair of the building.


Ambition + research

It is my job to ensure that the work I do is fit for its target audience, through research, testing and iterative development. Maybe that was what was lacking from the development of buildings in the ’60s. Perhaps someone might have pointed out that Park Hill could be abused by muggers due to its structure and layout.

However, what fills me with admiration for all of this is how its creators were really striving for something more - to make a better world for its inhabitants, which is something everyone working in the creative industries should be encouraged to do.


A New (Design) World Order?

Right now feels like a good time to think about things like this. America has a new, more liberal president, who espoused to the world the importance of making the world a better place. Miscommunication and misunderstanding are still causing wars, yet the internet allows for unparalleled global communication between people who have never even met. The global economy has put bankers and politicians to shame, but also maybe made many of us realise we really don't need to replace our year-old iPods just yet.

Will this new-found solemnity arising from the events of the last decade drive new styles and standards in the world of design? Hard to tell right now, but it will be interesting to see where things go over the next five years.


Many thanks to Martin Hartland and Paolo Margari for the use of their photos in this article.

Leave a comment


  • Matt Edgar | August 5, 2009 at 10:05 am

    Wow, I like some of the best post-war and Modernist buildings too, but be careful what you wish for. Remember that associates of the 41st president also sought to make the world anew. I think the 42nd appeals because he knows you cannot just “wipe away memories”. User-centred design accepts its users and their contexts, imperfect as they are. Rather that than be The Wrong Kind of Penguin 🙂

  • Matt Edgar | August 5, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Doh, I realised I got my President numbers wrong. That should be 43rd and 44th respectively, though probably also applies to 41 and 42 in lesser measure!

  • Phil | August 5, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Interesting post. You may not be aware but Birmingham Central Library is under threat of demolition. Its style is very much out of favour and unfortunately the town planners see the building as being in the way of future development. (Great photograph, btw).

  • Tom | August 5, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    I might be stepping in way over my head here but it kinds makes me think of communism. The buildings seem to look very Eastern-European to me, but also what you say about having great ambition without necessarily fully understanding how in reality things would end up being used. Things being imposed from above (even with the most lofty intentions) and then failing on a much more mundane level.